Miles Davis performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival eight times. He first appeared there in 1973, and returned annually from 1984-86 and 1988-91. The last time he played Montreux, he did something totally unexpected: he revisited his past, performing music from the albums he’d made with Gil Evans in the late 1950s and early 1960s (Miles Ahead, Sketches of Spain and Porgy and Bess). But every other time, he treated it like any other concert, bringing his touring band and his then-current repertoire.
Back in 2002, all these performances were compiled into a 20-CD boxed set, The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux. Each concert took up two CDs, and Davis and company played two shows (afternoon and evening) in 1984 and 1985. It was a lot of material, especially if you were the kind of cloth-eared douchebag who found ’80s Miles to be a synth-soaked, shiny-suited waste of time. “Why would I want to hear him blow ‘Time After Time’ over and over?”, you might ask yourself, if you were, you know, an asshole.
The truth is, these discs were often blazing hot. I’ll grant you that not every Miles Davis studio album from the 1980s is pure undiluted brilliance from beginning to end. The Man with the Horn, Star People, Decoy and You’re Under Arrest all have moments that range from disappointing to spirit-crushing. But they all have glimmers of greatness, too, and moments of weird awesomeness that no other jazz or jazz-adjacent (’cause as I said in my book Running the Voodoo Down, Miles really stopped playing jazz in about 1968, and that’s neither good nor bad—it’s just the simple truth) musician would have even thought of, let alone put on a major label album, at the time.
But the live bands? They were a whole different matter. The Montreux box proved beyond any doubt that, whether Miles was 100 percent in control in the studio or not, he was absolutely the master of his touring musicians. The music they were making on stage was tight, slick funk-rock, with powerful trumpet, saxophone and guitar solos. Were there too many synths for my liking? Sure. But the rhythm sections on these live discs were absolutely crushing it, bringing in hard funk, Latin and go-go elements and inspiring Davis to fierce flights on the horn. He was keeping pace with bands half his age, conducting them just as he had in the 1960s and 1970s. And if the music had bigger, more obvious hooks than the stuff on, say, Dark Magus or Agharta, well, what’s wrong with that?
Seriously, I wish more than anything that some of these concerts had been broken out of the box and put on sale as individual releases. People would have a whole different idea of what Miles Davis was up to in the 1980s if they could revisit the live stuff.
This DVD will help with that, a little. See, it turns out that not only did the Montreux Jazz Festival folks record Davis’s band each year, they also filmed them. So this disc gathers one track from each year Miles and band played the Festival, and offers a chronological view of his music’s evolution throughout the 1980s, with a long-ass prelude provided by what will likely draw many viewers in—a 28-minute version of “Ife,” from the 1973 performance.
I admit it; that was initially the most exciting thing for me, too. I love ’70s Miles, and watching this astonishing band (Miles on trumpet and synth; Dave Liebman on sax and flute; Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas on guitars; Michael Henderson, looking even younger than Larry Fishburne in Apocalypse Now, on bass; Al Foster on drums; Mtume on percussion and synth) dig deep into a throbbing, midnight-in-the-jungle groove for a half hour is worth the price of the DVD all by itself. Davis struts back and forth on the stage, listening intently to what everyone’s doing and bringing them in and out of the mix with a quick hand gesture, or a nod (at one point, during a Liebman solo, he can be seen mouthing “Come on, man,” and it’s unclear whether he’s encouraging him to keep doing what he’s doing, or chastising him for not bringing enough to the table, but Liebman gets louder and nastier afterward, and Davis seems pleased by the end). The music surges and recedes like a black, oil-soaked tide, and the trumpeter is soaked in sweat by the time it’s done.
The ’80s material is slicker, and the songs are shorter and more constructed, but like I said, the performances have a heat and energy that the studio recordings never really offered. It’s unfortunate that there are no tracks from Tutu represented on the DVD, as the contrast between live versions of those songs and the ice-cold cyber-funk of the studio album is astonishing. Still, there’s some ferocious material here, especially “Heavy Metal Prelude,” from 1988, which showcases the rhythm section and the shredtastic soloing of lead bassist Foley McCreary in a way that makes me grin like a buffoon.
Anybody who thinks Miles Davis lost it in the ’80s absolutely needs to see this DVD. Buy it from Amazon.