Those unsure what to make of the massive and still mounting set of Miles Davis box sets and reissues should put their mind at ease. Though there are lesser releases than others — Bitches Brew Live is solid but not revelatory, for example — for the most part, we’re still learning Miles. Still piecing him together, parsing out what was myth and what was real, what was man and what was musician. Or maybe not, maybe this is just another phase of myth building, and if so, so be it. Because Live In Europe 1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 2 is as vital a live release as we’ve ever heard from Davis, and lives up in every way to the gauntlet thrown down by the equally essential Bootleg Series Vol. 1.
Where that set covered live material from Davis’s “second great quintet” — the band that ruled his mid-’60s output — this volume uncovers a less documented, but no less vital chapter in Davis’s musical history. Those long-time collectors of Miles Davis bootlegs out there are no doubt familiar with the “lost” band, the quintet Davis put together after Tony Williams and Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter went off to do different things. Davis was doing different things too, branching off into new textures and not-quite-jazz moves that would culminate in 1969’s In a Silent Way and, of course, Bitches Brew in 1970. Those albums, brilliant as they are, are landmark albums in editing and production as much as they are in composition, but Davis was also out on the road between recording those albums, with a new band. Wayne Shorter stuck around after the second quintet disbanded — though he would leave soon after these dates to start Weather Report with Joe Zawunil — and he was joined by Jack DeJohnette on drums, Chick Corea on electric piano, and Dave Holland on bass. These players are all over the studio albums, but this band never got together and recorded an album by themselves, hence the “lost” title.
But this box set brings together four brilliant dates from the band’s tour of Europe in 1969 — three on CD, one on DVD — and these editions are far superior to any unofficial bootlegs floating out there. The remastering is meticulous and even, on occasion, accidentally genius. There is some lingering distortion on some of these songs that the engineers cleaned up as they could, but the remaining rust on the interplay between Miles and Shorter is perfect. The horns sound simultaneously organic and treated, human and electric. And it’s in that middle space this band existed. The first two discs here are from shows recorded in late July, just before the release of In a Silent Way. The set, like all the sets here, is a fascinating split between past and present. The band roars to live with an unbridled take on “Directions” showcasing DeJohnette’s crashing, intricate rhythms mixing with the warm hum of Corea’s piano and Holland’s slithering bass, all under a fiery back and forth between Davis’s rapid, tumble-down solo, and Shorter’s unpredictable sax phrasings. From there we move to the funkier, Bitches Brew classic “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down”, which here has all the grit and murk of a Crazy Horse song with all the swing of earlier Davis compositions. In the live setting, it feels leaner and (if not meaner) than mean in a different way from its studio counterpart.
It also plays nicely against “Milestones”, which revisits an early, more straight-ahead bop sound, and mashes it with this band’s knack for exploring space. These are perhaps the most interesting moments here since once Bitches Brew hits Davis stopped looking back. The older songs here, including this blistering take on “Milestones” — which bottoms out with ballad sweetness in places, and explodes with energy in others — and the sped-up onslaught of “‘Round Midnight” show a band so in the present they can reshape the past, turning swinging numbers into unpredictable tumblers. There’s also a wonderful variety from set to set — something Vol. 1 did not have. Disc Two, recorded in Antibes the night after the set from Disc One, takes on many numbers the “second great quintet” mastered and makes them new. “Masqualero” here has softer rundowns in place of the crashing, accents of Tony Williams’s percussion on Vol. 1. “No Blues” is given a completely new groove through Dave Holland’s roiling, hypnotic bass solo that intros the song. In fact, it identifies one of the great juxtapositions in this band between Holland’s thumping acoustic bass and Corea’s buzzing electric piano. The combination of restraint and expanse make the two perfect foils for each other and blends Corea as a link between percussion — and damn does he hit those keys — and melody.
By the time we get to the November sets here — Disc 3 and the DVD — Davis has started in on recording Bitches Brew and the effect on the band is evident. The title track from that album shows up here in full, uncut, unedited form. And while it’s a different vibe than the recorded version (necessarily so), it also reveals the very human pulse under all the layers of that record. In these sets the band stretches out to even more abstract places. “Nefertiti” sways as it did years before, but it also feels untethered, as much about the space around the notes as the phrasing of the notes themselves. The way Davis occasionally upsets the soft melody with bleats of trumpet, and the way Corea’s clustered-up piano solos constrict all that space, make the song sound completely different from earlier versions. It also offers a set-up for “This”, a Corea composition that closes both November shows and feels like a last, chaotic explosion of the band’s energy. Melody is there but in the backseat, happy to barely hold together under the avant-garde, telepathic interaction of the players, each one going for broke and off in their own headspace but somehow coming together. The DVD shows their alchemy perfectly. DeJohnette leaning over his drums as if gleaning quiet secrets from them, Holland standing statue still while his fingers fly over the strings, Corea sometimes dancing with the keys and sometimes pounding them with tense aggression, Shorter rising and falling, his face tensing and releasing as his solos do, and Davis wandering on stage to blast out a solo or melody and then drifting to the sidelines to take it all in, to hear and see what his players are doing, to find things to feed off. It’s a beautiful sight, a great recording, and the perfect complement to the audio discs here.
But what’s important about Live in Europe 1969 is that it’s not about transition. What it might tell us is that Davis’s career was not one of transitions but of shape-shifting. Sure, this isn’t as jarring a shift as, say, A Tribute to Jack Johnson was, but the subtlety of this change is its greatest asset. These sets were not in-between, not a hinge, but a contained moment, in which Davis saw music as a two-way mirror — he looked back and reimagined his past, and pushed at the new, but he did it to combine them into a powerful new moment, not to set up the next thing. In this way, to call this the “lost” band is to give it a misnomer. It was as powerful a set of players as Davis ever played with, but it also did its own thing, carving out a space that was equal parts eccentric and classic, innovative and authoritative. This band didn’t record an album on their own because they didn’t need to. Because, for them, it wasn’t about documents or artifacts. It was about the moment, about fitting everything that came before and everything that could come later into a perfect meshing of sounds that existed in the now. Lucky for us, we get the shows they play to preserve them, to even re-evaluate their influence and power. Because nothing about this band was lost. They found themselves on the stage, and that was the only place they needed to create, which, as is evidenced by this essential collection, was all they needed.