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Miles Davis: Unlimited Miles

Bill King By

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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, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Oscar Peterson 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 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, drummer Jimmy Cobb, saxophonist George Coleman and pianist Wynton Kelly. 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 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. 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'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, Chick Corea, Miroslav Vitous 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 and Kenny Garrett greater latitude.

The last Davis concert I witnessed was in Toronto at Roy Thomson Hall. Scofield, Robert Irving III, Rodney Jones, Bob Berg 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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