by James Hale
Crushed expectations are the curse of any artist fortunate enough to have a long career and sustained creativity. For trumpeter Miles Davis -- whose immense pride centred on the concept of never repeating himself -- staying creative meant always leaving some fans behind, wanting more of the same. A prime example: New York City, July 5, 1981. Davis had just done the impossible, returning to two sold-out performances at Lincoln Center after battling serious health and drug problems for five years. While the music he made that night sounded tentative, it was a brave step in a new direction. Outside the hall, after the second show, a disappointed fan signalled his disapproval of the new music by playing a tape of music Davis had recorded more than 20 years earlier.
For many who grew to love the trumpeter's music -- and the image of the taciturn man in the tailored Italian suits -- from the '50s and early '60s, Davis' turn to electric music in 1969 was a shock. But if longtime fans were disappointed by the music Davis explored with John McLaughlin, Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette, his move into densely layered, ultra-loud electronics in the early '70s seemed a betrayal of unfathomable proportion. It was no surprise, then, that some fans -- like the man on the sidewalk outside Lincoln Center -- would hold out some faith that Davis might return to the acoustic fold after his five years in the wilderness. Instead, for the decade leading up to his death in September, 1991, the trumpeter continued to experiment with synthesizers, percussion instruments and electric guitars. What disenchanted listeners would've failed to notice, however, was that the '80s also found Davis returning to popular songs as vehicles for expressing himself. Only, this time, the songwriters weren't Richard Rodgers and Cole Porter, but rather Prince and Larry Blackmon.
A gorgeously packaged 20-CD set, The Complete Miles Davis At Montreux 1973-1991 follows Davis through eight European tours and 11 complete performances (one of the shows -- the last -- takes place in Nice, France, rather than Montreux, Switzerland) and traces an arc through a section of this career that is still being analyzed.
The first two discs document Davis' initial visit to the Montreux Jazz Festival on July 8, 1973, and an odd transition in Davis' music. Although he hadn't used a keyboard player in recent months, Yamaha had just given him several of its new electronic instruments to try out, which he does at length in the second half of the performance. Guitarist Pete Cosey was also new to the group, and was just beginning to find a role for his raw sound and hyperactive attack. The band strikes a frantic pace in the first part, with Davis cueing sudden stops and starts. His only extended trumpet solo -- a heavily wah-wah'ed dialogue with drummer Al Foster and percussionist Mtume -- is one of the highlights of the second set, but it failed to win over many in the crowd, who can be heard booing and whistling as the concert ends.
Neither as intense nor as focused as widely bootlegged performances later that year, the Montreux show does offer superior sound and the opportunity to hear Davis experimenting with new sounds.
He wouldn't be back to the shores of Lake Geneva for 11 years -- a lifetime for a man who couldn't stop changing, and at least a light year in musical terms. In July, 1984, Davis was embarking on his first tour since hip replacement surgery and pneumonia had threatened to derail his comeback in the fall of 1983. He had "a head full of melodies" he would tell writer Howard Mandel, and the two shows from the afternoon and evening of July 8 are testimony to that, while also showing that Davis didn't have the stamina to carry a 100-minute performance on trumpet.
Although he kicks off both opening medleys of "Speak" and "That's What Happened" strongly -- playing aggressively through an open bell against the crackling rhythm laid down by bassist Darryl Jones, drummer Al Foster and percussionist Steve Thornton -- he sounds hoarse and shallow by the end of each show. With Bob Berg on saxophone, John Scofield on guitar and Robert Irving III on keyboards, this was a particularly tight and versatile band, and the two concerts have frequent highlights. Perhaps the best is the afternoon performance of "Something's On Your Mind" -- a funky composition from Davis' album You're Under Arrest. The song provides an excellent example of how the trumpeter fit his trademark lyricism into dance music -- alternating staccato phrases with longer lines. He switches to his Harmon mute to create contrast against Jones' bass, and explores some playful melodic ideas that reflect both the bass and synthesizer parts.
Basically the same band -- with drummer Vince Wilburn the only change -- was back in Montreux a year later, and Davis sounds much fitter. He frequently plays without his mute -- always a sign of confidence with Davis -- and rips through solos on songs like "Maze" and "Ms. Morrisine."On both versions of the latter the band sounds rockier than usual, almost like The Police, and Davis' phrasing is particularly angular as he jabs at the reggae-like beat. Scofield is superb throughout, quoting from James Brown's "Get Up Offa That Thing" in a smoking opening medley in the afternoon show and stealing the spotlight on both versions of "Katia" with loud and exceptionally free solos.
Jazz musicians love playing European festivals for the hospitality they're afforded, and Davis could scarcely sound looser and happier than he does during the single show he performed on July 17, 1986. One sure sign of Davis' mood is that fact that he invited keyboard player George Duke and saxophonist David Sanborn to sit in -- almost unheard of at a Davis show. His core band had expanded to eight pieces, with Adam Holzman joining Irving on keyboards, while Scofield and Jones had been replaced by the bluesy Robben Ford and funkster Felton Crews respectively. Davis appears to be in top physical form, playing clean and fast on a 10-minute opening medley, and following with some especially lucid work on "New Blues."Unfortunately, Crews lacks the subtlety of Jones and Ford doesn't approach Scofield's flexibility. A percussion-and-synth workout on Neil Larsen's "Carnival Time" sounds like pseudo-Weather Report, and a jam with Sanborn on "Portia" delivers more heat than light.
By 1988, there were wholesale changes in Davis' touring band, and for that summer's European trip the group had coalesced into a unit he considered one of his best of his comeback years. Three players dominated the band's sound: alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett, "lead bassist" Joe "Foley" McCreary and drummer Ricky Wellman, who many credit with creating the influential "go-go" beat on Washington, D.C.'s club scene. Sonically, Davis' groups had never been better; new technology created a much cleaner sound and enhanced separation between the instruments. The leader's lip was in great shape, and his sense of lyricism was reaching new peaks.
Throughout his comeback decade -- and, by extension, this box -- you could judge Davis' state of mind by his rendition of "Time After Time," a pop ballad that many critics dismissed as a bagatelle unworthy of comparison to "My Funny Valentine" or "Autumn Leaves."But, towards the end of his life, Davis could imbue the Cyndi Lauper hit with tremendous meaning, as though he was hearing in the lyrics a reference to lost friends like John Coltrane and Gil Evans. In the summer of '88, Davis was feeling particularly sad, having just lost two of his closest confidantes: Evans and author James Baldwin. Playing over a synthesized choral effect, Davis stretches and stretches his solo here, delving deeply into the song, and switching between open and muted horn to great effect. Regardless of the setting -- the synths, Benny Rietveld's electric bass, Foley's fuzzy guitar -- this is Davis at his most emotional, a performance for the ages. Ironically, the second half of the '88 concert illustrates how bloated and anachronistic his bands could get. After the spiritual apotheosis of "Time After Time" the band quickly plunges into the synth-drenched depths of "Splatch," which sounds like a pale imitation of Billy Preston circa 1975, and the overblown, ersatz hair rock of "Heavy Metal" -- a showcase for Foley's histrionics. "Carnival Time" marks a new low with a five-minute drum solo that would make most rock bands of the day blush.
A year later, there were a few more changes to the band: Rick Margitza was in for Garrett, Kei Akagi had replaced Irving, and Munyungo Jackson had filled the percussion chair formerly held by Marilyn Mazur. Their Montreux appearance finds Davis in exceptional form, sounding as good as he did at any time after his comeback. Among the highlights are a superb version of "New Blues" and some exceptionally sensitive trumpet work on "Mr. Pastorius." Singer Chaka Khan makes a guest appearance on "Human Nature," and while she sounds under-rehearsed and terribly off key, her presence sparks Davis to show the lighter side of his personality. Again, "Time After Time" is a highlight, although this time the trumpeter is in a more playful mood as he engages Foley in a quiet dialogue.
By the summer of 1990, Davis was on the road almost full-time, and band members were rotating through his group at an increasingly fast rate. For his annual Montreux visit, Garrett was back in place of Margitza, Richard Patterson had taken over the bass duties and Davis' 19-year-old son Erin was on percussion. Two of the 11 songs they performed were released in 1996 as part of the album Live Around The World. By this time, the emphasis on slick funk had increased, as had the tempos for standbys like "Human Nature." References to '60s themes like "Jack Johnson" and "In A Silent Way" -- which had served as opening themes fo the shows in the mid-'80s -- were gone. Foley and Patterson even get to sing on Cameo's hit "In The Night".
Since Davis had become a perennial performer at Montreux, festival organizer Claude Nobs and advisor Quincy Jones harbored the idea of convincing him to re-visit his orchestral works, including the so-called Birth of the Cool nonet recordings of the late '40s and the larger pieces he had collaborated on with Gil Evans in the late '50s. Eventually, for reasons that went with him to the grave, Davis agreed.
The penultimate disc in this set is a reissue of the 1993 release Miles Davis & Quincy Jones Live At Montreux. Despite the safety net of second lead trumpeter Wallace Roney, Davis acquits himself well for a man who hadn't played this music in more than 30 years -- and who would be dead within three months. Evans' intricate charts don't fare as well, given the frenzied rehearsal schedule and the huge size of the orchestra Jones pieced together. Still, the performance represents an immense feat of daring on Davis' part, and the result is eminently listenable, if more than a little melancholy.
Nine days after the Montreux performance, Davis' last band -- a scaled-down sextet -- was in Nice for a short set. Allotted just over an hour of stage time, the band concentrated on up-tempo material, save for the de rigueur "Time After Time." With only keyboard player -- Deron Johnson -- and no percussionist, the group's arrangements are airier, and Davis carries a lot of the load. There's no indication that he was only six weeks away from a fatal stroke.
For the consumer, this box represents a significant investment, and the timid may be put off by the prospect of nine versions of "Time After Time" or seven takes of "Human Nature." But as historical document and dampler for some of Davis' best playing during the last 20 years of his life, this is a treasure trove.
C o m m e n t s
Miles at Montreaux 1 of 1 Greg Masters June 24, 03
A fine assessment of this formidable box set. Hale once again displays his attuned ear and investigative muscle. Miles fans couldn't ask for anything better.
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