The Secret History of Miles Davis in the 1980s
The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux is, at first glance, a daunting proposition: 20 CDs that do nothing less than document every performance the legendary trumpet player gave at the famed Montreux Jazz Festival, spanning the years from 1973 until 1991, the year of Davis’ death. Since Davis performed at the festival for the first time in 1973 and retired from 1975-1981, the majority of the recordings here are from the ‘80s, which is generally dismissed as an inferior footnote to the rest of Davis’ career. But the conventional wisdom is at least partially wrong: The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux clearly shows that Davis was creating vital music right up until the end; and that the real substance of what he was doing during the ‘80s was not to be found on his studio recordings, but in live performance. This makes it a vital part of the Davis discography, and one that will almost certainly lead to a reevaluation of that period of his career.
A quick history lesson: Beginning in 1968, Miles started searching for new directions in which to take his music. He was interested in getting out of what he had come to see as the dead end of jazz music: theme/improvisation/theme. His 1960s quintet featuring Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter, and Tony Williams had taken traditional jazz forms to as abstract a place as was possible. That left the possibility of free jazz, which Davis rejected. Another possibility came into focus when Hancock first started to experiment with the Fender Rhodes electric piano. Davis loved the new sound of the instrument; it energized him and made him realize that improvisational music did not need to be based on straight-ahead chord changes, nor did it have to be modal. Instead, the music could be based on a bass line, or the barest wisp of melody. The quintet’s last album Filles de Kilimanjaro, used some electric piano and hinted at this new sound and structure, but only barely.
Bringing in new musicians such as Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, and Dave Holland, Davis began to try to create this new sound and new structure. Whether what emerged would be jazz or not, no one could say, but Davis was very clear about what he wanted to achieve. He succeeded admirably, recording the groundbreaking In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, as well as numerous live performances and other studio recordings within a year. In 1972, Davis tried to bring a heavy funk sound into the mix as well as some things he was hearing in European avant-garde music by Karlheinz Stockhausen. The result was On the Corner, a thick, bracing concoction that confused many listeners and led to a break with many who felt the jazz great was losing his mind.
The first two discs in this set are from Davis’ 1973 Montreux performance, and they demonstrate just where Davis was as one of the most fertile periods in his musical career matured. The band consisted of woodwind player Dave Liebman, guitarists Reggie Lucas and Pete Cosey, bassist Michael Henderson (who had played with Stevie Wonder before joining Miles), drummer Al Foster, and percussionist Mtume. The first 40-minute set is full-bore Miles, with furious drumming, funky bass holding down the fort, and a series of solos by Cosey and Liebman, culminating in Miles’ fierce blowing and abstract statements delivered through his wah-wah pedaled trumpet. Towards the end of the first disc, the band cuts out and there is a percussion interlude punctuated by Davis’ abrasive chord clusters on the organ. When this first set ends, you can hear actual booing in the audience, though the general reaction is one of polite confusion. Miles asked festival organizer Claude Nobs if he should play more, to which Nobs predictably responded in the affirmative.
Davis and the group return and play another hour of intense and exquisitely beautiful music, marked by excellent performances of “Ife” and “Calypso Frelimo”. This set is at least as demanding as the first, but is somewhat better received. Hearing this performance alongside the string of Davis’ studio triumphs from 1968 to 1974 as well as the live performances that have already been released, I would have to ask anyone who still insists that Davis “sold out” by incorporating electronic instruments and discarding many of the trappings of traditional jazz: to whom, exactly, did he sell out?
This is not the music that rock audiences were looking for, many were just as dumbfounded by Davis’ heady mixture of funk, rock, jazz, electronics, and music that would later be known by such names as ambient, trance, and techno, but for which no names existed at the time. True, Miles achieved a burst of record sales with Bitches Brew, On the Corner, and a few live albums that were released at the time, but overall his music was not charting nor being played on the radio. He was largely outcast from jazz, though he had provided much of the most exciting jazz music in the post-bop era. Few people, including his musician peers, understood what he was doing. So, if Miles was selling out, what was his reward? Like Bob Dylan’s decision to “go electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, the whole thing should have been a dead issue by this time.
The 1973 performance is of a completely different era than the rest of the recordings in the set, and could have been released as a separate recording had Columbia not opted to maintain the completeness of the Montreux recordings. Starting with disc three, the beginning of 1984’s afternoon performance (for most years are afternoon and evening performances, with the set lists remaining very similar, even though the performances are very distinct), the real vision of the last part of Miles’ career becomes evident. His band at this time featured saxophonist Bob Berg, keyboard player Robert Irving III, guitarist John Scofield, bassist Darryl Jones, drummer Al Foster, and percussionist Steven Thornton. Beginning with the kinetic energy, angular melodic lines (at which Scofield in particular excelled) and funky vamps of “Speak/That’s What Happened”, Davis is announcing clearly that he has succeeded in distilling the unique combination of funk, rock, jazz, and electronic music that he has long been seeking.
The opening salvo is followed by the bluesy jam “Star People”, which brings the tone of the set down a bit and demonstrates that Miles’ horn playing is still clear, beautiful, commanding, and undiminished by his time away. There is a gorgeous rendition of “Time after Time”, which Davis recorded in the studio for the album that would not be released until the following year, You’re Under Arrest. In fact, there are a total of nine renditions of “Time after Time” on the discs in this set and seven of the “Human Nature”, the Toto song made popular by Michael Jackson. Davis got a lot of grief for recording his renditions of these ballads, and the studio versions regularly show up on smooth jazz radio play lists. However, the performances here, particularly of “Time after Time” are all different, occurring at different places in the set lists, and what they offer is a chance to just sit back and hear Miles play trumpet.
For all the carping from Davis’ pre-electric fans about just wanting to hear him play great solos again without the electronic gimmickry, these performances should offer just that. Davis recorded popular ballads for his entire career, and some of his work here is very close to hearing him play “My Funny Valentine” in the pre-electric period. When Davis removes the mute from his trumpet almost nine minutes into the rendition of “Time after Time” on Disc 6 and lets his clear, singing tone sail out into the audience, you have to wonder what all the fuss about his supposedly “selling out” was about.
Another interesting facet to these performances is the relatively static nature of the set lists Davis performs from year to year. The afternoon and evening performances are always virtually identical as far as the material played, but the feel of the sets can be dramatically different. For example, the version of “Hopscotch; Star On Cicely” in the 1984 evening performance (Disc 6) is distinctly less fierce and explosive than the afternoon version, as well as featuring a break with Davis soloing over Al Foster’s drumming that is particularly stunning.
Davis wasn’t developing new material at the rate he had in the past, partly because he didn’t have a lot of writers in the band as was the case with, say, the second great quintet, where he had Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, two of modern jazz music’s most innovative composers. Davis always went through periods when he himself was composing and periods where he barely did any writing at all. In the ‘80s, he clearly wasn’t devoting a lot of time to composing individual pieces. But he was interested in the flow of a set of music. He’d started the practice of playing uninterrupted sets with the ‘60s quintet where one song flowed to the next or suites of songs where a mood was created to be replaced by a contrasting mood. This technique became all-important for these late career sets, where ebb and flow was created that allowed the listener an emotional connection to the music that didn’t come from one tune alone.
This is another reason that the ‘80s albums didn’t stand up that well—they were extremely fragmented combinations of finished tracks, live performances, and half-realized ideas that never allowed one to settle in and ride a groove. Incidentally, these discs are straightforward recordings done from the mixing board, so there is none of the studio manipulation heard on some of Miles’ live ‘70s albums.
Another aspect of Davis’ 1980s works that probably biases a lot of listeners are the keyboard sounds and programming done on the albums. It all immediately identifies the music as ‘80s vintage as surely as does the sound of a Flock of Seagulls song. Often polyphonic synths were used to approximate a horn section sound—not meant to fool anyone, just to create a block of sound. In fact, that was pretty much the entire basis of the “Minneapolis sound” created by Prince, the Time, et al during the same decade. It’s a sound many people, myself included, find grating and annoying, and it is there in abundance on Miles’ later albums. But on the live albums the keyboard work is never really a focus, with the sound being much more bass and percussion driven. For example, the performance of “MD1/Something’s On Your Mind/MD2” found on Disc 7 (the afternoon performance of 14 July 1985) is far superior to the one on You’re Under Arrest.
In 1986, Miles released his first album for Warner Brothers, Tutu, on which the only other musician besides Davis was Marcus Miller. Miller did much better with the synthesizer programming, even though the music still suffers a bit from the lack of actual musicians interacting. On stage, John Scofield had been replaced by bluesier guitarist Robben Ford, and predictably Ford sounds better on the more blues-influenced numbers than on the furious, angular numbers that Scofield excelled at. The performance of “Tutu” heard on CD 11 (17 July 1986) is really well done and lends some credence to the argument that a live band could perform these numbers better than a programmed backup. George Duke guests on synthesizer, providing some nice solo work on “Tutu” and “Splatch”. Later in the same set (Disc 12), David Sanborn sits in for performances of “Burn”, “Portia”, and “Jean-Pierre”. Davis is in really good form here, offering confident and bright blasts of color to the mix.
In 1988, saxophonist Kenny Garrett came on board, and he is the standout on Discs 13 & 14. Miles teases the audience with a minute-long rendition of the theme to Josef Zawinul’s “In A Silent Way” before launching into the drum ‘n’ bass-like attack of “Intruder”. Joe “Foley” McCreary is on board as “lead bass”—his bass guitar was specially tuned and essentially became a low guitar voice capable of soloing as well as contributing rhythm. The group is totally alive and interactive (though some of those annoying keyboard blocks are back), and when Garrett kicks into his first solo, you know this set is going to burn. Davis recorded probably his best album of the ‘80s the following year using the best musicians from this group, including Garrett.
Amandla had the same great musical concept as Tutu, but was played with a real band, which lent human characteristics to it not apparent on the earlier album. Following the blues workout “New Blues” the band lights into “Perfect Way”, a song with a trite theme, but which comes to life in the hands of this rocking band. “The Senate/Me & U” features heavy, heavy bass work with Garrett and Miles playing some slick phrases in unison, and by this time it’s hard to imagine anyone who isn’t impressed by the sound of this band. Miles brings things down a notch with a lengthy rendition of “Human Nature”, and during his solo the rhythm section quiets down so much that you feel like Miles is talking to you, his muted trumpet whispering directly in your ear.
“Wrinkle” is a zigzag workout over a James Brown rhythm that shows again (how many times did he have to demonstrate?) that the 1988 model Miles Davis was still in prime fighting form. The version of “Tutu” offered up here is a bit more laid back than the previous year’s rendition, and it shows that Miles and his bands were not just going through the motions, they were actively reconstructing the music just as he had always done. The first half of the set ends with a very slow rendition of “Time after Time” on which Miles starts with an open trumpet before launching into the melody with his customary muted sound. And listen to the mournful minor key tones that Miles brings to bear on the second chorus of the song that begins at 3’10” (Disc 13, Track 9). Could anyone really say that Miles couldn’t play anymore? He was older, weakened by several serious illnesses and surgeries, and, because he couldn’t work out daily as he had in the early ‘70s, he lacked the breath control he exhibited during that former period. But is his trumpet still a special instrument, capable of winding its way around your heart and divining your most secret thoughts, emotions, and desires? Absolutely. And, judging from the thunderous ovation he receives at the end of this performance, I would guess most of the audience in attendance felt the same way.
The 1989 set starts a tad less auspiciously, with the first half (Disc 15) opening with somewhat perfunctory versions of “Intruder” and “Perfect Way”, though “New Blues” is done nicely and at a bit faster tempo than the previous year. “Human Nature” suffers from an unimpressive guest spot by vocalist Chaka Khan. The second half of the set (Disc 16) is a different matter, though. It opens with “Jilli” from Amandla, full of heavy keyboard chords and vocal chorus effects. The Marcus Miller arrangements are opened up and the band really has an opportunity to play and make the pieces shine. The versions of “Jilli”, “JoJo”, and “Amandla” here are transcendent, as is the ten-plus minute “Time after Time”. The set ends with a powerful version of “Wrinkle” and the lovely “Portia” from Tutu, a piece that had really come into its own in live performance.
The band’s live performances had come together nicely between 1986 and 1989, but there is sometimes a feeling of sameness that permeates the recordings and offers the impression that Miles’ shows had become very middle-of-the-road, with little risk taking or newness. He had been playing essentially the same style of music since his comeback in 1981, meaning that he had not really changed anything that drastically in eight years, a very long time for Davis. Of course, he made some changes that make it possible to break his 1980s work into different periods; for example, the change in studio technique with Tutu and subsequent work with Marcus Miller. But overall, Miles’ music remained an amalgam of funk, rock, and blues, with his trumpet providing straight-ahead jazz improvisations at times.
There are certainly moments of interest in the 1990 Montreux performance captured on Discs 17 and 18, but you also get the sense that Miles is coasting a bit and that he had no real idea of what direction he might take next. But he clearly still loved playing trumpet and interacting with other musicians, and recent biographies point out that Miles was either making music or painting at almost all times during the last four years of his life. The 1990 performance is important, though, in that it marks the return of saxophonist Kenny Garrett and lighter keyboard work, as well as the very tight rhythm section of bassist Richard Patterson and drummer Ricky Wellman. Prior to this set, the only recorded evidence of this band was the album Live Around the World.
Disc 19 of the set features the only material previously released; it is the 8 July 1991 retrospective featuring Miles Davis performing suites of his classic Gil Evans tunes from the 1950s with an orchestra under the direction of Quincy Jones. There has been a lot of controversy over the performance and whether it should have been done. Miles had once said “If I ever look back I’ll die.” Those words proved to be prophetic as Miles passed away some twelve weeks after this performance.
There is a video of the concert as well, and Miles definitely looks thin and drawn, and trumpet protégé Wallace Roney sits at his side throughout, ready to stand in for Miles at a moment’s notice. The orchestra is too large to really play the delicate Evans arrangements and Miles’ playing is not what it was on the original recordings. But we do get a real glimpse of how the music was created in the first place, and there is a certain fulfillment in hearing Davis performing this music. Herbie Hancock admitted to crying upon seeing the video and pointed out that Miles well below his best was still something that had “a sound and an honesty that attracts.”
Since Davis had always declined to look back and perform music from prior periods in his development, there has been much speculation on why he decided to do this concert. One reason may have been the death of Gil Evans himself in March of 1988. Davis described Evans as his best friend, and may have wanted to pay his respects in this way. Then there is the fact that Miles himself was dying. According to Jo Gelbard, his companion and artistic collaborator in the last years of his life, Miles knew that he was approaching the end of his life and this affected many of the things he did toward the end.
In Paul Tingen’s book Miles Beyond Gelbard is quoted as saying that “Miles didn’t like doing Montreux, he was very unhappy there. Why did he do it? I talked him into it. Miles was tired, and he was dying, but Montreux gave good money and it was supposed to be his retirement money. You know, we were also in denial, thinking that maybe he won’t die after all, and maybe we’ll get another five years and buy a ranch and live together.” Two days later a retrospective of Miles’ music was held in Paris, in which many associates from his career of music making joined his working band. The two events do seem to have rejuvenated him, and he had plans for the future, including the completion of the rap-influenced album Doo-Bop.
Miles Davis’ last public performance was on 25 August 1991 at the Hollywood Bowl. It seems likely that it will be released at some point in the future, but for now it remains in the vaults. The final disc of The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux does feature a performance recorded in Nice on 17 July1991, just about a month before Davis’ final performance. As former keyboard player, Adam Holzman points out the group is smaller, with no second keyboard player and no additional percussionist. The group is very tight, and again Patterson and Wellman demonstrate what a formidable rhythm section they had become. Because the Nice Festival was on a tight schedule, the group performs only the first five songs from their normal set before launching into a brief, very focused version of “Wrinkle”. The lengthy rendition of “New Blues” features a really hot Kenny Garrett solo, and much of the slickness that had been encroaching on the group’s live performances seems to have disappeared on this set. The version of “Time after Time” here is slow, thoughtful, and laced with melancholy, yet somehow also triumphant. This final performance is a lovely coda to a formidable collection of music from one of the greatest musicians in any genre.
It is understandable that some of Miles’ first efforts at a comeback in the early ‘80s were judged inferior and an unfitting conclusion to a glorious career. By the middle of the decade, though, it should have been apparent that Davis was playing near the top of his form, and that he had melded several strands of music into a whole that was very much more than the sum of its parts. And certainly critics, many of whom had the opportunity to hear the Davis band live during these years or heard some of the many bootlegs available, should have been able to discern that the action was in these live performances rather than the studio albums. Still, I can’t help but feel that eventually Decoy, You’re Under Arrest, Tutu, and Amandla will take their rightful place in the pantheon of Davis’ recorded work.
The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux is an embarrassment of riches, though some may question the necessity of hearing the various ‘80s groups playing much of the same material for most of the decade. But to anyone with an open mind and a love of music, there is a lot here that demonstrates the care and vision that Miles was putting into his music up until the very end. This important document will help set the record straight on the most misunderstood part of a mercurial and controversial artist’s career. The naysayers have had their day. Now it’s time for Miles, as usual, to have the last word.
// Notes from the Road
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