Miles Davis’ Missing Years

Maybe his final albums weren’t such a bust after all.

Miles: his late was great

Within the culture of collectors, there dwells a subspecies known as “completists.” They must have the complete set of baseball cards from the ‘61 Yankees, the complete Lanny Budd novels of Upton Sinclair, the complete back issues of the original Vanity Fair, or their grasp of reality will seem … incomplete. The innovation of the CD box set—those lavish, multi-disc compilations containing the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, the complete Bernstein conducting Mahler, the complete Verve recordings of Stuff Smith—has been like manna to these wanderers through the wilderness. Yet once in a while, a box set comes along that conveys broader import as well, that topples the consensus about a musician or composer or style of an era. That can certainly be said of a new, handsomely packaged box set of 20 (yes, 20) CDs—19 of which, amazingly, have never before been released—called The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux, 1973-1991.

The box consists of every concert that Miles Davis played at Switzerland’s Montreux Jazz Festival (one set in ‘73, the rest almost every year from ‘84 on)—the full sets, unedited and unaltered. These were the final years of the protean jazz trumpeter’s life, the “fusion” era, when he abandoned his acoustic traditions, surrounded himself with synthesizers and electric guitars, and played a mesh of jazz, hard rock, and pop tunes. The conventional wisdom (expressed most harshly, but by no means solely, by Stanley Crouch) is that Miles’ music in those years veered from chaotic to banal, that Miles himself could barely blow his horn, and that the whole business marked not merely a severe step down—this was the man, after all, who had played with Charlie Parker and had led bands with John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and a dozen more masters—but a deliberate and cynical sellout.

To judge solely from the studio sessions that Miles recorded during much of this era, the detractors have a point. The albums of the ‘80s in particular—Star People, Decoy, You’re Under Arrest,and Tutu—are soulless affairs. The band would lay down its rhythm tracks, then Miles (often in less than stellar health) would overdub his solos, in repeated takes, which the engineers would later cut and paste into a simulacra of performances. “Jazz” is hard to define, but at a minimum it involves improvisation and interplay, which these recordings, by nature, lack.

The Montreux discs are a completely different matter. The biggest difference is simply that they are live performances—no multitracking, no splicing. Miles is onstage, up front, inescapably mixing with the other musicians, laying down lines, shifting cues, inviting improvisations, and responding to what his band-mates send back. Another difference is the band. The studio LPs mentioned above were recorded between 1982 and 1986. But Miles didn’t hit this era’s peak until 1987, when he found a core of musicians who had the chops and sensibility to produce the mix of sounds he’d been grasping for. Kenny Garrett, an inventive and muscular alto saxophonist with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, kept Miles from coasting and pushed him to the peak of his energy. Joe “Foley” McCreary, an unknown bass guitarist from Cincinnati, played the high frets in the manner of Hendrix but with a thicker tone, a funkier bottom. Ricky Wellman, the go-go drummer for Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, could stay aggressively on the beat while also swirling in and around it, like a good R & B drummer combined with a good swing drummer.

“The band I had in 1987 was a motherfucker, man,” Miles wrote in his autobiography, and he was right. I heard Miles play live with this band four times in the late ‘80s, and they were always terrific. Those concerts changed my thinking about the possibilities of jazz-rock fusion (I’d previously been a rigid skeptic). But the band put out only one studio album (Amandla, by far the best of his late-era works, but still plagued by the typical slick artifice) and made no live albums—or so we thought. Now comes out of nowhere this mammoth box set. The post-’87 band plays on just seven of the 20 CDs (Discs 13-18 and 20), and, while the others have their moments, it’s with these sets, beginning with July 7, 1988, that the music turns magical. The tracks are inconsistent—how could they not be? Miles was sick all through this period (lingering coke addiction, too much booze, diabetes, to say nothing of lip problems), but he plays with ceaseless flair, even majesty.

Among Miles’ anthems of this era were rearrangements of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.” When he first called for “Human Nature” at a 1985 studio session, his longtime drummer and close friend, Al Foster, was so repelled by the prospect that he walked out and never came back. Listening to the way the tune came out on You’re Under Arrest, you can’t blame him. It’s flat, schmaltzy elevator music. Compare it with the rendition on July 7, 1988, at Montreux. It’s an upbeat rouser, and Miles prances through it. Even the darker “Tutu,” as multitracked in the studio in 1986, sounds like a computer program, with Miles punching in the keys. At Montreux, the band’s like a boiling kettle, and Miles sprinkles in the spices with a joyful shimmy. I defy anyone to listen to his performance of “Mr. Pastorius” on July 21, 1989 and claim he could no longer blow a heartbreak ballad. Or to hear any of the five versions of “New Blues” in this box set and say his rock band couldn’t swing.

For those who hesitate to commit the money ($250 retail) or shelf space to a 20-disc box, try the single-CD Live Around the World (released in 1996, five years after his death), a compilation of performances, at various clubs and arenas, from 1988 to 1991. His take of “Time After Time” on June 6, 1989, in Chicago is more exquisite than any of the nine versions at Montreux. Yet the Montreux box supplies the you-are-there thrill of a complete live performance—and so many of them—by a band whose music was believed to have been so scarcely preserved. (And, by the way, the sound quality is superb.) “Time After Time” may not be “My Funny Valentine,” and The Complete Montreux isn’t the Complete Plugged Nickel. But this is legitimate jazz, exciting music, a fresh look at an unjustly dissed chapter, a satisfying document from a hidden archive revealing that the great Miles Davis did not fade out with a whimper.