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Miles Davis: Live at Montreux - Highlights 1973-1991

John Kelman By

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Miles Davis Miles Davis

Live at Montreux—Highlights 1973-1991

Eagle Eye Media


When Miles Davis plugged in towards the end of the 1960s, it may have been a huge shot fired across the bow of the jazz intelligentsia, who loudly cried foul and began the first of many accusations of "selling out," but for the trumpet icon, it was business as usual. In a career that ultimately spanned five decades before he passed away, all too young at the age of 65 in 1991, Davis shifted gears multiple times, from the cool jazz of Birth of the Cool (recorded in 1949/50, but not released en masses until 1957 by Capitol) through to his seminal exploration of modal music on Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959), large ensemble collaborations with composer/arranger Gil Evans like the classic Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960), and the still-remarkable free bop of his mid-1960s quintet with pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Ron Carter and drum wunderkind Tony Williams. But it was his move to electric music that drew the most definitive line in the sand for his fans. Albums like In a Silent Way (Columbia, 1969) eased its way across that line in relatively benign fashion, but Bitches Brew (Columbia), a year later, made it clear that Davis was turning on, and turning up.

But accusations of sell-out remain curious to this day, given the flat-out aggro of the music that Davis began to make, beginning with A Tribute to Jack Johnson (Columbia, 1970)—an album that may have featured Hancock, along with rapidly ascending up-and-comers like drummer Billy Cobham and guitar god-in-the-making John McLaughlin, but was nothing less than an in-your-face rock record. Davis' purview broadened and his vision densified by the time of On The Corner (Columbia, 1972), an album whose influences ranged from Sly and the Family Stone to Karlheinz Stockhausen, and has since been realized, decades later, for the groundbreaking record it always was. Davis of the 1970s may have grooved hard, but with little in the way of clear and obvious form, or melodic hooks on which to hang your hat, this was nowhere near the kind radio-friendly that it needed to be to even become considered a sell-out. If Miles Davis was selling out, the question was, to whom?

Even when Davis returned, after a self-imposed hiatus in the late 1970s, with albums like You're Under Arrest (Columbia, 1985)—which seemed to confirm new cries of "sell-out" by including truly radio-friendly covers of songs by Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper—folks who continued to frequent his concerts knew that they may have been more inherently structured than his 1970s electric excursions, but were still plenty exciting and filled with outstanding playing from new jazz stars in the making like guitarist John Scofield and saxophonist Kenny Garrett. The epic, now out-of-print 20-CD The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux 1973-1991 (Sony, 2002)—which contained complete performances by various Miles Davis groups from 1973, and a seven-year stretch from 1984-1991 (with the exception of 1987)—went a long way, posthumously, to restoring Davis' credibility in his final decade, but as compelling as listening to the audio is, there's no replacing the insight and excitement of actually being able to watch Davis in action.

Miles Davis, 1988

The good news is that the Montreux Jazz Festival's longtime curator, Claude Nobs, had the foresight to not just record the audio of these shows (and many more by other artists), but the video as well. The release of the entire set of Miles Davis performances at Montreux on DVD is still a few months off (slated for late 2011 or early 2012), but Live at Montreux—Highlights 1973-1991 not only whets the appetite for what's to come, but stands as a perfect, relatively concise synopsis of why Davis' electric years were so important—and, so often, misunderstood.

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