Review Summary: Pangaea is an Earth splitting live jazz release, and Miles' best live release ever.
In 1975 the last vestiges of Miles Davis early jazz persona had gone. There were none of the playful modal trumpet tones his listeners had been introduced to in 1949 in his Birth of the Cool era. Miles sound had underwent a remodeling, based around funk and rock music, and had began to incorporate these ideas into his studio and live work. Miles himself had underwent a rapid change, he was no longer the cheery spokesperson of a genre, he was fairly addicted to cocaine, he hid his eyes behind shades, and his favourite music was no longer jazz, he enjoyed Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppeln and Funkadelic.
His new style had been brooding and fermenting, until on the 1970 release Bitches Brew, Miles captured the perfect sound which would go on to form a thousand poor imitators, and a new style of music known as fusion, due to it's liberal fusing of funk, jazz, rock and blues. It was during, and after this that Miles began experimenting with more avant-garde jazz styles, and it is where we find him on the 1975 live release, Pangaea.
Pangaea is a truly massive album. And yet it features only two tracks, both of which are over fourty minutes long. In some ways it's difficult enough to listen to it on CD or vinyl, but the idea that an audience could sit through it is mesmerizing. The album is paired with Agharta, a live album which, instead of being recorded in the day like Pangaea, is recorded the same night, in the same venue. When both albums are taken as being part of the same set, they take on an almost lucidly epic quality, well over three hours of jazz in just six songs.
The sound on both albums, but in particular, Pangaea, is absolutely typical of Miles experimentation at the time. They both feature long, sprawling jams in which nothing seems to happen for quite some time, until a sudden rush of brass culminates in a terrifying and unforgettable experience.
Gondwana is the more laid back of the two, taking a very leisurely but no less intense path to it's inevitable steamy conclusion. It features various instrument solos, including some of the most impressive and electrifying guitar solos ever committed to vinyl. Throughout both recordings smattering of enthused applause can be heard, members of the audience shocked, impressed and truly in awe of the brave new sounds coming from all of these talented musicians. At times sections of the track call to mind the experiments of fellow jazz musicians, Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy. It is with clarity and vivid recollection that Miles combines elements of his Bitches Brew sound with that of his quick improvisational sound that make this, and the next track such intimate and enjoyable listens.
The first, more mellow track on the album could possibly be forgiven for setting up the listener into a false sense of security. Zimbabwe is the next track, and it is a thrilling, speedy chase through the African country, in fact as thrilling as anything Miles has ever recorded. For all it's flaws in length, Zimbabwe remains ultimately an incredibly enjoyable, fast paced jazz fusion track which maintains a dark and foreboding atmosphere throughout. Featuring flourishes, crescendos every ten minutes, and a dark, swampy sound throughout that puts the listener in the literal landscape of Africa, without ever letting up in pace or boring the listener, it is a testament to Davis work as a bandleader and instrumentalist that he can create such a dark, brooding mood from no more than a few instruments and some effects pedals.
But is Pangaea the best Miles Davis album? Certainly not, it's length makes it at times hard to listen to, and hard to split up. Well is it the best live jazz album? Again, probably not. It signifies a truly new age of jazz, with fusion having hit the big time, Miles decided to hit back and release this album to show he was the king of fusion, and the reason why a lot of people listened to jazz in the first place.
In many ways this album shows just how far jazz had come from it's humble New Orlean roots. From corner trumpet players to huge concert hall improvisation, the evolution of jazz is as important and if anything, more interesting and intense than that of it's rock or pop contemporaries.