Jazz album review: “Thank you Miles! Live at Vienna” – Of historical as well as musical value

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By Allen Michie

Davis solos less on Thank you miles than I would have liked, but he plays with precision, taste and expression.

Miles Davis, Thanks Miles! Living in Vienna (Warner / Rhinoceros)

One of the great joys in a jazz lover’s life is cutting the shrink wrap and hearing a recording of Miles Davis’ new material for the first time. Adding to the fun so far this summer is Thanks Miles! Living in Vienna, recorded live in France almost exactly 30 years ago, on July 1, 1991.

The set of two CDs or two LPs has historical as well as musical value. The concert took place less than three months before Davis’ death on September 28, 1991. It was the last concert Davis played before the two surprising retrospective concerts of his last three months: the Montreux Jazz Festival concert with Quincy Jones on July 8, revisiting the music Davis recorded with Gil Evans, and the surprising star-studded career retrospective hastily reunited in Paris two days later on July 10. Someday it would be great to have this whole short European tour – from June 28 in Hamburg to July 21 in Andernos, France – released as a compilation or as a box set. The Montreux concert with Jones directing the arrangements for Evans was released as Miles and Quincy Live in Montreux (Warner), but the concert of stars unfortunately never saw an official release (there is a poorly mastered bootleg CD named Black devil). A nice touch in this future box would be a few speeches at the July 16 ceremony where Davis received the highest distinction in France, the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.

No one seemed to think Davis was close to death for the past three months. Davis kept his opinions to himself, but like a lot of people do late in life, he was starting to cut things down. He was happier with the simple pleasures of spending time and painting with his new partner, Jo Gelbard. His two career retrospective concerts in Montreux and Paris were not motivated by commercial interests, but by a seemingly sincere desire to remind the world of his enduring contributions and to reunite with the musical partners who mattered most to him. over the years (including Evans, whom he claimed occasionally made ghostly tours).

Musically, Davis reduced his touring group from 10 people to just five. No more multiple keyboardists, guitarists and percussionists. Thank you miles has a sextet – the same size as the group that recorded Kind of blue. Gone are the keyboard racks used by Robert Irving III and Adam Holzman in ’80s bands. According to new keyboardist Deron Johnson, “I didn’t have a big rig. I just had the basic materials I needed. I tried to put more stuff in my game than trying to get every sound…. I had a sampler, which was cool, but basically it was an electric piano vibe, a synth, an organ. It was the right thing, however, because with this group there was so much space. The band members play less and they play tighter. Even the starving stage guitarist Foley was starting to relax: ‘We were at the Venice airport one night and he told me to play half of what I was doing. was playing normally. It really fucked me up all day, and then I got on stage and I tried, and I started to realize that was what would make me say. night I started to learn to play.

Davis solos less on Thank you miles than I would have liked, but he plays with precision, taste and expression. Even if he just says the opening melody, he commands your full attention. With a little imagination, it’s not hard to auditoryly disconnect the band from the opening choruses of “Amandla” or “Time After Time” and imagine early ’60s Miles Davis, in Italian costume in a small New York nightclub, playing its horn muted for a silent audience. It’s striking to see the large image of a bumpy and chipped Harmon mute on the front inside the CD booklet or LP cover – it’s a powerful reminder of the acoustic thread running through Miles’ early recordings. to his latest, the low-tech tool that has become so central to his distinctive trumpet voice. Maybe Davis was thinking about his next gig a week later when he tackled selections from Porgy and Bess and Spain sketch. He may have practiced on stage, as he insisted his band members still do, preparing to merge his contemporary sensibility with his old sound and phrasing.

There are newcomers here to freshen up the sound. Keyboardist Johnson, the latest member of the group to be hired by Davis, has a more jazz sound than some of his more R&B-oriented predecessors. This is her first appearance on a Davis album, with the exception of a single track on the compilation Live around the world. His solos often start off simple, then become more and more harmonically abstract, sometimes bypassing the boundaries of Herbie Hancock territory, as on “Hannibal” and “Amandla”. I guess it’s easier to tour with a synthesizer than with a Hammond B3 piano or organ, but when Johnson is composing these sounds, it’s hard not to miss the real one. Bassist Richard Patterson had been around since April 1990; it also appears on Live around the world, but it’s good to hear more of his thick, bursting, solid groove on Thank you miles. He featured prominently in the mix, always with great effect.

Those who have listened to many of these Davis concerts since 1987 may take Kenny Garrett for granted. There is often a similar structure to his alto sax solos, a well-trodden path he takes from his beginnings to a single phrase – those that have sometimes gone straight to him from Miles’ trumpet, his face close to that of the leader. , and their instruments almost touching each other – to its percussive midfield a la Maceo Parker and its dramatic finals inspired by the late Coltrane. But he’s a good player with his own sound and style – it’s impossible to think of those latest Davis bands without him. He plays here as he always plays, with energy, passion and individuality.

Foley, on a four-string “main bass” tuned an octave higher, plays the part of the rhythm guitar at the top of the neck. It’s all over “Wrinkle,” a grueling workout for the rhythm section in drastically changing tempos. I don’t know why he doesn’t just take a guitar with strings – that would be a lot more forgiving given this funky style of rhythm playing. But hey, these are his hands. Foley’s usual solo space is taken up this night by Patterson (on real bass) and Johnson on keyboards.

Some writers made much of the first appearance on record of two tracks written for Davis by Prince, the embarrassing tracks “Penetration” and “Jailbait”. I realize I’m an outlier here, and if Miles dug Prince out, then that’s cool with me, but neither of them sound like Prince is putting his back on it. “Penetration” strikes me as a non-jazz musician‘s idea of ​​what a jazz melody is supposed to sound like. It’s little more than a riff, but it’s all the band needs to embark on the most rewarding solos as well as the red meat of Patterson’s funky bass. It’s a good foundation for setting up a cutting edge Garrett solo – it’s more abstract than you might think, and it starts with a few phrases that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Wayne Shorter solo.

“Jailbait” is tight and bluesy. The melody (as it is, the three notes of it) alludes to Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn Theme” but without the hook. It’s basically a traditional 12 bar blues, and Johnson plays Hammond B3 tones on a synth in this Gospel-influenced style. Garrett is an underrated viola blues player (a smart guitarist from Chicago should book him for a session). Still, “Jailbait” is a major lost opportunity – one of the great blues players in musical history was prowling out there on stage, and he didn’t take a solo. And it ended up being one of his last concerts.

“Amandla,” written for Davis by Marcus Miller, is a much better example of a song personalized for the strengths of the player and his group. It’s an engaging and thoughtful melody with an interesting and complex set of harmonic changes. There are subtle syncopations in the rhythm that invite creative solos, and we get a good one from Johnson (but again, alas, not from Davis). Davis reduced “Amandla” to a ballad and turned it into a new song. It swings very gently in a few places, thanks to Ricky Wellman’s tasteful drums, with his African touch intact.

Over the course of the two CDs or LPs, Davis’ presence is more often felt than heard. But there are times when the Black Magus can still do magic. The album’s flagship track is “Human Nature” by Steve Porcaro and John Bettis, famously recorded by Michael Jackson, which the band Davis had played at almost every concert since 1985. They abandoned the all-too-familiar arrangement that night and extend it. at 18 minutes. It is a wonder. “Human Nature” was traditionally Kenny Garrett’s feature length alto saxophone, and Garrett’s solo is still there, but Davis is the one who kills it. You can hear the classic Davis in the way he enunciates the tune – his playing is full of flexibility, style, and a fascinating sense of how the elements of the tune can be taken apart and stacked again in new combinations. There is upright jazz, extended notes to bask in the muffled sound of Davis, and beautiful stunts up and down and back. His famous silences separating his short sentences can bring the group (which listens attentively) to a whisper. Davis brings together elements of the history of his styles in a long, coherent solo: there is a bit of the flamenco sound of Spain sketch and Nap, some childish melodies a little spooky of “Jean Pierre”, and even some bebop phrases. Sometimes it sounds like a tune, and sometimes it sounds like a human scream. He pulls out the mute at the end of his solo for just two notes, and it gives chills.

Garrett plays on the rafters and shouts it out for the crowd during his solo, encouraged by the catchy rhythm section. Between their two solos, Davis and Garrett don’t just play “Human Nature”, they stage it. Davis finds humanity subtle, melancholy, varied and questioning. Garrett agrees first, then he pleads for the darker, most stressed, nervous and fierce parts of us. The song ends coldly after Garrett’s solo, because what could follow it? The crowd applauds, whistles, but Miles plays behind it all, quietly and unaccompanied. He’s already started preparing for the next song, “Time After Time”, as if to say that’s how human nature is, every time.

Hearing this in Vienna that night in July 1991, in a Roman amphitheater in constant use since around 50 AD, must have been a powerful reminder of all that passes and all that lasts.


Allen Michie works in higher education administration in Austin, TX. He has studied Miles Davis for years, is the moderator of the active “Miles Davis Discussion” Facebook group, and recently reviewed the Elastic album for the Artistic fuse.


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