Miles Live in Europe, 1967

In his autobiography, Miles Davis wrote that all his live concerts through the 1960s were taped by someone and that Columbia Records, his label in those days, would no doubt release them after he died.

He was so right. Not that I'm complaining.

A few years ago, after the umpteenth of these high-concept releases, I thought that Columbia (now Sony) must have reached the end of the Miles treasure trove. But it seems the fun is just beginning. The latest multidisc set (three CDs and one DVD) is Miles Davis Quintet: Live in Europe, 1967, subtitled The Bootleg Series, Vol.1.

Take note of that Vol.1. There's more—who knows how much more—to come.

Which, again, is fine. In fact, that subtitle—the gist of which is confirmed in the liner notes by producers Michael Cuscuna and Richard Seidel—has me salivating.

Throughout his near half-century as a jazz trumpeter—from his debut as a Charlie Parker sideman in 1945 until his death in 1991—Miles was forever changing. And so, in live concerts, he and his bands often played songs from their albums, but they played them in different, sometimes radically different, ways: usually faster, freer, more rhythmically volcanic, more harmonically complex. (The first album where I heard this was a bootleg on the Dragon label of the Miles sextet with John Coltrane, Live in Sweden, 1960. Branford Marsalis once said that album almost made him give up the tenor saxophone. I hope Sony includes it in Volume 2 or 3 or...

The European sets from October–December 1967, by what is often called Miles Davis' Second Great Quintet (with Wayne Shorter, tenor sax; Herbie Hancock, piano; Ron Carter, bass; and Tony Williams, drums), fly in the same atmosphere. These are amazing, essential recordings.

It's a jaw-dropper just two years had passed since the same quintet recorded the live sets at the Plugged Nickel in Chicago. It's hardly less head-shaking that, only a couple months earlier, they recorded Nefertiti and, a month after, Miles would uncork the electro-fusion that began with Miles in the Sky and climaxed, just a year-and-a-half later, with Bitches Brew. The evolution,, in the one case and the change-up, in the others, are galvanic.

Part of what was going on in 1967 was . . . well, 1967: socio-politico-culturo-sexual tumult. Part of it was also the fact that Coltrane—who'd eclipsed Miles as the cutting-edge jazzman—had died a few months earlier, and Miles was eager to regain the crown. And part of it was that the quintet had been together for nearly four years, much longer than any band he'd led; they knew each other's moves so completely and intimately that they could experiment almost endlessly, rocket way outside the boundary, and cruise back to gravity's rainbow with aplomb.

Certain critics like the game (well, I do anyway) of comparing jazz musicians with visual artists, in terms of their styles or of how they fit into their respective histories. You know: Ornette Coleman= Jackson Pollock . . . Thelonious Monk=Pablo Picasso . . . Cecil Taylor=Gerhard Richter . . . Sonny Rollins=Henri Matisse . . . Jason Moran=Robert Rauschenberg... (Feel free to join in on the comments page.)

Having recently seen the amazing de Kooning retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (on through January 9, 2012, and don't miss it), I can't help equate the Miles Davis of this era to Willem de Kooning. Just as de Kooning adopted (and, in some cases, innovated) the techniques of Abstract Expressionism while preserving the dominance of figures (faces, body parts, objects, etc.), so the Miles Davis Quintet, circa 1967, intermingled the free-jazz excursions of Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy with the structure of song forms. In both cases, the genius lies in the tension between tradition and revolution—and, still more, the artists' surefooted navigation of the contrasts and continuities.

The three CDs consist of performances in packed concert halls, each holding a few thousand people, in Paris, Antwerp, and Copenhagen. The Antwerp and (part of) the Paris sets were released years ago as unauthorized bootlegs; the Copenhagen (in some ways, the feistiest of the three) is brand new. I have a copy of the Paris bootleg. The Columbia issue, mastered by Mark Wilder from the original tapes at the radio facility that recorded it, sounds a bit richer. (The sound on all three isn't great, but it's pretty good—exceptionally so for this sort of thing.) The DVD, taken from TV broadcasts in Germany and Sweden, was also included in the 2010 deluxe reissue of Kind of Blue. It is so, so cool.

WillWeber's picture

This is Miles on high. Master Davis himself said that he especially loved playing audiences in Europe, who truly treated him with respect; made him like Royalty. And he was elated by this atmosphere of love; totally revealed in this music.

I too anxiously anticipate the Volume X's yet to come.