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DVD/Video/Film Reviews

Miles Davis: The Definitive Miles Davis at Montreux DVD Collection 1973-1991

By Published: November 8, 2011
Detractors of Davis' final decade usually point to a number of specific issues. First, of course, this is an unapologetically electric band, with everyone amped up to rock-level volumes. Second, as the two performances each in 1984 and 1985 demonstrate—the afternoon and evening set lists for 1984 absolutely identical, and the 1985 shows only slightly different from one another—Davis was working with fixed set lists, something he'd eschewed in past decades. Third, while there was plenty of solo space, and room for the group to move within the arrangements, these were by far the most fully orchestrated small group performances of Davis' career. So those looking for the kind of unfettered freedom of Davis' heralded quintet of the mid-1960s with Hancock, Shorter, bassist Ron Carter
Ron Carter
Ron Carter
b.1937
bass
and drummer Tony Williams
Tony Williams
Tony Williams
1945 - 1997
drums
, will be disappointed, as will those looking for the similarly open-ended but densified jungle rhythms of his last work in the mid-1970s, since the 28 minutes from the 1973 show, great as it is, could be considered a teaser, especially for those who have heard the complete 95-minute concert in the audio box.


Miles Davis, 1985


But the truth is that, while we only get to see 28 minutes of Davis in 1973—with a psychedelic-hazed group that also included the do-rag-headed saxophonist Dave Liebman
Dave Liebman
Dave Liebman
b.1946
saxophone
, guitarists Reggie Lucas and Pete Cosey
Pete Cosey
Pete Cosey
1943 - 2012
guitar
, bassist Michael Henderson
Michael Henderson
Michael Henderson

bass, electric
, drummer Al Foster
Al Foster
Al Foster
b.1944
drums
and percussionist James Mtume—it's an all-too-rare window into a time when accusations that Davis had sold out were curious, at best. Given the rambling, dense, dissonance-heavy music of "Ife," where Davis plays more with the new organ he'd recently received than his horn (and Nobs' interview talks about this at length), it once again raises the question that those who've taken the time to actually listen to albums like On the Corner (Columbia, 1972)—an album almost universally reviled by the jazz cognoscenti at the time, despite some of those same folks, nearly 40 years later, now deeming it an innovative masterpiece—are wondering: who, exactly, was Davis selling out to?

The interview footage varies, with some of the best material coming from Hancock—who, of course, has plenty of stories to tell—and Nobs, whose story of finding a sports cars for Davis in return for selling chickens belonging to the wife of the car's owner, is just one of many endearing tales. Santana's stories, while certainly heartfelt, aren't particularly deep or profound; more fawning than factual. The quickie interviews with the others on the first DVD add little, though Monty Alexander's tale of meeting Davis for the first timer is sweet. That the DVD doesn't include English subtitles when violinist Jean-Luc Ponty
Jean-Luc Ponty
Jean-Luc Ponty
b.1942
violin
and pianist Michel Petrucciani
Michel Petrucciani
Michel Petrucciani
b.1962
piano
revert to French is an oversight that would be more significant, if they had participated in longer interviews, but with just a couple minutes each, it's simply not that important.

It's also not important because, while the interviews are worth watching once, it's the 18 hours of concert footage that makes the collection essential viewing for Davis fans—even those already familiar with these performances through the audio box. 1980s fashion aside—and few but Davis could pull much of this off, though Berg manages the embodiment of Brooklyn nonchalance in the five shows in which he appears (1984-86), while percussionist Marilyn Mazur
Marilyn Mazur
Marilyn Mazur
b.1955
percussion
's enthusiastically physical percussion solo on "Heavy Metal Prelude," from the 1988 show, is an early indicator of a performance style that's continued to this day, as recently as an appearance at the Punkt 2011—it's one experience to listen to these shows, another to watch them. And it's more than because, for musicians, it's a chance to watch these players do what they do—though it's sure a boon for guitarists to not just get nearly six hours of prime Scofield, but to see a baby-faced Robben Ford
Robben Ford
Robben Ford
b.1951
guitar
tear it up at the end of "Jean-Pierre," the only song to show up in every show between 1984 and 1988—it's just plain more exciting. Davis' shows may have been more structured, but the trumpeter—whose health varied considerably across his final decade, his 1990/91 shows remarkable feats for a man whose health was on the decline—surely knew a thing or three about giving his live shows an arc that flowed from peak to peak and rarely—if ever—lagged.


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