By Devon Wendell
Many jazz aficionados like myself have been waiting for a live box set like this one for most of our lives and it’s finally here. Miles Davis At Newport 1955-1975: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4 consists of 4 CDs featuring 20 years of Miles Davis performances (8 shows in total) showcasing Miles at different stages of his prolific career. The official release date is Friday, July 17th.
The first CD kicks off with a stellar set by Miles at Newport on July 17, 1955. Joining Miles is a “Who’s Who” of the bebop era: Thelonious Monk on piano, Zoot Sims on tenor sax, Gerry Mulligan on baritone sax, Percy Heath on bass, and Connie Kay on drums. After a delightful introduction by Duke Ellington and Gerry Mulligan, Miles and the band perform three pieces: “Hackensack” and “’Round Midnight,” both by Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker’s “Now’s The Time.” There’s a laid back yet stark beauty to this short set. Miles and Monk compliment each other perfectly. Miles proves that he understood Monk’s music better than most. The melodic beauty of Sims on tenor and Mulligan on baritone sax is a perfect joyful juxtaposition to the haunting beauty of Monk and Miles.
The Newport show from July 3, 1958 has been available on CD for many years, but it just sounds even more inspirational on this box set and the sound is vastly improved. This is the same band as on Kind Of Blue ( except for Wynton Kelly), released a year later: John Coltrane, tenor sax, Cannonball Adderley, alto sax, Bill Evans, piano, Paul Chambers, bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums. Miles’ lyricism on trumpet is breathtaking. That elegant swing that Miles created at that time really shines through this performance. Coltrane on the other hand plays like a mad man, ripping through “Ah Leu Cha,” Fran Dance” and “Bye Bye Blackbird” like a man on fire. You just cannot believe what you’re hearing. Coltrane was that incredible by 1958. Cannonball Adderley swings hard with his distinct blues- bop driven alto sax style and the rhythm section cooks. Evans takes a more subordinate role on piano but what he plays is perfect.
Hearing Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet (Wayne Shorter, tenor sax, Herbie Hancock, piano, Ron Carter, bass, and Tony Williams on drums) at Newport on July 4, 1966 is a true highlight of this box set. The energy of these brilliant players feels unearthly. Miles’ chops are in top form. Tony Williams’ drumming is hip, imaginative, and adventurous. On “Gingerbread Boy” and “All Blues,” Williams often changes the tempo and the rest of the band is right there with him without missing a breath. Shorter, Hancock, and Carter swing beyond belief. “All Blues,” “Stella By Starlight” and “R.J.” are some of the most spectacular live jazz recordings I’ve heard in my entire life. The band takes the material to new places and the vitality of the players is jaw-dropping. The sound is so clear that it feels as if Miles and the band are performing right in front of you. This set alone makes this box set an essential purchase.
That same infectious energy is felt on Miles’ Second Great Quintet performance on July 2, 1967. The band stretches out on Shorter’s masterpiece, “Footprints” and on “’Round Midnight.” Miles and the band even keep the older compositions sounding fresh with new ideas and boundless energy.
On July 5, 1969, Miles played The Newport Festival with his new electric sound. Maybe the audience didn’t “get it” yet but who cares? This music demonstrates that Miles was still moving, growing, and leading the way in the jazz/fusion movement. Joined by Chick Corea on electric piano, Dave Holland, bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums, Miles’ reinvents his sound once more. Listening to the band perform “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down” and “Sanctuary” from Bitches Brew is both loud and wonderfully funky. Corea’s distorted psychedelic electric keyboard work is nasty in all the best ways. Holland and DeJohnette’s chemistry was already very strong by this point.
As great as the ’69 set is, the show from November 1, 1973 at The Newport Jazz Festival in Europe in Berlin, Germany is even hotter. Here we have Miles with Dave Liebman on soprano, tenor sax, and flute, Pete Cosey, guitar and percussion, Reggie Lucas, guitar, Michael Henderson, electric bass, Al Foster, drums, and James Mtume Forman on percussion. “Turnaroundphrase” and “Tune In 5” are just preposterous. By this time, Miles had out psychedelicized the psychedelic rock bands of the day. This set is more of an exploration in sound and freedom than executing perfectly arranged compositions to fit a brief festival set.
The Avery Fischer Hall show on July 1, 1975 features Sam Morrison on tenor sax, Pete Cosey, guitar and percussion, Reggie Lucas, guitar, Michael Henderson, electric bass, Al Foster, drums, and James Mtume Forman on percussion performing Miles’ original “Mtume.” Like the Berlin set, this is electric Miles leaving the past behind as he and the band explore new sounds for a more youth-oriented audience. But the results are transcendent on another level than Miles’ more bop oriented performances from the first 2 CDs of this box set. Sam Morrison burns on tenor sax and Mtume’s thoughtful percussion is original and matches the funkiness of the great Al Foster’s drumming.
The box set finishes with an amazing performance in Dietikon, Switzerland on October 22, 1971. Here is one of Miles’ greatest bands from the ‘70s with Gary Bartz, soprano, and alto sax, Keith Jarrett, electric keyboards and organ, Michael Henderson, electric bass, Ndugu Leon Chancler, drums, Don Alias, percussion, and James Mtume Forman on percussion. This is without a doubt the tightest of Miles’ electric performances on this box set. Henderson’s bass locks in with Chancler’s drums, creating some truly innovative funk grooves. Gary Bartz’ soprano work on Joe Zawinul’s “Directions” cooks. The set consists of material mostly from Bitches Brew. “What I Say” sounds both beautiful and wicked at the same time. Henderson is one of the greatest bassists of all time and the proof is right here in this performance. The combination of the tight grooves and psychedelic rock sounds is further proof that Miles was not only in touch with the funk rock of the early ‘70s but was also an original, key contributor to that sound.
No music lover and especially no Miles Davis fan should go without this wonderfully historic box set. Miles Davis At Newport 1955-1975 The Bootleg Series Vol.4 is a further glimpse into the genius of Miles Davis as it went through constant changes. Each performance defines a specific genre in jazz as only Miles Davis could do.
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