Live At Montreux 1991 (DVD)

Miles Davis

Eagle Eye Media, 2012

REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


"If anybody wants to keep creating, they have to be about change." – Miles Davis

This seems almost an obvious quote coming from the one man in jazz who saw change as a constant, who would reinvent his sound every few years and surround himself with new players who saw things as he did. By the time Miles had mastered one form of jazz, or created one, he had already moved on to something else. It was a defiant philosophy, one that angered the jazz establishment but that endeared him to those who thought jazz could be more.

This defiant philosophy resulted in many classic albums as well as a lack of stasis; even when asked, Miles refused to go back and play the old stuff. His first apperance at the vaunted Montreux Jazz Festival was in 1973, though he did not return (due to the five year retirement) until 1984, wherein he played every year until his death in 1991 (except for 1987). Eagle Eye Media has collected the best of these performances on an upcoming box set, but they chose to release the final performance in its entirety.

It is a smart move, not least because the music is great, but because the whole point of the 1991 show was to play the "classics." In this case, it was to honor composer and arranger Gil Evans, who had recently passed away, and who had worked with Miles on such late ‘50s masterworks as Sketches Of Spain, Porgy And Bessmy_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 and Miles Ahead. Miles had been sad to learn of Gil's passing, but when Montreux organizer Claude Nobs and pal Quincy Jones asked Miles to perform, he flatly refused.

Nobs and Jones visited Miles in New York to ask him a second time to do this – to honor a mutual friend, celebrate the festival's 25th anniversary, etc. – and he relented. Perhaps, as biographer George Cole suggests, Miles Davis knew he was dying (he died two and a half months after the festival), or perhaps he needed the money, or it was out of respect and love for Nobs, Jones and Evans. Part of the reluctance was in the difficulty of the music itself; the last time he had played it, Miles was much younger and healthier. He didn't even show up to most of the rehearsals.

But in Switzerland, during the two main rehearsals, Miles finally walked in with his trumpet and a smile, and everybody relaxed. The arrangements for the classic songs (which had to be re-transcribed owing to the loss of the original scores) had been provided for a 50-piece ensemble orchestra, with solo space for Miles, second trumpeter Wallace Roney and saxophonist Kenny Garrett. During rehearsal, Miles agreed to split the solos with Roney, who stands next to him during the concert to provide support.

The result is a beautiful 12-song concert that pays homage to Gil Evans and serves as a swan song for Miles Davis. The concert is beautifully rendered on DVD, but the attention is squarely on Miles, with his Coke-bottle glasses, loud sport jacket, gorgeous trumpet and shock of curly hair, sweating and occasionally struggling, a larger-than-life musical icon saying his farewell, the End of the Cool. It's difficult and sad to watch, at times, but Miles is no sad figure as he plays, pulling beauty out of the multi-part "Maids Of Cadiz" and giving his all to "Solea" and the stirring "My Ship."

Jones conducts, although half the time he seems to be swaying and grinning because he gets to share a stage with the Miles Davis, man, and the Gil Evans Orchestra. As very little of the music was ever played live with an orchestra, save for a Carnegie Hall appearance in 1961, it is a treat to hear this intricate, moving music played the way it was meant to be. What makes it work is Miles' commitment and joy at playing, which rubs off on the other players (especially Roney, who stands right next to Miles and looks visibly nervous and starstruck through half the show when he is not playing). Moreover, the show is free of experimentation and trickery, focusing on simply playing these older songs; as such, not every moment is exciting, especially for fans of Davis' Bitches Brew or Kind Of Blue periods, who may wish some of the slower repetitive parts had been cut.

Still, as a tribute to Nobs (who passed away in early 2013), Gil Evans and Miles Davis, one cannot do much better than Live At Montreux 1991.

Rating: B

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