Agharta is a live double album by American jazz trumpeter and composer Miles Davis. It was recorded on the afternoon of February 1, 1975, at one of two concerts Davis performed at the Osaka Festival Hall in Japan; the evening show produced his 1976 live albumPangaea. He performed with his septet—flautist and saxophonist Sonny Fortune, bassist Michael Henderson, drummer Al Foster, percussionist James Mtume, guitarist Reggie Lucas, and Pete Cosey, who played guitar, synthesizer, and percussion.
The concert was recorded by Sony Records under the supervision of Teo Macero, who produced Agharta. Sony's Japanese division released the album and suggested its title, Agharta, which is a mythological subterranean utopia. The album's artwork was done by Japanese artist Tadanori Yokoo and draws on both Eastern subterranean myths and Afrofuturism.
Agharta was first released in Japan in August 1975 after Davis had retired. The album's four seemingly unstructured segments emphasize the playing of Davis' sidemen rather than his own trumpet and eschew both melody and harmony in favor of a combination of riffs, crossing polyrhythms, and funk grooves for soloists to improvise throughout. Widely panned by music critics upon its release, the album has since received retrospective acclaim as an important and influential jazz-rock album. It was reissued by Columbia Records in 1991 and was remastered in 2009 as a part of Sony Legacy's Miles Davis: The Complete Columbia Album Collection.
After the release of his studio album Get Up with It and his poor showing in year-end magazine polls, Davis had felt that he was losing touch with audiences and listeners by the end of the 1974. He subsequently embarked on his first tour of Japan in 10 and a half years. Between January 22 and February 8, 1975, he played 14 concerts to capacity crowds in large-hall venues and earned enthusiastic reviews. Japanese critic Keizo Takada praised Davis' band as "magnificent and energetic", and wrote that he "must be the genius of managing men and bringing out their hidden talent. He played his music with his band just as Duke Ellington did with his orchestra."
At the time of his February 1 concert at Osaka Festival Hall, Davis was experiencing severe pain from his left hip, which had been operated on almost 10 years earlier. He had been sick with pneumonia throughout the three-week tour of Japan and had a bleeding ulcer that grew worse, while his hip occasionally and unpredictably slipped out of its socket. During the tour, he was unable to work his wah-wah and volume pedals because of the pain in his legs, so he would go down on his knees to press them with his hand. To relieve his pain and continue performing, Davis used codeine and morphine, smoked, and drank large quantities ofHeineken beer, and was able several times to perform two concerts in one day, as he did at Osaka Festival Hall.
Davis' two concerts at the hall on February 1 were recorded and released as two double albums—Agharta was released in August 1975 in Japan and 1976 in North America; Pangaea was released in 1976. The former was an afternoon show, and the latter was recorded in the evening. They were recorded by Sony under the supervision of producer Teo Macero.
The first concert began at 4:00 P.M. Davis played both trumpet and organ, and led a septet that featured flautist and saxophonist Sonny Fortune, bassist Michael Henderson, drummer Al Foster, percussionist James Mtume, guitarist Reggie Lucas, and Pete Cosey, who played guitar, synthesizer, and percussion. The first of their two sets at the concert included performances of "Tatu", "Agharta Prelude", and "Maiysha", which were titled as "Prelude (Part 1)", "Prelude (Part 2)", and "Maiysha", respectively, when they were released on Agharta."Prelude" was recorded over one and a half sides of the album. The second set included "Right Off", "Ife", and "Wili", which were titled on the album as "Interlude" and "Theme from Jack Johnson", respectively. The titles "Interlude" and "Theme from Jack Johnson" were erroneously reversed on the disc label's track listing and liner notes of all editions of Agharta.
Agharta has a more aggressive and dynamic style than the atmospheric sound of Davis' previous electric albums. Its music eschews melody and harmony, and is instead characterized by a combination of riffs, crossing polyrhythms, and funk grooves for soloists to improvise throughout. As with Pangaea and Dark Magus (1977)—the two other live albums showcasing Lucas, Foster, Mtume, and Henderson—most of Agharta 's music is arranged as generically titled medleys. The album's four seemingly unstructured segments emphasize the playing of Davis' sidemen rather than his own trumpet. In contrast to his previous recordings, the cadenzas throughout Agharta are dominated by Fortune and Cosey, who generated dissonance and feedback as often as possible. The rhythmic direction of the compositions are occasionally interrupted by densely assembled layers of percussive and electronic effects, including repeated whirring sounds, synthesizer grinds, and guitar sounds run through a ring modulator. Mojomagazine's Phil Alexander likened the album's electronic aesthetic to that of German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and said that the music is "both ambient yet thrashing, melodic yet coruscating."
Agharta has been categorized as jazz-rock by music journalists Jim DeRogatis, Andrzej Trzaskowski, and Simon Reynolds. In The Wire magazine, Reynolds wrote that the album's music "offers a drastic intensification of rock's three most radical aspects: space, timbre, and groove". Music journalist Charles Shaar Murray asserted that Aghartainvoked the influence of Jimi Hendrix on Davis' music more explicitly than any other of his albums. Murray felt that while Cosey drew on Hendrix's echoic, free jazz-inspired guitar improvisations and Lucas drew on his lyrical rhythm and blues songs, Davis played alternately succinct and expressive solos and unsentimental wails that suggested he was still mourning Hendrix's death. By contrast, Martha Bayles of The New York Times felt that Davis albums such as Agharta, Pangaea, and Dark Magus "take little from jazz, apart from free improvisation (which Davis had spurned a decade earlier), and little from rock, apart from ear-bleeding volume and electronic instruments." She added that the music instead revealed Davis' affinity for minimalism and understated composition. In response to others' categorizations of the music as jazz or rock, Davis insisted that he was simply exploring different directions in music. He elaborated in jazz journalist Kiyoshi Koyama's liner notes for Agharta:
|“||[My] music is strange. Why does it change so frequently? Is it because my life is always changing? My life could never be an open book, so there are many secrets in my music. People don't understand mode[s], Dorian mode, Phrygian mode, electronics, etc., just like they don't understand us. But it's okay, since they don't understand my music, they get surprised. Isn't it great that you can experience surprise through music?||”|
Agharta features approximately 50 breaks or stops in performance, which Davis directed by gesturing with his hand or head to the band. These stops served as dramatic turning points in the tension-release structure of the performances, which allowed the band to alternate between quiet passages and intense climaxes. Lucas said that Davis applied the feel for dynamics he had developed earlier in his career playing jazz with a greater array of contrasts, including atonal and dissonant chords, and the contrast of his ownbebop trumpet playing set against the band's James Brown-inspired funk rhythms: "Extreme textures and extreme volume were as much part of the pallete as the contrasting chord and rhythmic structures. Being equipped like a full rock band, we sometimes literally blew the walls out."
"Prelude" is based on a two-chord theme and directed by Davis from his organ.
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Although the lengthy compositions appear to be randomly structured, Italian Miles Davis scholar Enrico Merlin identified the individual segments through an examination of what he called 'coded phrases'. During Agharta, these phrases are usually played by Davis on trumpet or organ and signify the end of one segment and the start of another. Consequently, Merlin identified the individual musical segments in order as "Tatu", "Agharta Prelude", "Maiysha", "Right Off", "So What", "Ife", and "Wili (=for Dave)". In detail, the coded phrases in "Prelude" on the album's first side are noticeable at 2:36 when Davis first plays the "Tatu" theme on his trumpet, then at 22:01 when he plays the 8 note "Agharta Prelude" theme. The rhythm section hint at this shift earlier in the piece at the 16:37 and 18:45 mark, but only after Davis plays the second theme is the change from "Tatu" to "Agharta Prelude" noticeable.