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In a Definitive Set, an Electrifying Look at Miles Davis at Montreux

September 08, 2002|DON HECKMAN

OK, you first bought Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue" in its original incarnation as an LP. Then, since you wanted to listen in your car, you picked up the cassette version. And, of course, when CDs arrived, you had to have it in digital form, followed by the deluxe CD remastering, as well as the two books about the making of the album.

As a dedicated Davis aficionado, you probably also felt compelled to acquire the "Complete Birth of the Cool," the deluxe CD versions of "Water Babies" and "Filles de Kilimanjaro," the three-CD "Complete In a Silent Way Sessions," the four-disc "Complete Bitches Brew Sessions," the six-CD "Complete Columbia Recordings, 1955-1961," and the seven-disc "Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965."

And just think, soon you may have the opportunity to buy each and every one of them all over again in either (or both) of the new DVD-A or SACD audio formats.

In the meantime, assuming you haven't yet overdosed on Davis, there is now the opportunity to garner his largest record release so far. Perhaps to get an early start on the holiday gift-buying season, on Oct. 1 Sony is releasing "The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux, 1973-1991" (****). In a grand total of 20 discs, the boxed set encompasses Davis' appearances during nearly two decades at the hugely popular Swiss music festival.

Interestingly, when the event's founder, Claude Nobs, first invited Davis to perform, the response was direct, to the point and completely negative. According to Nobs, Davis replied via a telegram, saying, "Your offer is an insult to my color and talent." Eventually, however, acceptable terms were agreed upon--including a Ferrari for Davis' use during his stay in Montreux--and he made his initial appearance at the festival in July 1973.

It would be 11 years before Davis would return, in July 1984. From then on, he appeared annually (with the exception of 1987) through 1991. Nobs even overlooked his basic rule of not having artists perform at the festival in consecutive years, and there were several occasions when Davis played both afternoon and evening concerts. His last dance at Montreux, on July 8, 1991, had an extraordinarily sentimental subtext for Davis. At the urging of Quincy Jones, who produced the event, Davis made a rare exception to his career-long refusal to reexamine past glories and agreed to a "live" re-creation of several of his classic large ensemble recordings with Gil Evans, including selections from "Miles Ahead," "Porgy and Bess" and "Sketches of Spain."

The 20th CD in the set chronicles a final performance in France a few days later, on July 17, 1991, with his sextet of the time, which featured alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett. (Davis' last concert took place Aug. 25, 1991, at the Hollywood Bowl; he died the next month, on Sept. 28.)

Bootleg versions of Davis' Montreux performances have been drifting around Europe for years in one form or another. But this fully authorized collection is complete, containing--according to the program notes--"every single note that the legendary Miles Davis played at the Montreux Jazz Festival."

"We decided that to cut even one single note from the concerts would be a crime," Nobs adds in his commentary.

The result is a stunning musical document--an utterly compelling opportunity to experience Davis in detail during his electric period, a time viewed with some disdain by many fans of his work from the '50s and '60s.

The gap between the 1973 and 1984 appearances, in fact, helps illustrate the considerable differences between Davis' early '70s efforts and his music of the '80s. The '70s band, which included, among others, saxophonist Dave Liebman, bassist Michael Henderson and drummer Al Foster, was still working at the integration of elements from jazz and rock, free improvisation and electronics.

By the '80s, Davis had surrounded himself with young players--John Scofield, Bob Berg, Robben Ford, etc.--who had come to maturity during an era when stylistic boundaries had largely lost their divisive powers.

It is particularly interesting to hear these ensembles playing in settings that allow for considerably more expansive soloing than generally took place in their studio outings.

The resulting view suggests that this period in Davis' oeuvre has not been properly acknowledged for the high level of its creative accomplishments. Vastly different from the Davis '50s and '60s groups, these were, nonetheless, prime jazz ensembles.

Yet another intriguing aspect of this in-depth view of a great jazz artist's work is the opportunity to hear the way identical songs can produce different results at different times. Four CDs, for example, are dedicated to the Davis band performances of July 14, 1985. Discs 7 and 8 chronicle the complete afternoon performance. Discs 9 and 10 encompass the evening concert, at which the identical program of material was performed.

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