One of the most pivotal collaborations in the history of jazz featured trumpeter Miles Davis and arranger Gil Evans. Beginning in 1949, when Evans arranged two songs for the pivotal Birth of the Cool album, the two teamed up on several landmark albums, including Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and Sketches of Spain. Miles moved on to other styles, but the two remained close friends until Evans’ death in 1988. (Davis dedicated his next two albums to Evans.)
Quincy Jones, a close friend of Davis, had attempted for years to convince Davis to revisit the Evans arrangements. After Jones became the Montreux Jazz Festival’s co-producer in 1991, he and Claude Nobs, the festival’s founder, finally succeeded.
Not that there was a lack of drama in the process. Davis missed rehearsals in New York, and came late to a main rehearsal in Montreux. He was seriously ill – was dying, in fact – and was simply not up to playing the demanding music without help. During the concert, he split the solo work with Wallace Roney. (Kenny Garrett played the alto sax solos.)
An unsung hero in this endeavor was keyboardist Gil Goldstein. The original scores from Evans were lost (they were found six years later). Goldstein ended up transcribing them from rough sketches and by listening to the original recordings. Jones was clearly the mainstay who held the enterprise together. His arrangements, creativity and drive clearly made the entire enterprise possible.
Jones used many more musicians than in the original arrangements, combining the Gil Evans Orchestra with the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band. According to Nobs, this was so the musicians could play “softer so that Miles [could] fly over them.”
The concert itself (recorded by special high-quality recording equipment from Sony) took place on July 8 to tumultuous applause from the VIP audience, from the moment a gaunt Davis appeared on the stage. The album was released later that year, and the entire experience is considered a triumph. Davis, however, did not live to see it – he passed away Sept. 28, 1991.
The material on this Blu-ray spans the range of the Davis/Evans collaboration, including songs from Birth of the Cool (“Boplicity”), Miles Ahead (“Maids of Cadiz,” “The Duke,” “My Ship,” “Miles Ahead,” and “Blues for Pablo”), Porgy and Bess (“Gone, Gone, Gone,” “Summertime,” “Here Come De Honey Man”) and Sketches from Spain (“The Pan Piper,” “Solea”). “Orgone,” another Evans composition, is also featured.
The listener immediately has a sense of the magic of the Evans/Davis partnership. Evans’ rich, ethereal arrangements gave Davis a framework over which he could float. And Davis, with his sense of space and awareness, was the ideal soloist to do so. Check out the call-response between the band and the soloists in “Summertime.” In “Soleana,” the soloists glide over the lush, dreamy orchestration in flamenco-influenced runs driven by an insistent, rhythmic beat.
Not everything works perfectly. “Here Comes De Honey Man” goes on too long (about a minute and a half longer than the original version). Miles at times seems to flag. Fortunately, Roney is the perfect individual to step in – at this point, he probably sounded more like Davis than Davis himself.
There are several backstories that give this concert particular poignancy. The Gil Evans Orchestra featured his son Miles on trumpet (yes, he was named after Davis). Roney was directly mentored and nurtured by Davis – he even donated one of his trumpets to him when he was down on his luck. One can picture how meaningful it was for him to be featured in this concert.
Davis was notoriously unsentimental about playing work from earlier periods, and would emphatically refuse to do so. One wonders why he relented this time. Was it to pay tribute to his departed friend? Did he sense his own mortality and see this as a way to bring his career full-circle?
Any concert video has some unavoidable flaws. Particularly, your eye would like to go where the camera does not. That being said, the video (1080i High Definition Widescreen 16×9 with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio) and sound quality (DTS High Master Audio, LPCM Stereo) on the Blu-ray is excellent. (It’s also available in DVD.) The one issue I have is the supplemental material, which consists of multiple interviews with friends and acquaintances of Miles Davis. There is virtually no focus on Evans or Jones. It would be fascinating to hear more about the Evans/Davis collaboration, or to hear from Jones about the process of re-arranging these classics.
Davis, as described by his friends, inspired a mixture of affection, awe and fear. Nobs relates a story of how Davis asked to borrow a Ferrari, and then complained about the color. In the end, he emerges as an enormously complicated figure who used his legendary bluntness and unpredictability to keep people at a distance. Perhaps the singer Helen Merrill summarizes it best when she recommends listening to his music as the key to understanding his personality.
Miles Davis with Quincy Jones & the Gil Evans Orchestra Live At Montreux 1991captures a great moment in the history of jazz. Not because it’s perfect – it isn’t. I would argue that the imperfections add to the greatness. The drama and dedication of the participants mirror the risk and daring of the original collaborators, and is a fitting tribute to both