“I’m an instinctive kind of person who sees things in people that other people don’t see. I hear things that other people don’t hear and don’t think are important until many years later, when they finally hear them or see them themselves. By then I’m someplace else.” – Miles Davis, Miles – The Autobiography
It’s tempting to view the modern jazz scene of the late-1980s and early 1990s as a barren, inhospitable place. The combination of ubiquitous digital keyboards, omnipresent clean bass lines and sharp production in place of the raw energy of earlier versions of the jazz form gave the genre a sort of dryness that became a shorthand for elevator music.
Miles Davis, adaptable though he always was to what jazz could be, took a while to adapt to what the 1980s represented. He started the decade emerging from retirement, meaning that when he returned, it took a while for his breath to reach its full potential again, while recurring bouts of pneumonia threatened to – and and ultimately did – take his signature style away forever. Nevertheless, Davis looked around and found himself a place, whether in the way that he took Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’ or Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’ and made them his own on You’re Under Arrest (1985), or his seminal late-career work with Tommy LiPuma and Marcus Miller, his creative friendship with Prince or the recently-exhumed Rubberband sessions from 1985. Davis, to paraphrase the master of punchy epithets himself, remained as relevant as a motherfucker.
Merci Miles!, cringey title to one side, captures all of these bold aspects of Davis in his literal twilight moments. Recorded at the Vienne Jazz Festival in southern France on July 1 1991, Davis would be dead less than three months after he performed this concert with his group. There’s no weakness in his playing, no less energy, no less enthusiasm for the material or his art; no trace at all of these being among Davis’s last breaths.
The setlist drew from what was Davis’s most recent album at that point, 1989’s Marcus Miller- produced Amandla, and You’re Under Arrest. The material from the former is delivered with a gentle, lyrical crispness, while his duetting with the group’s alto saxophonist – Kenny Garrett, who easily gets as much solo time as Davis across this set, if not more – evokes the spirit of some of his vital sparring with sax players in the bebop era. Both ‘Amandla’ and ‘Hannibal’ here have a certain mystique, evoking the African spiritualism that connected the album to 1986’s Tutu.
Also included in the set are two pieces written by Prince, ‘Penetration’ and ‘Jailbait’. Both carry a slick, funky outlook that’s immediately recognisable as Prince compositions, and that Davis initially seems able to engage with, but after a while it feels as if he’s lost interest, leaving the rest of the group – and Garrett in particular – to lead.
The lengthy versions of ‘Human Nature’ and ‘Time After Time’ find Davis at his most profound on this date. His playing on these two tracks has a searching, questing quality, finding endless new angles within the distinctive melodies to explore and develop, taking two instantly familiar pieces down intriguing new pathways. Considering Davis was forever prickly about playing signature moments from his own catalogue, he doesn’t seem to have any such issue with playing these two pieces, raising them to the status of contemporary standards.
Key to the sound of pieces like ‘Wrinkle’, later to emerge on the Rubberband album, is the rhythm section of bassist Foley, second bassist Richard Patterson and drummer Ricky Wellman. On ‘Wrinkle’ you hear the trio pivot sharply from elastic funk to frantic, white-hot runs. Foley’s playing deserves special mention on this date – his approach was to play an octave higher than expected, allowing him to riff like he’s playing an electric guitar. Despite its integral positioning in this set, Foley himself had been self-critical of his playing literally up to these last few concerts with Davis. Like so many stories you read of Davis giving nurturing advice to his young players, he had suggested to Foley that he try to play less; the result was space and room to hear the expressiveness of his playing. The group was rounded out by young keyboard player Deron Johnson, who manages to give the normally stale-sounding digital equipment of the period as much a sense of resolute firmness as textural colour.
Ashley Kahn’s inclusive liner notes for the album capture what it was like to be around Miles at the end of his days. We learn about his love of foie gras and pig’s feet, his enthusiasm for France and live music, his gratitude humility, and a certain shyness about talking on stage or in public. More poignantly, we hear first-hand accounts from Johnson about his bandleader’s failing health. “The whole inside of my body feels like it’s falling apart,” complains Davis to his new protégé. Despite playing as well as any other point in his career, physically he looks drained, sluggish and worn out on stage at points during the 80-minute Vienne set.
“For me, the urgency to play and create music today is worse than when I started,” wrote Davis at the very end of his 1989 autobiography, smack in the middle of his final career nadir. “It’s more intense. It’s like a curse. Man, the music I forget now drives me nuts trying to remember it. I’m driven to it – go to bed thinking about it and wake up thinking about it. It’s always there. And I love that it hasn’t abandoned me; I feel really blessed.”
Merci Miles! Live At Vienne is released June 25 2021 by Rhino. Thanks to Jess and Joe.
Words: Mat Smith
(c) 2021 Further.