Rant ‘N’ Roll: Miles Of Miles

Pianist Herbie Hancock, tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, drummer Tony Williams (1945-1997) and bassist Ron Carter are all jazz legends. One couldn’t do any better if all one did when it came to jazz was listen to their respective catalogs. That’s why the recent release of the three-disc Miles Davis Quintet Live In Europe 1967 The Bootleg Series Volume #1 (Columbia/Legacy) is such a revelation. Miles had these four world-class musicians as his band back then. Miles was smart. And I dare say he never sounded as good on a stage ever again.

That’s why the upcoming outrageously mammoth 10-DVD release of The Definitive Miles Davis At Montreux DVD Collection 1973-1991 (to be released by Eagle Rock Entertainment on Oct. 25) is more sociologically important than musically relevant. Miles went a little nuts at the end. In inventing fusion music, he turned his back on jazz, got caught up in the music of Sly & The Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, and, truth be told, became almost unlistenable. Sure, landmark records like Bitches Brew (1970), A Tribute To Jack Johnson (1970), On The Corner (1972), Water Babies (1976) and Aura (1989) are still genius (he died in ’91), but onstage he tended to hide behind squawks, bleeps, blurts, blips, static, white noise and shrill trumpet tweaks that not only hurt the ear but confounded the brain.

It’s the bands he led in the ‘50s and ‘60s that are forever enshrined in the hearts and minds of jazz fans. These bands haven’t ever been equaled by anyone, including Miles himself. His mid-‘50s quintet of saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones lasted less than two years but set gold standards. His Bitches Brew road band, with Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJonette didn’t even last that long. His 1958 quintet with Coltrane, Chambers, Cannonball Adderley and Jimmy Cobb (the Kind Of Blue lineup) lasted all of eight months.

The band lovingly documented on Miles Davis Quintet Live In Europe 1967 Best Of The Bootleg Volume #1 was together about four years (from late ’64 to spring ’68). The way they gelled, the way they anticipated each other, the new and exciting avenues they chose for their collective and individual improvisation, had never been heard before. It’s the kind of pioneering sound that touring jazz bands try to emulate even today. Intuitive. Adventurous. Bold. Dynamic. They’re heard on some of the greatest Miles records of all: E.S.P. (1965), Miles Smiles (1967), Sorcerer (1967), Nefertiti (1967) and Miles In The Sky (1968). Sure there are those who say his greatest recorded works were with producer Gil Evans. Most say his greatest record is In A Silent Way (1969). But I prefer the five aforementioned records with that enticing lineup.

So put ‘em on a stage as this box does with crystal-clear clarity and you get a sound lesson that will befuddle, amaze, endear and mystify. The ballads, the bop, the Monk (“’Round Midnight”), the chances they took, the sheer scope of their exhilarating audacity, the loose, unusually shaped structures, it’s almost a new way to listen.

These full-length concerts from Antwerp, Copenhagen and Paris have never before been officially released. A one-disc highlight, Best Of The Bootleg Volume #1, is also available. Columbia/Legacy promises more next year. Co-produced by Richard Seidel and Michael Cuscuna (who did last year’s 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition of Bitches Brew), the sound is amazingly unerring, considering the date of the original recordings.

Study this. Study this hard. It represents the absolute apogee of jazz.