Miles Davis: Miles Davis at Newport: 1955-1975: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4

With the fourth installment in the so-called bootleg series, the evolution of Miles Davis is on full display. To say these recordings are essential to understanding the artist’s progression would be an understatement.
Miles Davis
Miles Davis at Newport: 1955-1975: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4

Perhaps no other recording better illustrates how Miles Davis bridged the gap between jazz’s old guard and its younger visionaries than Miles Davis at Newport: 1955-1975: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4. Spanning 20 years in just under five hours of largely unreleased live performances, At Newport finds a young Miles seated among some of bop and post-bop’s biggest names. Disc one begins with a spoken introduction from Duke Ellington (who describes the group as “[living] in the realm Buck Rodgers is trying to reach”), the then-reigning king of jazz and swing. Traditionally minded and standing in stark contrast to where the music ends by the time it reaches the fourth disc, these recordings paint a picture of not only the evolution of an artistic genius, but also a broader cultural evolution, one in which the music largely mirrors the society within which it was created.

In his enlightening 1962 Playboy interview with Alex Haley, Davis expounded upon the rampant racism he faced throughout his career up to that point and how he had to essentially work to prevent it from impacting his music. In the recordings up through and until his monumental Bitches Brew, you can almost hear the simmering rage and intensity behind every precise note. Never a flashy soloist, though he certainly had the chops to unleash a furious flurry of notes should he so desire, his was a more measured take, one which explored the instrument’s tonal quality, allowing it to color the performance with an emotionality that sheets of sound often could not. Because of this approach, Davis’ early recordings appealed a wider audience (Kind of Blue being one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time). Above all, he played melodies; you could follow his train of thought, despite its unorthodox originality.

On “’Round Midnight,” here recorded with Thelonius Monk on piano, Davis takes a measured, thoughtful solo that has little in common with Monk’s far more idiosyncratic approach to his instrument. And yet together they serve as a near perfect foil, one complementing the other’s approach in a way that, within a separate context, might be missed. Similarly, when paired with the West Coast cool of Gerry Mulligan on Charlie Parker’s “Now’s The Time,” Davis stands out as a distinct voice, one not adhering to any one stylistic school in particular, his tone as much informed by those who’ve come before as the sounds in his head.

What is most striking about listening to his early performances within a chronological context contrasted with his electric period is how consistent he remains as a performer; his confidence clearly increasing as the number and frequency of notes begins decreasing. Never one to over indulge in note-y solos, the gaps between statements increases as the years progress, not out of any sort of studied defiance, but more out of an interest in the sounds that exist between the sounds; those silent moments that allow for the ghosts of phrases to gradually die off, creating a sort of tension between the past and present that allows for the performer’s imagination to run wild.

“It isn’t the instrument being played that makes the difference, but the man who plays it,” states Willis Connover, paraphrasing Duke Ellington in describing Davis as a performer. Hearing the band that recorded Kind of Blue slowly introduced before launching into a brief set is liable to raise goose bumps, the anticipation building as one of the greatest jazz combos ever tears into a frenetic set of standards and soon-to-be standards. It is here that Davis’ approach to soloing is best on display. Where the head of “Ah-Leu-Cha” features a frantic unison line, Davis brings everything back on his solo, taking a far more measured, almost introspective approach to his performance that stands in sharp contrast to the piece’s opening moments. By contrast, John Coltrane’s trademark “sheets of sound” dominate the whole of his solo section, while Cannonball Adderly follows a similar approach with nimble dexterity. Hearing these iconic performers together within a live setting is a revelation.

Noticeably, throughout these performances there is the lack of Davis the person. Never once does he address the audience. Instead, his presence is represented solely through his horn. In speaking with Haley, Davis attributed this not to a rudeness or surly personal demeanor, but rather to his being aware of his role as a musician and artist and, in as much, his sole purpose being to perform, to express himself through his horn in a way that feels far truer than any stage banter ever could.

As the years progress, the music becomes more and more chaotic. Yet while the music rages, his performances becomes more impressionistic, the aural equivalent of flinging paint onto canvas. By the time we hear the {Bitches Brew}-era bands, he has nearly abandoned lyrical phrases altogether in favor an emotionally charged sound and feel that strives to move past the traditional notion of jazz soloing and into more of a frenetic, rock-oriented approach to the music. Tearing down the status quo, he nearly singlehandedly reinvents the genre, bringing in younger, more adventurous players who, having been weaned on rock and R&B, are able to follow his artistic vision and replicate the sounds inside Davis’ head.

His sound here on the collection’s latter half loses the subtle, precision present on those earlier performances in favor of a rawer, more visceral approach to the instrument that reflects not only a shifting attitude towards the music, but also one rooted in the extreme social changes taking place at the time. As the 1960s wear on, the music takes on an almost angry quality, filled with a simmering rage that makes the listener feel something more than just an appreciation for the technical virtuosity of the myriad jazz legends on display on this set. Rather the sound and feel of these performances begin to take precedent over the tunes themselves, melody becoming secondary to aural exploration and emotionally charged statements that deal more viscerally than anything heard before.

This transition becomes most apparent on the jump between his classic mid-to-late-‘60s quintet featuring Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock, and Ron Carter to the young, largely unknown players assembled for the pre-Bitches Brew/In a Silent Way-era recordings. Where the former’s sound is still largely rooted in the post-bop idiom, with classics such as “’Round Midnight” and “So What” given a fairly tradition, albeit sped up in the case of the latter, reading, by “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” a clear change in direction is in the air. Here the drumming becomes far more frantic, electric piano can be heard and Davis himself is far more immersed in the sound and feel than inherent melodicism. This is jazz designed to get the people moving in a way they hadn’t in some time. By no means inaccessible, this is still a decidedly avant-garde approach to the music.

By the time they hit “Turnaroundphrase,” a mere decade and a half removed from the first disc’s performances, the group assembled is in full-on eclectic electric mode. Here Davis employs two guitarists, auxiliary percussionist Mtume, electric bass and saxophone, drums and, himself going electric, the wah effect that would come to define the majority of his early ‘70s recordings. Polarizing and divisive to jazz purists, these sounds represented a fearless new direction informed as much by the youth culture as the social upheaval within which it was conceived. It could be argued that at no other time in the history of popular music did the music itself play such a role in both shaping the culture and being shaped by culture in return.

Standing in sharp contrast with the 1950s performances, these recordings are furious, emotionally charged and borderline unhinged. It’s an exhilarating contrast that, when listened through start to finish, charts the creative journey of a true musical genius. By album’s end, Ellington’s opening words seem to have come true: Davis and company have found themselves inhabiting a sonic world only Buck Rodgers could’ve imagined.

RATING 10 / 10