If you’ve never been to Jazz Record Mart on Illinois St in Chicago, you don’t know what you’re missing friends. It’s a chunk of vinyl history tucked into a small building that if you blinked you’d miss it. I’ve been there three, maybe four times and each time I end up leaving knowing I could’ve easily spent $200. I have a feeling the shop hasn’t changed much in it’s probably 40+ years of existence(though it has been located elsewhere in the past.) White tiled floors, dingy white walls covered with posters of Blues and Jazz past, it has a feeling of searching through someone’s much loved collection, rather than a retail record shop. Once, back in July of 2011 after the wife and I saw the Flaming Lips we headed to JRM the next day to do some perusing and Ben Folds was there with his wife listening to 78s. It’s a place anybody of any musical ilk can come and just be a fan of music. A lover of the musical spinning disc(black, chrome, and otherwise.)
So anyways, on a recent trip to trip to JRM I picked up Wayne Shorter’s Night Dreamer(so, so good) and Miles Davis’ Pangaea. I wasn’t completely familiar with Pangaea, other than knowing it was the sister album to Agharta, both of which were recorded on February 1st in Osaka, Japan live at Festival Hall during a time where Davis was suffering from extreme hip pain and appeasing the pain with ample amounts of codeine, morphine, smokes, and booze. Up to this point the furthest I’d ventured into Davis’ 70s discography is On The Corner, loving the largely panned record. Dark Magus has also been spun on occasion as well. A big, messy chunk of funk that album is. Well recently I’d been having a hankering for some meaty, dense improvisation. I knew Agharta and Pangaea were known for just those things. Given the price of both records, I knew only one would make it back to Indiana with me so I grabbed the less loved of the two(I always prefer the less loved underdog..that’s how I roll.) On Monday night I finally got to throw Pangaea on the turntable. Consider my mind blown.
First off Pete Cosey is the secret weapon that helped make Davis’ 70s musical excursions worth the heady trip. If Prince says Cosey isn’t an influence on his playing, he’s lying through his royal teeth. Cosey is fire and force. He’s a funky soul shuckster and a psychedelic sorcerer with his guitar. With Davis almost completely out of commission due to pain and the self-medicating(he was in such terrible pain that he had to get on his hands and knees in order to turn his wah-wah pedal on and off)that it’s as if Cosey was his bandleader, carrying the band on these extended musical improvisations. Where Wayne Shorter was the man on most of Davis’ mid-sixties records, Pete Cosey took the Shorter spot during Miles’ rock period.
The album itself is broken into two songs, each one taking up one record a piece. “Zimbabwe” fills Side A and B, while “Gondwana” fills sides C and D. Musically, if you’re at all familiar with A Tribute To Jack Johnson, On The Corner, and Dark Magus, then this is territory you will be familiar with, sort of. Like those albums, Pangaea continues the jazz, rock, fusion, and psychedelic orgy that Davis began clear back in 1970 with Bitches Brew, but ups the ante on the rock aspect of that aural formula. Sometimes the record is just straight up rock and funk, laying a hard-as-nails rhythm section down and letting Cosey, saxophonist Sonny Fortune, and fellow guitarist Reggie Lucas lay down some serious skronk while Davis stands by and lets them melt minds.
Let it be known that the band Davis has assembled for this live date was nothing short of brilliant. The rhythm section of Michael Henderson(bass) and Al Foster(drums) lays down some serious grooves; heavy, forceful, but never too intimidating to force anyone to back down. They do what the best rhythm sections do, and that is lay a foundation strong enough to support even the heaviest of players. Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas are guitarists to be reckoned with. As far as who’s playing what parts and in what songs I’m not sure, but I can guess the Hendrix-like psychedelic blazing is Mr. Cosey. As well as burning fret boards, Cosey also handles some synthesizer duties and percussion. Fortune fills the Wayne Shorter gap quite nicely, and of course Davis does what Davis does on the trumpet, albeit he’s certainly more in the background playing-wise on this record. The real surprise is James “Mtume” Forman on conga, water drum, rhythm box, and percussion. Forman adds a depth here that without it I don’t think the album would’ve “popped” like it does. He takes this record from just a jazz rock noise house into deeper, more mystical territory. Side two of “Zimbabwe” is greatly enhanced by Forman’s percussion work, creating an ethereal listening experience with Cosey’s electronic noise.
Speaking of electronic noise, you know that Yorke kid with the Radioheads and those Peaceful Atoms bands? Yeah, well he owes a great debt to this record. With the electronic bleeps mixed with the organic percussion and propulsive bass that is heard prominently on Amok, you can tell someone in England was doing their homework. Along with Fela Kuti, Pangaea and Agharta are basically the blueprints for what Amok was built with(don’t worry Thom, I’ll give you some credit for that album, too.)
After some research I’ve come to the conclusion that Agharta is the highly regarded of the two Festival Hall recordings, while Pangaea is the lesser record. I’d have to completely disagree with that line of thought. Agharta comes across as more put together and thought out, but that doesn’t make it a better record in my opinion. Where Agharta is thought out, Pangaea is more experimental and vast. There’s more peaks and valleys. There’s darker regions that remind me of Herbie Hancock’s excellent and painfully overlooked Sextant. There seems to be less of Davis on Pangaea and more of Forman, Cosey, and Fortune on sax and flute. It’s overall more cinematic and thought-provoking. In my opinion, this record is an overlooked musical gem. One of the most overlooked in Davis’ canon.
So, even if you’re just mildly musically adventurous you should search this one out. If Jack Johnson, On The Corner, Dark Magus, and of course Bitches Brew butter your musical muffin, you can’t go wrong with Pangaea.