Picks and Pans Review: Pangaea

updated 09/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Miles Davis

This is vintage Miles, from a period when his music was more than just electric: it was electrifying.

Recorded live at Osaka's Festival Hall on Feb. 1, 1975, Pangaea was originally available only as a rare and expensive import from Japan. Now CBS Records has finally seen fit to release the album in the U.S. as part of a new reissue series called Contemporary Jazz Masters.

The ghost of Jimi Hendrix seems to hover above Davis and his band as they unleash a host of musical Furies. Bassist Michael Henderson, drummer Al Foster and percussionist Mtume lay down a constantly shifting, deeply incantatory groove, while guitarists Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas snarl at each other like jungle cats, and saxophonist and flutist Sonny Fortune takes wing with bursts of screeching power. Swooping above the fray, Davis stretches and distorts his phrases on the trumpet with a tool made popular by rock guitarists: a wa-wa pedal.

The music reflects Miles's preoccupation with the epic forces of continental drift. The album title refers to a vast supercontinent some geologists have postulated included most of the earth's land mass some 280 million years ago.

"Gondwana," one of the two open-ended compositions that makes up this 90-minute session, takes its name from a huge southern landmass believed to have been formed when Pangaea began to separate more than 65 million years ago. And "Zimbabwe" is inspired by the folklore surrounding an archaeological site in southern Africa that is believed to have been a center of black civilization before 1000 A.D.

Pangaea is the last album Davis recorded before he went into retirement for five years. Since he has come back, his music has lacked the urgency evident in this concert, but he has continued to be a musical pioneer. While legions of musicians who have followed in Miles's footsteps have been churning out fuzak that should be stashed in the attic next to Granddad's old Mantovani records, Davis's ears have remained open to such influences as the pop innovations of Prince and the infectious zouk rhythms of the West Indian group Kassav.

In addition to Pangaea, two other albums in the first release of the CBS Contemporary Jazz Masters series offer a welcome reminder of the original promise of jazz fusion. Native Dancer, a 1975 collaboration between saxophonist Wayne Shorter and vocalist Milton Nascimento, features a sunny blend of jazz harmonies and Brazilian rhythms. And I Sing the Body Electric, a 1972 Weather Report album, is one of the finest jazz-rock sessions ever. Unlike most of the easy-listening dreck euphemistically labeled contemporary jazz today, all three of these albums are electric in the best sense. The music has a live-wire quality that can knock you on your ear with jolts of unexpected energy.

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