It's impossible to overstate the importance of Miles Davis—although lately it has been a lot easier to do so. In recent years, the market has been inundated with Davis recordings in the form of double-CDs, box sets and steamer trunks of albums. All have forced jazz consumers to discriminate between what they purchase and what they leave behind. By default, the consumer has had to separate Davis' periods into those that matter and those that matter less. For example, I've often taken a pass on the '80s, viewing this Davis decade as a noisy experiment that missed the mark and lingered too long.
After watching Miles! The Definitive Miles Davis at Montreux DVD Collection: 1973-1991 (Eagle Vision) I can tell you that making such delineations about Davis or writing off his '80s years is a mistake. Understanding and appreciating the music just takes a little focus and some patience.
As evidenced by this 10-DVD box, there's much to hear and admire about Davis during his electronic jazz-funk years. These discs are proof that once you get beyond Davis' grim, humorless stage persona and odd, disco-Popeye stagewear, you come face to face with art.
As for substance, there's good and bad here. First the good. The set's direction and sound throughout are first rate. Cameras move about freely on stage, putting you as close as you'd want to be to the performers. You also are in Davis' face much of the time, enabling you to see virtually what he's thinking before he blows a note.
And while the music may not be everyone's cup of tea, it's still Miles Davis, which means there's enormous tension, energy and intensity. His note choices and where he places space makes him one of jazz's prettiest and most agile thinkers, even at this late date. Among the set's highlights are interviews with Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana and others on Davis. And there are superb renditions of Something's on Your Mind, Time After time, Human Nature and Lake Geneva.
There's also a disc featuring Davis just two months before his death playing Gil Evans' arrangements from the Birth of the Cool sessions and from Davis' orchestral recordings for Columbia. Though the orchestra on stage in '91 and Quincy Jones' conducting seem clunky and uneven, you still get to hear Davis delivering spare smarts in spite of his illness and weakness.
On the down side, a definitive box is going to be complete, so you do wind up with afternoon and evening performances with playlists that are all but identical. Though Davis was a creative genius, similarity is going to creep in whenever a routine is needed.
I wish Davis had taken on more pop material like Time After Time and Human Nature. There's a special connectivity and lyricism whenever Davis has adapted pop tunes throughout his career, and these two tunes simply weren't enough for me. For kicks, I would have loved to have heard Davis record Michael Jackson's She's Out of My Life, DeBarge's All This Love and the Talking Heads' Girlfriend Is Better. I'm sure everyone has a similar list.
Then again, this set does succeed in forcing you to suspend preconceived notions about Davis' late period and grasp how he deftly integrated rock, James Brown, George Clinton and John Coltrane into one big electronic jazz stew.
JazzWax DVD: You can find Miles! The Definitive Miles Davis at Montreux DVD Collection: 1973-1991 (Eagle Vision) at Amazon.
JazzWax clip: Here's Miles Davis playing Human Nature at the Montreux Jazz Festival on July 14, 1985...