The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux, 1973-1991

COMPOSERS: Miles Davis
LABELS: Warner Jazz
PERFORMER: Various collaborators
CATALOGUE NO: 0927-41836-2

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Miles Davis has been amply served by CD boxed sets. We’ve had comprehensive collections documenting his small groups from the Fifties and Sixties and his celebrated collaborations with Gil Evans, to the complete sessions that resulted in such pathbreaking pop/fusion experiments as In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew.

In terms of sheer bulk, however, The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux, 1973-1991 dwarfs its predecessors. Weighing in at 20 discs, 19 of which are released for the first time, the package encompasses every concert Miles played at the renowned international jazz festival in Switzerland, reproduced exactly as heard – live and unedited.

It commences with Davis’s 1973 festival performance, picks up in 1984 and continues to the end, capped by a bonus disc featuring Davis’s last group live in Nice, less than three months before the bandleader’s death in September 1991.

Without question, these previously unreleased concerts add significantly to what we know of Davis’s final years, and often confound critical consensus. Just as the multi-layered complexities of his early Seventies fusion bands radically departed from the jazz mainstream that Davis forged alongside musicians like Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock, his Eighties line-up gave further cause for faithful fans to squirm.

Following a five-year hiatus, Davis returned to active music-making in 1981. Critics had a field day panning his new-found fondness for catchy pop tunes and heavily synthesised funk, claiming that financial considerations in the face of declining instrumental prowess dictated Davis’s new style, rather than the restless creative spirit that had been both trademark and curse over his long career.

These criticisms are certainly justified in some of Davis’s later studio efforts like You’re Under Arrest, Decoy and Star People, with their slick, pre-recorded rhythm section tracks overdubbed with the trumpeter’s cautious solos. None of these remotely suggests the power, vitality, deft ensemble interplay or inventive soloing that comes across with more or less the same band in the 1984-5 concerts.

There’s nothing cautious about Davis’s darting fluency as he playfully spars against Bob Berg’s driving sheets-of-sound and John Scofield’s quick-witted guitar fills. The 1986-91 bands, if anything, are even tighter and more colourful. They benefit from Kenny Garrett’s visionary alto sax work, and a crisper, suppler rhythm section spearheaded by drummer Ricky Wellman, plus a team of two bass players featuring Joe ‘Foley’ McCreary goosing his teammates with slippery melodic rejoinders.

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It’s also interesting to trace the way that Davis’s treatment of Top 40 anthems like Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’ and Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’ evolved and ripened over this time, or how, after all these years, Davis could still take a slow blues and mesmerise you with the sound of surprise.