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Miles Davis The Final Years

    In 1985, after a 30 year relationship with Columbia Records, Miles Davis signed a new contract with Warner Brothers. Unhappy with the perceived lack of respect he was getting from Columbia, he signed a deal with WB where although paid handsomely up front, would only retain half of his publishing meaning very few Davis compositions would appear on his Warner Bros albums.
    The two main studio albums released during this period were Tutu (1986) and Amandla (1989), both largely created by bassist Marcus Miller. The records both had a modern, hard funk edge to them with Davis adding flourishes of colour where needed.
While the material (almost entirely written by Marcus) was strong, a constant criticism was the over use of synthesized and sampled instruments.
    Miles also worked on different movie soundtracks during this period, from 1987 Siesta (another Marcus Miller production) and Dingo ('91) an Australian film that he actually starred in!

   On July 8 1991 Miles joined Quincy Jones at the Montreux Jazz Festival to perform a selection of the music he recorded over thirty years previously with arranger Gil Evans. Released on CD and DVD as Miles & Quincy Live At Montreux, this show is prmarily of interest due to the content of the program but Miles was under rehearsed and playing with young trumpeter Wallace Roney doubling many of his notes. When he did step out and take over though, there was determination in his playing. Still, the show is mainly notable for being a rare event in which Davis was looking back at his past achievements, something he was known to be practically allergic to doing.
   Two days later on July 10 an even more unusual occasion took place when Davis hosted a sort of all star alumni concert where a number of ex-band members rotated on stage throughout the show. Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, John Scofield amd more played with Davis for the first time in years or even decades for some. Miles seemed newly energized by the multiple reunions too, his playing and stage presence was notably stronger than at the orchestral show in Montreux earlier in the week.  Although this historic concert was professionally recorded and filmed (an abbreviated version was broadcast on European television) it has to date unfortunately never been officially released to the public.


   After Davis' death on September 28 1991, Warner Brothers began releasing posthumous albums. First was Doo-Bop, the record he was working on at the time of his passing. Doo-Bop had rap and hip-hop elements showing Davis was still committed to always moving forward even if the project was never actually completed properly in his lifetime.

   In 1996 WB issued Live Around The World an enjoyable compilation recorded in concert circa 1988-91. This disc went a long way in restoring the humanity to the Tutu and Amandla material (five of the album's eleven tracks come from those two releases). The musicians in Davis' touring bands have historically always been exceptional and those during this era are no different. On stage foils like saxophonist Kenny Garrett and lead bassist Foley provided the warmth that was missing from the studio albums of the time. In fact the whole last era of Davis' career has unfortunately been largely written off as too overly commercial due to those two records.

  Hoping to reassess this period, a six CD boxed set was prepared for release in 2001 titled The Last Word: The Warner Brothers Recordings. This set consisted of the studio albums Tutu, Amandla, Siesta, Dingo and Doo-Bop, previously unreleased live material and numerous rare collaborations including the legendary unheard music made with Prince.

     In the mid to late 80's Davis and Prince had something of a mutual appreciation society relationship, often mentioning each other during interviews. On Dec 26 1985 Prince recorded an instrumental track "A Couple Of Miles" as a tribute to the legendary trumpeter. It remains unreleased. For the 1986 WB debut Tutu, Prince contributed the song "Can I Play With U" (also recorded on Dec 26 '85), which Miles did add trumpet runs to but eventually it was decided the track did not fit the style of the album. The outtake remains the only studio track to feature both Miles Davis and Prince.
    On Dec 31 1987 Miles, along with his lead bassist Foley, joined Prince onstage during a benefit show at the artist's Minneapolis entertainment complex Paisley Park for an extended jam on "It's Gonna Be A Beautiful Night".  Around this time Prince was sending tapes of material to Davis to see if the trumpeter felt like adding anything to them. Tracks sent to Miles such as "Movie Star", "Penetration", "R U Legal Yet?", "A Girl And Her Puppy" and "Jailbait" (the last four from Prince's unreleased 1988 Madhouse album 24) were added to his 1988-91 live set while Miles used his own band to re-record  studio versions of the tracks on March 27 1991 while on tour in Germany. A live version of "Penetration" from Paris on July 10 '91 and the re-recorded "Jailbait" were, along with "Can I Play With U" originally slated for the 6 disc The Last Word box.

​  But before the set appeared, it was cut down from six to four discs, presumably partially because of Prince who was in a high profile contractual dispute with Warner Brothers at the time and decided against granting clearance for his track "Can I Play With U" to be included. The four disc version of the boxed set (of which advance promotional copies were isued to the media) omitted

sixteen tracks from the six disc edition including material from the soundtrack to The Hot Spot and four tracks recorded live at La Villete in Paris on July 10 1991 .
   Another roadblock concerning this release involved writer Paul Tingen who contributed detailed and insightful liner notes for the box. Some members of the Miles Davis Estate were reportably unhappy with portions of Tingen's excellent book Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations Of Miles Davis 1967-1991. Eventually the set's September 2001 release date came and went with retailers and fans being told that The Last Word had been put on hold indefinitely

  In 2007 a single disc compilation The Very Best Of Miles Davis:The Warner Bros. Ssessions 1985-1991 was released with 15 tracks taken from the seven WB albums. This is the most basic sampler of the era with no extra material. A two CD collection Perfect Way:The Warner Bros.Years came out in the U.K. in 2010 that included collaborations with John Lee Hooker from the Hot Spot soundtrack and Shirley Horn (on the near prophetic "You Won't Forget Me" recorded shortly before Davis' death) along with some previously unreleased studio tracks and three live tunes recorded in Nice, France on July 20 1986 (although this full show remains unreleased, a similar excellent concert from a couple of days earlier July 17 '86 appears on the 20 CD Complete Miles Davis At Montreux  boxed set).

  Now finally there is the 5 CD boxed set Miles Davis:1986-1991 The Warner Years. Like the cancelled 2002 collection The Last Word, this new box features the  albums Tutu, Amandla and Doo-Bop then adds the concert recordings Live Around The World and Miles & Quincy Live At Montreux.
There's also the tracks from the Music From Siesta and Dingo soundtracks Miles contributed to. But the real gem in this set is the fifth disc, a fourteen track collection of rarities and guest appearances Davis made on other artists' albums. The disc rounds up stray collaborations that appeared on albums by Scritti Politti, Cameo, Chaka Khan and Zucchero as well as former Davis band members Kenny Garrett and Marcus Miller. Also included are previously unreleased mid-80's songs "Maze" and "See I See" plus the two outtakes previously only found on the 2 CD compilation Perfect Way, "Rubberband" and "Digg That".


    When compared with The Last Word this set is clearly the less definitive of the two but still a decent enough overview of Miles Davis' final and perhaps most controversial period The Warner Brothers years.

RL 2013.

   The year was 1969 and Miles Davis was preparing to unleash a new electric statement that, like many of his genre shattering major movements, would influence and inspire generations of listeners and fellow musicians.
   Bitches Brew was a double album (rare at that time for jazz) onslaught that changed everything. It arrived as America was still reeling in the aftermath of Vietnam and a series of high profile and tragic assassinations. The country was also invigorated by the music of Sly And The Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix. All of these factors played a part during the three hot sessions in August 1969 (the same week as Woodstock!) that produced the album that changed all the rules.
   Actually Miles didn't just change the rules of the game, he tore up the playbook, spat on it and probably used some colourful language while burying it in the graveyard of traditional jazz.
   Bitches Brew flowed freely, a potent Molotov cocktail of multiple exploratory electric keyboards, two freewheeling drummers, two bassists, hard angular guitar, a rumbling bass clarinet and sharp stabs of soprano saxophone. Amongst the seemingly chaotic din came bright blasts of golden trumpet from Miles himself, cutting through like rays of sunlight during a violent storm. But unlike most jazz recordings up to that time, Bitches Brew isn't just the result of incredible musicians improvising live in the studio with each other. Miles and longtime producer Teo Macero did extensive post production editing with additional effects added to the tracks such as reverb, tape delay and echo. Hell, even the cover artwork's mix of psychedelic and African images was groundbreaking for a jazz sleeve.
   One of the key tracks on Bitches Brew is undoubtedly "Miles Runs The Voodoo Down". Over a simmering groove pushed forward by some propulsive, funky electric bass (courtesy of two electric bass guitars and a bass clarinet, now there's some bottom!) keyboardists Joe Zawinul and Chick Corea add big blocks of colour. Then Miles solos with as bright and round a tone as he has ever had. He throws dramatic shapes into the air high above the casual rumble beneath him (Miles is a little higher in the mix than the other soloists). John McLaughlin's solo begins with some almost tentative notes for texture before he makes a mad dash displaying the blinding speed he has become known for. Unlike Miles, Wayne Shorter lets his agile sax solo flow with the rhythmic under current of the track, not against it. Instructed by Miles to only play soprano at the sessions, Shorter's solo is one of the more traditional voices on this cut (on the tour he played both soprano and tenor).
   For the album's 40th anniversary, Sony has issued a 2 CD/1 DVD Legacy Edition. Not that this music hasn't been available on CD before, just not presented with this much respect. The original Columbia Jazz Masterpieces set had a muddy sound. The 1999 remaster was actually also a remix so had some sonic differences from the original vinyl (the last CD of the original mix was the 1997 Japanese version). The 1998 Complete Bitches Brew Sessions 4 CD boxed set contained a lot of music not actually from the Aug '69 recording dates making the title at best confusing and at worst just plain incorrect.
   The new Legacy Edition restores the album's original mix, adds previously unreleased alternate takes of "Spanish Key" and "John McLaughlin" plus single edits of four songs that were sent to radio stations and have never been issued on CD before (except for on a rare promo sampler from '98).
   The real bonus of the Legacy Edition however is the DVD of an entirely previously unreleased concert from Copenhagen on Nov 4 1969. This tour is one of the most heavily documented in Miles' long career. Numerous shows were either broadcast on radio (Rome Oct 27, Stockholm Nov 5 etc...) or shown on European television ( Paris Nov 3, Berlin Nov 7 etc...) .

   The original Danish TV showing of the Copenhagen show was missing the first two songs (although the radio broadcast version was complete). For the DVD those missing songs have been restored and the picture & sound have been given beautiful sharp upgrades making this the best footage available from the historic 1969 tour. The band are playing at an almost telepathic level, feeling and reacting to the subtle movements in sound and energy between them. This footage shows an extremely confident band roaring through an exciting set performed at an almost unrelenting level of intensity. Watch "Agitation" where Miles solos for two minutes straight and as soon as he finishes, Shorter grabs the ball and continues on an increasingly fluid soprano sax for over four minutes. Once he's done, Chick Corea jumps in on electric piano at full flight. Having a strong firecracker like Jack De Johnette fueling the engine will lead to that kind of seamless interplay. It makes for an astounding viewing and listening experience.
   These additional ingredients are what makes the Legacy Edition of  Bitches Brew  the definitive version.

   The impact of this powerful music is obvious when you consider it practically spawned the entire fusion movement of the 70's. After all, musicians in such important fusion groups such as Weather Report, Lifetime, Return To Forever, Mwandishi / Headhunters and Mahavishnu Orchestra all appear on Bitches Brew .

And Miles is the one who got them all together on one of the greatest jazz albums of all time.

So there.

Robert Lawson 2010.


This article originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 2010 issue of Needle Magazine.

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