Third Man Records vinyl exclusives, Part 56: Miles Davis "Fearless" (2023)

The 56th set of exclusive vinyl items offered to members of Third Man Records’ Vault service was mailed out to the members in July of 2023. For those who are unaware, Third Man Records is the label owned by Jack White, who is the leader of the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, and the Dead Weather, and is now a solo artist. The Vault service promises to deliver exclusive vinyl-only records (usually one full-length album and one 7” single) to its members every three months.

The 56th Vault package featured a 3-LP live album by the late jazz legend Miles Davis, recorded at the Fillmore East in 1970, as well as a 7-inch single containing renditions of three of Davis' works by contemporary Austrian jazz artist Muriel Grossmann. As bonus items, this package contained an embroidered patch and a bumper sticker, the latter of which reads: "Miles Davis changed the course of music five or six times. What have you done...?"

The 3-LP set Fearless: March 7, 1970 - Live At The Fillmore East, pressed in one pink, one maroon and one red vinyl disc, features the recordings of both concerts performed by Davis and company at the New York venue on the titular date, when they opened first for Neil Young, then for the Steve Miller Band. Davis' supporting players for these Fillmore shows included four of the musicians who played on Davis' then-forthcoming Bitches Brew album -- Wayne Shorter on saxophone, Chick Corea on electric piano, Dave Holland on bass, Jack DeJohnette on drums -- as well as percussionist Airto Moriera. The same pair of concerts were released on the 2001 double-CD Live at the Fillmore East (March 7, 1970): It's About That Time, which is currently available digitally.

These concerts took place shortly after the beginning of the jazz legend's electric period, and a few weeks before the release of his landmark 1970 album Bitches Brew, which is widely regarded as the first jazz fusion album. That album found Davis adding electric piano and guitar sounds to more traditional jazz instrumentation (including his own trumpet playing), effectively creating a new genre which fused jazz with rock and roll. Davis was two decades into his recording career at this point in time, and had always been at the forefront of jazz music's evolution since the 1950's. This live album captures Davis at the age of 43 and at the height of his creativity, imparting a key innovation to the aging jazz genre during the progressive rock era.

The first concert, documented on the two sides of the Fearless set's first disc, finds Davis and company exploring their new jazz fusion territory without always fully diving into the waters. Only one track from Brew -- namely "Spanish Key" -- was performed during this set. But, for those 11 minutes of "Spanish Key", the psychedelic jam atmosphere of the Brew album is brought to life: the partially electric instrumentation takes on progressive rock proportions, with Miles' trumpet playing frequently equalling the intensity of rock music. The other three tracks -- "Directions", "Masqualero", and "It's About That Time", which were selections from the three preceding years -- don't stray quite as far from pre-1970's jazz sounds (at least in hindsight), but the presence of Corea's electric piano playing is noticeable throughout, marking the entire concert as an epochal one in the evolution of jazz. Miles' trumpet blast reaches an impressive crescendo near the end of the concert-closing "It's About That Time".

The second concert, documented on the second and third discs in the set, begins with a performance of "Directions" that sounds more intense than the one that opened the previous concert, moving at a sometimes frenetic pace. This suggests that the three selections from Bitches Brew that follow will be wild and unfettered. But, although these sounds may have been quirky to those who witnessed this concert in 1970, the arrangements now sound rather elegant from a modern standpoint. Sure, the concert often comes across like a psych-prog jam -- they were opening for the Space Cowboy, after all -- but it is a disciplined psych-prog jam, never spinning out of control or going off on jarring tangents. Corea makes a consistently good impression on the electric piano, imparting most of the "fusion" element to this jazz concert. But Davis' leadership is never in doubt here, especially during the closing number. For admirers of the Bitches Brew album, and for students of the evolution of jazz, Fearless does its subject proud.

The 7-inch single Muriel Grossmann Plays Miles contains arrangements of three of Davis' Brew-era pieces by Austrian jazz saxophonist Muriel Grossmann. (Ms. Grossmann is not related to American fusion saxophonist Steve Grossman, who replaced Wayne Shorter in Davis' band during that pivotal year of 1970). Muriel's musical style is rooted more in the spiritual jazz of John Coltrane, and her interpretations of Davis' works are rendered through a contrasting perspective. Grossmann is credited with playing no less than eight instruments for this single, on which she greatly scales down the lengths of Davis' originals for the 7-inch format. For her modest five-minute take on Davis' 1970-recorded, 1974-released epic "Go Ahead John", Muriel mimics Miles' trumpet with her flute and sax, but the general tone of the track is far smoother and more cohesive than that of Davis' album-side-long original. Her interpretation of "In A Silent Way", the original version of which marked the beginning of Davis' electric period in 1969, makes its point in less than two minutes, and is centered more on a sax sound than on an electric groove. For her arrangement of the Brew track "Miles Runs The Voodoo Down", Muriel runs the voodoo down in about three minutes, maintaining some of the original's electric and psychedelic vibes, but presenting them in a less agitated and more concise fashion.

Another note for fellow vinyl aficionados: the practice of engraving text in the dead wax, or the runout grooves between the sticker and the last track’s grooves, is present on the two vinyl items in this Vault package. The 3-LP set has “I've changed” carved in Side A, “The course” carved in Side B, “Of music” carved in Side C, “Five or” carved in Side D, and "Six Times" carved in Side E. Side F (the second side of the third disc) features a graphical etching of Davis' trumpet instead of music grooves. The 7-inch single has "Aloha lingers" carved in Side A, and "A new salinity" carved in Side B.

Miles Davis “Fearless: March 7, 1970 - Live At The Fillmore East” (Third Man TMR-898) 2023

Track Listing:

1. Directions
2. Spanish Key
3. Masqualero
4. It's About That Time / Theme
5. Directions
6. Miles Runs The Voodoo Down
7. Bitches Brew
8. Spanish Key
9. It's About That Time / Willie Nelson

Muriel Grossmann "Muriel Grossmann Plays Miles" (Third Man single TMR-929) 2023

Track Listing:

A. Go Ahead John
B1. In A Silent Way
B2. Miles Runs The Voodoo Down

Reviews of other Third Man Records Vault packages