Miles Davis ‘The Last Word – The Warner Bros. Years’ 8CD Boxset (Warner Brothers) 4/5

miles-davisIn 1986 Miles Davis turned sixty and his thirty year musical relationship with Columbia records had ended. The last five years of Miles’ musical life proved to be at once a productive and creatively fertile period and one in which his own sound on the trumpet was at its strongest since the five year inactive period from 1975. In fact it was a good deal more consistent than the early 1980s recordings for Columbia where Miles was still struggling to find his feet again after taking a lengthy period out. A major contributing factor was that the trumpeter had finally managed both to secure and maintain a new regular band of musicians. These included bassist and arranger Marcus Miller, alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett as well as some of the top session musicians from seasoned veterans such as George Duke to a younger generation such as Adam Holzman.
Indeed, for the first and only time in his illustrious career, Miles was persuaded by old friend and musical arranger extraordinaire, Quincy Jones, to revisit some of those immortal collaborations with Gil Evans from the late-1950 and the beginning of the 1960s. While there are no bonus tracks from those already in possession of the original albums, as a whole this is a vital historical document that requires repeated listens. A sixty page booklet aids the listener in order to better appreciate what Miles was seeking to accomplish and, there are, moreover, extended essay notes from renowned jazz author Ashley Kahn (who has authored books on Miles and Coltrane among other works) as well as the original 1993 notes to ‘Live at the Montreux Jazz Festival’ from legendary Downbeat reviewer, author and songwriter Leonard Feather. Contained within is a black clamshell box with individual facsimile album covers, a box set that is in keeping with a musician of Miles Davis’ colossal stature.

The music commences chronologically with ‘Tutu’, an album from 1986 that cemented Miles’ reputation and at the time was heralded as a return to his past glory. There is certainly a case for arguing that these were some of his best compositions in nearly twenty years and the distinctive sound was in no small part down to the considerable efforts of Marcus Miller who contributes both on electric fender bass and bass clarinet. The ‘Bitches Brew’ sound, then, was given a modern and more accessible update and numbers such as ‘Portia’, ‘Splatch’ and the title track all stand the test of time remarkably well, even if the drum machines do sound a tad dated. If anything, its follow up recording, ‘Amandla’ (1989), is even more cohesive and quite possibly the strongest album of his post-inactive era. There is a touching homage to the departed ex-Weather Report bassist on ‘Mr. Pastorius’, a bubbling funk undercurrent to the opener, ‘Catémbe’ where the band really hit top form here. Once again catchy riffs abound and are illustrated on the brooding piece, ‘Cobra’. Miller’s imprint is all over this project and his trademark plucked bass can be heard in full on the laid back ‘Hannibal’ which is probably the pick of the compositions.

A lesser known recording and one that this writer regards as much underrated is the film soundtrack to ‘Siesta’. Here the musical collaboration with Marcus Miller is the key element and, viewed some twenty-five years later, comparisons with the Gil Evans partnership are inevitable. The music once again conjurs up images of Spain, albeit a more contemporary vision, and parts one and two of ‘Lost in Madrid’ illustrate the sheer beauty of the orchestrations with Miller outstanding on bass clarinet accompanied by flamenco guitar. This is an album that urgently needs to be revisited and is far better than given credit for at the time. In contrast another film soundtrack, ‘Dingo’ (1990), was a lesser triumph. The Australian film reunited Miles with French arranger, composer and pianist Michel Legrand with whom the trumpeter had guested on the 1958 album, ‘Legrand Jazz’. Davis even plays a small role in the film and the brief motifs recorded are a reference to the classic era of ‘Milestones’ and ‘All Blues’. The big band orchestrations are somwhat jaded and Miles does not even feature on half the trumpet solos, those being executed instead by Chuck Findley.

A major coup was convincing Miles to re-record pieces from the Gil Evans period and this was achieved with the ‘Live at Montreux’ recording in July 1991, just three months before Miles was to pass away. The ambition was to re-create the Evans collaborations in a live context and, while this was always going to be an impossible task to match the glittering peaks of those studio recordings, this was nonetheless a major event for long-term Miles fans who never dared think he might look back to his past. The George Gruntz concert band backed by a further twenty-two musicians included current band member Kenny Garrett and deputising on trumpet solos, as and when required, Wallace Roney was under the overall control of master orchestrator Quincy Jones. If some of the pieces from ‘Miles Ahead’ and ‘Porgy and Bess’ on the new readings are given too modern and rapid a reading in comparison with the magisterial original versions, the frail muted harmon trumpet of Miles on ‘Sketches of Spain’ pieces such as ‘Solea’ works a treat and any true jazz fan would have given their right hand just to be present to witness events in person. Most importantly, Miles himself seemed to enjoy the concert and it must have recalled very happy memories of working with Gil Evans.

The final studio album Doo-Bop is the least essential of any of the offerings in this box set and was indicative of Miles’ constant desire to keep up with a younger generation, in this case the hip-hop generation. The difference is that whereas at his creative zenith he was making the pace, here Miles was merely playing catch up. From a purely intellectual perspective, this album indicated how Miles’ quest for searching for something new remained with him to the very end and was unquestionably a factor that distinguished him from his own generation, who tended to rest on the laurels.

Closing up the box set are two live recordings, one specific to different evenings at the 1986 Nice Jazz Festival and the other, ‘Live around the world’ capturing a selection of Miles’ live performances globally, dating between 1988 and 1990. The former is noteworthy for extended versions of ‘Tutu’ and adaptations of then current pop tunes, Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time after Time being a fine vehicle for Miles to solo at length while Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’ demonstrated Miles’ seemingly innate ability to capture a quality ballad and make it his own. For the latter, there is a tantalisingly brief reprise of ‘In a silent way’ and further extended jams on from his recent albums of that time.

If there is one regret with this set, it is that the early July reunion of Miles alumni live at la Villette in Paris has not been captured, even though a video of the performances did become available and was aired on British television a few years later. Hopefully, at some stage in the not too distant future, those performances will be available in digitised format. That gripe aside, this box set marks a momentous end to a fabulous musical career and, as ever, stylistically Miles Davis was in several musical bags and never someone who could be categorised into one pigeonhole. He was always going to be far too open-minded, forward thinking and musically creative ever to fall into that trap and that is why he continues to be loved so dearly.

Tim Stenhouse