Even Miles Davis fans who weren't thrown off by the 1969 jazz-rock fusion album Bitches Brew (if there were any) couldn't have been prepared for 1970. Bitches won Davis a new audience even as it cost him a few old fans, and it confirmed the infatuation with rock and pop suggested by In A Silent Way. But even if it wasn't pure jazz, whatever that is, Bitches Brew was still recognizable as jazz. One year later, Davis was cutting music that defied even a hyphenated definition.
The lineup captured on the new six-disc collection The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 was Davis' second band that year, one assembled after he lost key members of his post-Bitches outfit and his subsequent, unrecorded "lost quintet." It's the definition of a motley crew: Keith Jarrett on electric organ, fractally detailed Jack DeJohnette on drums, Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira, young saxophonist Gary Bartz, 19-year-old bassist Michael Henderson (straight off touring with Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin), and for at least one night here, guitar virtuoso John McLaughlin. Some of them don't even make sense playing the same club, much less in the same band. But Davis somehow brought them together, and for four nights in December of 1970, Columbia recorded them.
Some of that material from the McLaughlin date surfaced in heavily edited form as half of the 1971 album Live-Evil (the live half); most of it remained unheard until this box set. The Cellar Door Sessions helps fill in some of the blanks leading up to the confrontational 1972 set On The Corner, but it's a challenging pleasure in its own right, with each player pulling the music in his direction until Davis pulls it back. Everyone here is in top form, but Bartz is a particular standout for the way he keys into the group's controlled chaos. It's a shame he didn't play with Davis more often. But Davis sets the mood, coming in with slow, beautiful, sustained lines one minute, offering dissonance that anticipates the siren-blasts of Public Enemy the next, and presiding over the unholy mixture of jazz, funk, Latin music, and whatever else was floating in the air at the time with an eerie authority. The set takes a while to wade through, not because it's long, but because it's easy to get lost in.