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Miles Davis: Unlimited Miles

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I can't think of an artist who has had greater influence over jazz the past forty years than Miles Davis.

For music, style, language and business, Davis was at the top of the game. One to never step aside and let critics dissuade or impede his aspirations, he constantly retooled his band with the brightest most gifted young players of the moment. There are those who will argue that Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
, Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
1901 - 1971
trumpet
, Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
1917 - 1993
trumpet
, John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
, Oscar Peterson
Oscar Peterson
Oscar Peterson
1925 - 2007
piano
were equals. But while these artists contributed mightily, Davis took note of what was happening outside the idiom and adapted his music to the world around him. He saw a useful role for electronics. He understood the potential of world rhythms. And he didn't react like a dilettante to other musical genres. Instead, he embraced rhythm and blues, reggae, funk and hip hop, enhancing the flavor of his own music.

The first live jazz concert I witnessed was a somber evening with the Modern Jazz Quartet in 1962. By all accounts it should have been my last. I'd been listening in earnest to Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue sinking deeper and deeper into the various nuances and complexities of the music. With each spin came new revelations. Yet there I was, sitting like a prisoner at my first live jazz concert listening to the Modern Jazz Quartet
Modern Jazz Quartet
Modern Jazz Quartet

band/orchestra
playing a dry sophisticated style of jazz that felt like someone reading from the Yellow Pages. There was no swaggering, no highs or lows—just all the right notes correctly positioned. I wondered if all jazz was as placid as this.

A few months passed, and then Miles came to town (Louisville, Kentucky). Along with him were bassist Paul Chambers
Paul Chambers
Paul Chambers
1935 - 1969
bass, acoustic
, drummer Jimmy Cobb
Jimmy Cobb
Jimmy Cobb
b.1929
drums
, saxophonist George Coleman
George Coleman
George Coleman
b.1935
sax, tenor
and pianist Wynton Kelly
Wynton Kelly
Wynton Kelly
1931 - 1971
piano
. Here was something to get worked up about. I'd been trying desperately to figure out the shifting sequence of chords over the pedal point at the beginning of "Someday My Prince Will Come." Pianist Wynton Kelly was playing voicings I'd only heard Bill Evans
Bill Evans
Bill Evans
1929 - 1980
piano
structure. The intro seemed as if it covered the same distance as a normal solo. Kelly kept elevating the tension with each modified harmony. The right hand danced about lyrically, punctuating each tonal shift before segueing into Miles' muted trumpet. The effect was breathtaking. From that moment it was a play for the heart. The rest of the evening spun through an array of Mile's collectibles—"So What," "Green Dolphin Street," "Joshua," "All Blues," and on.

A year or so later Miles returned with an even more delectable unit, this one propelled by drummer Tony Williams
Tony Williams
Tony Williams
1945 - 1997
drums
. This concert was a sonic blast. People nearby commented on the seemingly radical personnel change and heated interplay. Even tunes like "My Funny Valentine," had a new-found tension. Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
b.1940
piano
's keyboard harmonies were darkly dissonant textures that provided Davis with greater options. As the final cymbal crash faded you could sense a feeling of both relief and contentment.

Every band I worked with over the following decade—whether rock, country, pop, rhythm and blues, hippie tie-died, or whatever—the players packed copies of Miles Davis' most recent recording. When Davis hit with Miles in the Sky in 1968, the transformation was underway. Drummer Williams began spinning hard rock rhythms, something unheard of in jazz circles. The next few recordings, In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew would permanently alter the course of jazz, opening the gates to more experimental units like Michael White's Fourth Way, and others. Like nomads in a desert caravan we waited until our point man signaled us forward.

Miles arrived at the now defunct Colonial Tavern in Toronto during the early seventies with a new band and a new sound: Jack DeJohnette
Jack DeJohnette
Jack DeJohnette
b.1942
drums
, Chick Corea
Chick Corea
Chick Corea
b.1941
piano
, Miroslav Vitous
Miroslav Vitous
Miroslav Vitous
b.1947
bass
and company. The band played fierce, unrelenting fusion as Davis looked on from off-stage. Towards the set's conclusion Miles came forward, blew a few notes and retreated. All in a days work.

Miles never retreated musically. Star People, Decoy, Your Under Arrest, Amandla, Doo Bop, brought new faces and new sounds. During live performances, Davis began to sink into the background, giving players like John Scofield
John Scofield
John Scofield
b.1951
guitar
and Kenny Garrett
Kenny Garrett
Kenny Garrett
b.1960
sax, alto
greater latitude.

The last Davis concert I witnessed was in Toronto at Roy Thomson Hall. Scofield, Robert Irving III
Robert Irving III
Robert Irving III
b.1953
keyboard
, Rodney Jones
Rodney Jones
Rodney Jones
b.1956
guitar
, Bob Berg
Bob Berg
Bob Berg
1951 - 2002
saxophone
and a percussionist whose name I can't recall were present. Davis, dressed in Zorro black attire, tucked himself in a crevice between the main stage speaker cabinets and the stage curtains. He'd occasionally bounce a few select notes from amplified trumpet into the brick wall. Most the evening he stayed buried in the shadows.

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