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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Recording review - Miles Davis Quintet: Live in Europe 1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 2 (2013)

The Lost Quintet follows their instincts, creating magic

Miles Davis fans hardly need a recommendation to check out this exceptional set of performances from his classic period featuring the “lost quintet” with Wayne Shorter, Jack DeJohnette, Chick Corea and Dave Holland. While those diehards will know that the lost quintet was never showcased in a studio setting, they may already have an earlier release from Columbia Legacy, Live at the Fillmore East (March 7, 1970): It’s About Time (2001), which includes the same lineup plus Airto Moriera on percussion. While that reissue presented two different live sets, this new collection, Live in Europe 1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 2, goes further to include four performances across three CDs and one DVD. The set lists between ’69 and ’70 are strikingly similar, often starting the show with “Directions” and wrapping up with “Sanctuary” and the brief tag of “The Theme”. But the development over the seven-and-a-half month spread between the first show in 1969 and the 1970 recordings is a joy to follow.

Many of the pieces, like “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” and “Sanctuary”, would later turn up on Davis’ Bitches Brew, but it’s important to know that the first two CDs in this collection predate the August ‘69 sessions for that album, covering consecutive shows at the Antibes Jazz Festival in France on July 25-26. While anything but tentative, it’s still clear that Davis and his band are working out the tunes. Additionally, Bitches Brew would take advantage of a larger group of musicians and numerous recording tricks to expand the sound. These live versions offer a distilled counterpart.

“Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” is a perfect example. The album version takes full advantage of John McLaughlin’s guitar to help set the lazy groove. During the sprawling 14-minute runtime, Davis stretches his phrases out, then rushes to catch back up, all the while setting a call and response with the rhythm section. Later live versions are similarly long, but the ’69 sessions are easily five minutes shorter. The July 25 set places the song right after “Directions” and Corea and Holland establish a quick tempo, backed by some elaborate syncopation from DeJohnette. The keys have an instinctive sense of where Davis is leading with his trumpet. The hand off to Shorter’s sax is smooth and he coasts for a moment before zipping into punchy riffs and sharp squonks, breaking Davis’ more even pace.

The take from July 27 is a stark contrast to any of the other versions I’ve heard. This time, they don’t play “Voodoo” until after “Masquelero”. Holland’s bass swings, setting up a different beat for Davis to exploit. Here, the trumpet stays expressive as it floats over the other players. This gives the band room to evolve the rhythm over the course of the tune. Shorter keys off the changes to give his sax free rein during his frantic solo and the drums follow along. Another big difference comes during the closing section, which is often an interlude featuring the bass and keyboards. This time, Holland and Corea collapse into a free jazz experiment, deconstructing the song into almost cubist elements before eventually picking up the straight rhythm to close out the tune.

Listeners should let the CDs flow naturally on their first couple of visits, just as the quintet drifts from tune to tune. There will be plenty of time later to pick and choose or compare the different takes of a song to get a sense for Davis’ mood and how the pieces are constructed. It doesn’t take a jazz nerd to wonder if his raw energy on the July 27 version of “Directions” is because he was annoyed or whether he was just more awake. It’s curious, too, to contrast the set lists themselves. Why did the July 26 show sample a wider range of his repertoire, while the November 5 Stockholm set focused primarily on Shorter’s compositions? That Stockholm CD also offers a bonus song that never appeared on any of Davis’ album: one of Corea’s tunes, “This”, from his 1969 album, Is.

There are all kinds of treats to be mined from the shows captured on the three CDs, but the DVD of the quintet performing in Berlin on November 7 is amazing. Recorded for German TV by Sender Freies Berlin, the picture and sound quality is clean although the bass is too low in the mix. The camera shots break between wide angle views of the whole band and close ups that capture the sheen of sweat on Davis’ face under the lights or Holland’s nimble fingers. “Bitches Brew” shows off the band at its finest. Corea has a clear focus, holding down the tune while the soloists venture further afield. Davis’ concentration on stage is legendary and, with eyes squeezed shut, he softens his tone and lets subtlety make his point. After he drops out and walks away, Shorter brashly steps forward in his solo.

The band has an instinctive sense of how to develop the set. They communicate almost completely through the music, relying on their phrasing to indicate a plan rather than visual cues. On “It’s About That Time”, DeJohnette’s fills smoothly match the trumpet as it veers in new direction. When Shorter takes over on soprano sax, the drums effortlessly track his fluid runs in turn. The audience clearly recognizes the magic on stage, remaining breathlessly silent until the very end. All too soon, Davis closes out the set with “The Theme”, breaking the spell to reap the crowd’s cheers as he walks off the stage. But of course he remains aloof; he’s Miles Davis.

(This review first appeared in Spectrum Culture)

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