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Music DVD Review: The Definitive Miles Davis at Montreux 1973-1991

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Since Miles Davis’ passing in 1991, there have been a great deal of compilations and box sets released. The ultimate CD version has to be Sony’s 71-disc The Complete Columbia Collection. On the DVD front however, there has never been anything quite like the new Definitive Miles Davis At Montreux 1973-1991. This limited edition, ten-DVD collection of performances at the venerated festival is incredible, and an absolute must for every serious Miles fan.

The first disc is from his 1973 appearance, and captures Miles at a very interesting point in his ever-changing musical progression. After defining fusion with Bitches Brew in 1970, and A Tribute To Jack Johnson in 1971, Miles had moved into a very deep rhythmic arena. On The Corner was the title of the album, and was completely misunderstood by just about everyone for years.

One of the tunes that did not make the LP, but was later issued as part of the compilation Big Fun was “Ife.” Davis and his band work out a powerful 27-minute version of the tune here. It is a fascinating performance, full of surprises for everyone – including Miles himself at times. Nearly 90 minutes of interviews with such colleagues as Carlos Santana, Herbie Hancock, Charlie Haden, and Stanley Clarke (among others) follow, bringing the DVD up to a good two hours worth of content.

As his fans know, the following years were difficult ones for Miles Davis. He was in a serious accident, and while recuperating from that he went into a heavy period of drug use. It would be 11 years before he returned to the Montreux stage.

On July 8, 1984 Miles played two full sets. A glance at the song list reveals two very similar shows, but with Miles Davis, no two appearances were ever the same. Most of the tracks hail from his recent albums Decoy and Star People. In both the afternoon and evening concerts, “Star People” is an early highlight. Miles also performs the Cyndi Lauper tune “Time After Time,” which would be a key track of the forthcoming You’re Under Arrest LP. His version of the pop song was controversial in some quarters, but such concerns had little affect on Miles. The ballad remained in his set for the rest of his life.

The Montreux Jazz Festival had a standing rule that the same artist would not be booked for consecutive years. This was thrown out the window in the case of Miles Davis. He not only graced the stage on July 14, 1985 – he would again play twice on the same day. He was enjoying a peak period in his resurgence, both live and in the studio. This year also saw the recording of two albums, You’re Under Arrest, and Aura. He and the band burned up the Montreux stage during both concerts that day as well.

The opening medley alone is worth the price of admission: “Theme From Jack Johnson; One Phone Call/ Street Scenes; That’s What Happened.” The group then swings into “Star People,” a version of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature,” John McLaughlin’s “Pacific Express,” and many others over the course of this over two hour performance. The evening’s set is just as powerful. It would also be the last time Miles played twice on the same day at the festival.

Although they only performed once on July 17, 1986 – the band Miles Davis assembled that year was one of his most memorable. For this show, Miles brought in guitarist Robben Ford, keyboardist George Duke, and alto saxist David Sanborn. The results are a spellbinding two-hour concert.

For the 1988, 1989, and 1990 shows, Miles and his band were as strong as ever. It is clear that the Prince of Darkness had found his muse at Montreux, it is a place that clearly inspires him. All three of these appearances highlight material from his final phase, when he was recording for the Warner Bros. label. His interest in keyboards, and collaborations with Marcus Miller are the driving forces.

What is likely Miles Davis’ single most famous concert was his performance at Montreux on July 8, 1991. This is one of his last shows, as he would pass away a mere three months later. For the only time in his career, Miles looked back – to honor the memory of the late Gil Evans. With Quincy Jones conducting the orchestra, Miles played tunes from the classic Evans-arranged albums Birth of the Cool, Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and Sketches of Spain. It was a one of a kind night, and Miles is in amazing form, even in his obviously frail state.

When the 20-CD collection The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux 1973-1991 box was released in 2002, it created quite a stir. The music he made at every festival appearance was superb, and the 1991 Gil Evans tribute was rightly hailed as a one of a kind performance. But to see the Master at work onstage is something else again. And to now have a set containing all ten Montreux concerts is unbelievable.

The Definitive Miles Davis at Montreux 1973-1991 DVD box is a magnificent tribute to the man with the horn, and one that is not likely to be topped anytime soon.

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About Greg Barbrick

  • El Bicho

    Sounds awesome