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We Want Miles: A Series of Reinventions

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We Want Miles: Miles Davis vs. Jazz
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Montreal
Through August 29, 2010

Treasures await fans of Miles Davis up in Montreal, Canada: Photos, letters, film clips, paintings, instruments, wardrobe and enough information on wall placards to bring visitors on the full journey through the life and times of one of America's greatest artists.

For anyone who has read a biography of Davis, there are no revelations here. But there are some rarities gathered, such as film clips documenting the recording of the soundtrack for Louis Malle's 1958 film, Elevator to the Gallows (Ascensuer pour L'échafaud), and a performance by the second great quintet )Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Tony Williams) only just recently made available as part of a new reissue package. There are letters and memos between record execs providing some tasty tidbits of behind-the-scenes machinations to negotiate better deals for Davis.

For fans of the man and his music, the exhibition is an opportunity to connect to a still pulsating force—he died in 1991—via tokens and documentation of particular moments captured over the course of a lifetime and career that was continually reinventing itself. For the uninitiated museum-goer, it's an irresistible seduction into what it means to back style with substance.

The show is not only a chronological scrapbook profile, but a family album that fashions a reckoning with the social landscape. One event captured is particularly moving: The moment when Davis stepped off a plane in Paris in 1949 for his first visit to Europe and crowds were on the tarmac to greet and adore—a radical shift in attitude to the racism and lack of mainstream acknowledgement he was forced to accommodate in the United States. An enlarged photo a bit further in the show displays the moment in 1959 when he'd been beaten over the head by a policeman while he was having a smoke in front of the club where, the marquee announces, his band was performing.

But the emphasis is on celebrating the legacy. Each room offers a voyage into a distinct musical conception, and Miles' career can be conveniently demarcated by periods. Who could not be transfixed staring face to face with a life-size projection of Jeanne Moreau meandering through the nighttime Paris streets to Davis' accompaniment, a pinnacle moment in the marriage of sound and vision. Or, for the adventurous, a more comfortable seat than the hundreds of thousands in attendance at the trumpeter's 1970 performance at the Isle of Wight festival.

There's even a chance to watch Bill Cayton's documentary, A Tribute to Jack Johnson, a low-budget film for which Davis provided the music and, in the process, created a standalone masterpiece that serves as a soundtrack for much beyond this obscure film.

The show's catalog is a significant addition to the delights. Photos and reproductions of scores, LP covers and other ephemera are given a good deal of real estate and each beautifully designed spread complements the flavors of each phase of Davis' path.

The text, largely written by Franck Bergerot, not only fills in the details, but digs deep to reflect on personal and musical developments. The writing is informed enough to argue with some widely accepted scholarship. However, while Bergerot offers informed explanations of what technically is occurring in the music at different moments in Davis' career, a lay reader may still be left unconvinced. A discussion of the use of modes in Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959), for example, presents the underlying theory, even pointing out precedents, but owing to brevity fails to persuade the reader of the effect—granted, not an easy sensation to document. Regardless, Bergerot's authorship deserves to be more prominently featured.

Further, sidebar contributions layer in some personal touchstones. One in particular, from saxophonist Dave Liebman, offers insight into the musical conception of Davis' ensembles of the first half of the 1970s. It's a startling examination of the performance style and approach to improvisation of the electric period that deserves more acknowledgment.

And please, art directors of the world, use serif fonts for body text. I won't say it's unreadable, but blocks of serif type are much more attractive to someone wishing to get immersed in the text. The copy is not just a visual element on the page.

Still, for those approaching Miles for the first time or for acolytes, the catalog is a worthy—albeit breezy—guide through the narrative of Miles' life story and an informed appreciation of his achievement.

The exhibition was developed and organized by the Cité de la Musique in France with the support of Miles Davis Properties in association with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. At the top of the list of those to thank for this gift is Vincent Bessières, the chief curator.

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