Thursday, October 20, 2011

Miles Davis - LIVE in Europe 1967: The Bootleg Series Vol. 1

Just when you think all the best stuff has been released, remastered, repackaged a zillion times, every now and then a surprise comes along that really blows the doors off everything. It’s happened a few times recently in the jazz world – a totally unknown Voice Of America radio broadcast of Thelonious Monk’s quartet featuring John Coltrane was issued by Blue Note in 2005. In that same year Verve discovered radio broadcasts of two full sets of the Coltrane Quartet in full flight in NYC from 1965. In 2007, Charles Mingus’ widow discovered and released an outstanding concert recorded in 1964 at Cornell Universtity of Mingus leading his incredible six piece band with Eric Dolphy. Miles Davis was a friend, collaborator and competitor with all of the above and somewhere he’s probably cracking up that this box set of recently discovered recordings from 1967 was even more anticipated than these other landmark discoveries.

In 1967 Miles Davis was leading one of the best, if not THE best, band in the entire world regardless of genre: Miles on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone, Herbie Hancock on piano, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams. Miles put this band together in late 1964 and by 1967 they had played many concerts together and recorded the classic albums E.S.P., Miles Smiles and Sorcerer. This box set contains an astounding FIVE complete concerts from their 1967 European tour, 3 audio and 2 on DVD. About half of the audio recordings have been floating around as bootlegs and the DVD was only previously available in a ridiculously overpriced 70 CD box set containing the complete Miles Davis discography.

I consider myself to be a pretty major Miles fanatic/collector and I’d never been exposed to any of this material before. Sony has put out a low priced single CD of highlights from the set but even on a tight budget, it was obvious which version I would be picking up. When it comes to the greats taking the cheap way out is never an option. If you go to Peter Luger’s Steakhouse you don’t order a sandwich because it’s cheaper. Gotta go big or don’t bother at all.

So how’s it sound? Just as incredible as you would hope. The audio source for all the concerts are directly from the tapes made at the broadcast centers of each of the cities and are very consistent. The band is completely ferocious and it’s great to hear how they change tempos and arrangements from night to night. The concerts all start off with very fast versions of “Agitation” from E.S.P. before flowing seamlessly into “Footprints” off of Miles Smiles. By 1967, Miles was playing his entire set as one long uninterrupted piece. He stopped making stage announcements at least a decade prior. Listening to these concerts it’s hard to understand what all the fuss was about. Who the hell wants to hear anyone talking when you’ve got these guys tearing up the bandstand? Ballads like “’Round Midnight,” “On Green Dolphin Street” and “I Fall In Love Too Easily” are alternated in the middle of the sets before the pace cranks up for smoking versions of “Gingerbread Boy” and “Riot.” The hard bop chestnut “No Blues” makes a few appearances, too.

The DVD is a total revelation. The two concerts (one from Sweden, the other from Germany) are short, only 30 minutes since they were part of a festival but are no less intense than the audio concerts from Paris, Antwerp and Copenhagen. Getting to actually see this band in the flesh (in black & white) is such a treat. Literally months after these concerts Miles stopped wearing the fancy Italian suits. It’s cool to see him one last time as ultimate dapper jazz player before he became a psychedelic warrior. Back then people described Miles as looking scary or pissed off on stage but it’s obvious he’s concentrating very hard on the music being played. He’s probably pissed off about something, too. It’s also great to see the other guys in the band shoot each other glances from time to time when the jams get a little wild. They’re loving it and it’s obvious none of it was planned ahead of time. Drummers, especially, will be thrilled at being able to study the very young Tony Williams absolutely murder his drum kit.

Miles is one of the few jazz artists that is also listened to by a lot of non-jazz music fans. If you’re new to him, the single disc from these concerts is a pretty good example of why he’s so respected. If you’re a fan of real music don’t hesitate to pick this muther up right away. Best thing I’ve heard this year for sure.



bob_vinyl said...

Sounds awesome. It's interesting that he had assembled some of the players that later traveled the fusion road with him (and became major fusion players in their own right), yet there aren't strong hints of what was coming yet. it was the end of an era.

That live Mingus album with Dolphy is some crazy stuff too. It's amazing that two guys who were that crazy amazing could actually work together, let alone make something that incredible.

Woody said...

For a very brief time Mingus had a band with both Eric Dolphy and Roland Kirk in it. Talk about crazy!

Bob Djukic said...

I listened to practically the entire CD set on the WBGO Jazz 88.3 FM as I was driving from Philly to New York this afternoon (a 30-minute traffic delay at the entry to the Lincoln Tunnel helped extend the experience :-))) and I nearly ended up in a ditch: had I dared drive to the tempo of Miles' 'Agitation', I would have gone airborne and arrested for flying without a license.

In decades of listening to Miles, I have NEVER heard him play like this. His playing here goes way beyond standard-fare Hard Bop phrases and vamps and dives headlong into uncharted waters of Coltranesque sheets of sound, atonal shrieks and pure abstract-expressionist forms (albeit with a clearly discernible harmonic structure), fired off at breakneck speed and with incredible precision, effect and emotion. This is probably as far into Free Jazz as you will ever hear Miles venture. For me, this recording ranks right up there with Kind of Blue, Miles Smiles or Live at the Plugged Nickel (and, frankly, way, way above Bitches Brew or Dark Magus), although, in all honesty, all these recordings are so dramatically different that it would be entirely unfair to compare them or put them all in one bag.

I should also add that, unlike some of his later acid-funk sessions - where much of his technique and virtuosity is either lost to aging and physical deterioration, or sacrificed to the cheap sonic effect and overdubbing - Miles is truly at the peak of his technical prowess here: this recording should be used as Exhibit "A" in any serious study in Jazz trumpet. Every manner of the instrument's range, nuance, technical and expressive capacity or emotion is on full display here, and more, and then quite some.

What is particularly impressive about these recordings (other than their amazing consistency) is Miles screaming his upper-register notes with fire, fury and passion not heard on (m)any of his post-1960 studio (or, for that matter, live) recordings, clearly seeking some elusive and indescribable emotional release or spiritual expression audible only to him. If ever there was a case for Coltrane's "spiritual" phase (1965-1967) exerting major artistic and personal influence on Miles, THIS IS IT. Make no mistake: as he was playing in Europe in the midst of the Summer of Love, Miles must have been up to his eyeballs in acid and/or smack and/or poppers and/or booze and/or who knows what else. But then, when an artist creates something like this, all is forgiven.

Although the entire crew plays like one brain with 50 fingers (or perhaps one brain with 500 fingers), Tony Williams is clearly and undeniably the unsung hero of these proceedings. He unleashes a brutal rapid-fire assault on his battery, essentially forcing everyone else to follow suit and providing a backbone to the third-rail voltage of the group's improvisation. He propels the entire group into a flight through a dense, dark and mystical sonic space- and time- continuum (think of it as Coltrane's 'Pursuance', but with Miles replacing John Coltrane and Tony Williams replacing Elvin Jones and with the tone and tenor of the entire performance raised to the Nth degree, and you get the idea). Somewhere along this cosmic journey through sound, these five souls lose their separate identities and become one.

It is simply impossible for Jazz - of for that matter, much else in art - to be as intense, as spiritual, as mesmerizing, and as profoundly arousing of one's senses as this. How in the sweet heavens' name did this gem of a performance remain in the can for nearly half a century is entirely beyond me. Kudos and hosannas to the Sony/Legacy team for unearthing and dusting off this jewel (great mastering job, too).

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not affiliated with either Sony or WBGO FM.

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