Miles Davis – “The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux 1973-1991” (2002)

March 15, 2009 at 9:42 am (Miles Davis, Music, Reviews & Articles)

The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux - album cover

This 2002 review from the All Music Guide website was written by Thom Jurek. This massive box set, documenting every note Miles played at Montreux from 1973 and then again from 1984-1991 is definitely worth buying, downloading, or whatever else you have to do in order to hear it. It will take you weeks to wade through all of it but it’s more than worth it. Phenomenal stuff…   


Columbia Records has been diligent about going through Miles Davis’ massive catalog, painstakingly remastering and reissuing his collected works in both handsome box sets sorted by period and actual releases annotated with extra material from their attendant sessions, but this gargantuan set marks a true departure for them. The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux 1973-1991 compiles 20 CDs documenting every performance by the trumpeter at the famed Swiss jazz festival in its entirety. What’s more, 19 of these volumes have never before been issued in any form. Aside from disc 19, which features the Miles band playing acoustically in front of a large orchestra conducted by Quincy Jones in 1991 (which was released by Warner Bros.) and a few selected cuts tacked onto other recordings, none of this material has seen the light of day anywhere. There is a story told here, one that streams light into the darkened corners of Davis’ final public period, and one that challenges evidentially virtually every jazz nerd’s view that as a bandleader or as a creative improvisational force, Davis was finished after the release of On the Corner. Part of that story is the intuitive sense Davis had of the bandstand and what could be accomplished there. His uncanny ability to pick the finest musicians for the job at hand was illustrated by his stage direction. Another argument for this material is that, even if it doesn’t vindicate the studio material of the time, which is rightfully thought of as inferior to his earlier work (with the possible exceptions of the Decoy and Tutu albums), it at least justifies it; these recordings can now be seen as piecemeal explorations of what might be possible in concert settings — not as rehearsals, but as source material. Lastly, as documented here, Davis accomplished everything he set out to do, which was to take the sophistication of jazz, the accessibility of pop, and the sheer groove of R&B and funk, to create a new American music that was familiar and challenging. Also, that virtually everything here comes off as emotionally honest, even painstakingly so, is a testament to the heart of the musician and, yes, the man.
Discs one and two from 1973 represent Miles’ first and only appearance during that decade at Montreux — represented by two full sets. The band was a stellar one: the
Dark Magus band, featuring saxophonist Dave Liebman, guitarists Reggie Lucas and Pete Cosey, drummer Al Foster, new bassist Michael Henderson, and percussionist Mtume. The rest of the material picks up at the end of the infamous “silent years,” exactly 11 years later in 1984, and moves through to the virtual end — a bonus to the set is a concert in Nice just before the trumpeter died (there are a pair of California dates that are later, but these will be forthcoming at a later date). The 1973 date embodies the epitome of the dark, swirling funk of Davis’ best ’70s material. Here Henderson adds something new to the rhythm section in that he is not a jazz player, but a funk player swiped by Davis from the Stevie Wonder band. His long chunky repetitive riffs are exactly what Davis had been looking for since In a Silent Way. His shift was toward vamps and lines that drifted along into completely uncharted territory, without guidelines like changes or melodic frames. There is a deep bluesy feel to this band’s brand of acid voodoo funk that is not only hypnotic, but intoxicating in its dynamic, with the musicians’ ability to be frighteningly aggressive — you can hear the audience’s confusion — or seductive and mysterious. This is all improvisation, all groove, all manner of rock, blues, jazz, and funk in an inseparable endless knot. The two discs are notated by three parts of “Miles in Montreux,” the best take of “Ife” there is, and a gorgeously menacing “Calypso Frelimo.”

But the real story actually begins with discs three and four (five and six are all part of the same day’s shows — there were four on July 8, two in the afternoon and two in the evening — completely refuting the argument that Davis was lazy in his final decade). All members of the 1973 band except Foster had gone their own ways. The current lineup featured future Rolling Stones bassist Darryl Jones, guitarist John Scofield, saxophonist Bob Berg, keyboardist Robert Irving III, and percussionist Steve Thornton. With this band, Miles began his complete integration of popular music forms, most notably song, into his improvisational settings. Here, songs like “Star People” and the Eaves and Williams classic “Something’s on Your Mind” were given an open treatment that allowed for maximum groove-ology, leading to minimal interference by the temptation to “make them jazz.” This band began to sing, with Berg‘s strong, upfront tenor matching Miles’ more spare and lyrical style. Scofield, with his roots in both Wes Montgomery and T-Bone Walker, provided a perfect foil for the rhythm section, which plotted the groove according to Miles’ Zen-like live directions, his counterpoint so subtle and precise it would be impossible to separate him from the melodic body of the tune being played. Nowhere is the story of Miles or his band told more completely or nakedly than in disc four’s version of Cyndi Lauper‘s “Time After Time.” Needless to say, with so many shows being done each year (and, as noted, multiple shows in a single day), the set lists for a given year’s performances (and for virtually the entire late ’80s) vary only slightly. Performances, however, are another matter entirely. “Time After Time” is showcased on this set no less than nine times. Each version is truly compelling, of a different length, in a different place in the set, and of varying intensity. But nowhere does Davis express the depths of his soul more completely and nakedly than on the first track of disc four. This is Miles singing a kind of secret song. The lyricism is so harmonically elegant and the emotion in the melodic line and ensuing improvisation is so honest that they are heartbreakingly beautiful. Without exaggeration, listeners had never heard Miles Davis like this before. Here is the bandleader, composer, cultural icon, musician, and human being reduced to the purity of music. The fact that this moves off into “Hopscotch/Star on Cicely” reveals even more of its emotional honesty, because the band does an about-face and moves into equally lyrical but rhythmically more intense music for the rest of the set.

Disc 11 marks another turn in the live band saga, in that Robben Ford replaces Scofield and Adam Holzman is added as a second keyboardist, with Felton Crews replacing Jones on bass. This band is significant in that it allowed Davis to begin to experiment more with textures, even in the older material — the first set from 1986 begins with the “Theme from Jack Johnson” that kicks off a medley including “One Phone Call/Street Scenes” and “That’s What Happened.” The rhythmic atmosphere is more lush but no less funky, thanks in no small part to Ford‘s fiery guitar artistry and the entwining of Berg‘s and Davis’ styles now developed to a symbiotic intensity. As the set closes with “Tutu” and “Splatch,” listeners can already hear the advent of the gorgeous sonic tapestries that Miles would usher in when he added two bass players a short time later. Moving up through disc 18 and on to disc 20, the twin bass lineup of Joe “Foley” McCreary on lead bass and Benny Rietveld on bass proper is heard. Also, it should be noted that while tenor saxophonist Rick Margitza plays on half of the performances from this period, and with a great strength, agility, and verve never displayed in his own recordings, it is Kenny Garrett who offered Davis more in terms of pure expression and the willingness to let the boundaries fall. In fact, Garrett actually offered Davis more musical adventure and tonal expansion than any saxophonist who played with him since John Coltrane. While the band was taking its funk stride to new levels — so much so that Al Foster, a longtime Miles drummer, finally left and was replaced by Vincent Wilburn Jr.Garrett kept the jazz experimentalism and improvisational power that the band was capable of front and center. Check his solos on “Jean-Pierre,” Prince‘s “Movie Star,” and “Tomaas” on disc 14 for references. The previously issued orchestral disc 19 was intended to re-create the Miles Davis/Gil Evans collaborations. It is a necessary inclusion here since it took place at Montreux, but it is a Quincy Jones outing more than anything else. On it, Wallace Roney instead of Davis played some of the sight-read parts, and while the music is certainly competent and dynamically rich, it feels overblown and, well, staged. The final disc of the set was not from Montreux at all but from a concert in Nice, France, 11 days after the Jones/Davis event. This featured a new kind of Davis band, stripped of its percussionist and guitarist. Garrett is there with Miles leading the band through very intricate, moving, and ultimately sad material. The twin basses carry the spirit of the music into the no man’s land of groove while the keyboards and drums punch through the winsome and wistful horn parts.

Ultimately, not every performance of every tune here is stellar. How could they be? Some years are stronger than others, but none are throwaways by a long shot. Each gig has moments that are truly magical and frightening in their intensity and with astonishing communication between Davis and his band. And Davis’ memory does not have an editor to thank here, in that these performances are completely unedited and are not messed with in any way — the original mixes were used for release. The only truly annoying thing is that whoever was recording the shows would switch the deck off between tunes, and therefore some of the magic at the end of a track, when the audience absorbs it completely, is lost. But this is a very small complaint for a very large box set. The liner notes are reminiscences by Montreux founder and director Claude Nobs with production and musical annotations by German jazz journalist Nick Liebman. The design is beautiful but a bit impractical, since the only way to know what is playing on what disc is to use the enclosed book — the CDs are divided up into two booklets of ten. It’s true, it will really appeal most to those fans of Davis who have to have everything and to those who are completely enamored with his electric period. But it should be of interest to every rock fan who holds the jam band aesthetic high, to die-hard fans of ’70s and ’80s acid funk, and to those who have been desperately looking for proof that Miles was not only not artistically bankrupt during the last 20 years of his life, but had finally succeeded in accomplishing his goal of total integration of the musical forms that obsessed him.

Thom Jurek

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Lisa Sorg – “The Reissue of Chapel Hill’s Sneakers Output” (2007)

March 15, 2009 at 1:52 am (Music, Reviews & Articles)

An article from the Indy Week website, dated Jan. 31, 2007, about Sneakers, an obscure but unjustly ignored power pop combo from the mid-70s, featuring future dB Chris Stamey and R.E.M. producer Mitch Easter and produced by Don Dixon (who also worked with R.E.M. in their early days). I haven’t seen the reissue mentioned in the article but I do have a collection of their music that was put out many years ago. Good stuff…  

Chances are, from 1976 to 1978, when the clock radio woke you up, one of three hits was playing: “I Write the Songs” by Barry Manilow, “You Light Up My Life” by Debby Boone or “Whatcha Gonna Do” by Pablo Cruise.

It was from this bad pop dream that Sneakers—a clever, quirky, garage-pop combo from Chapel Hill via Winston-Salem—emerged. They released a self-titled EP in 1976 and one long-player, In the Red, in 1978; both were reissued in January on one Collector’s Choice CD, Nonsequitur of Silence.

Although the band released just 18 songs and lasted less than two years, Sneakers’ importance to Southern pop music can’t be overstated. They influenced a generation and launched, albeit unknowingly, a pivotal movement in indie rock.

While Don Dixon’s band, Arrogance, had found success playing original music in Chapel Hill, the city’s nascent music scene was at best indifferent and at worst hostile to the band’s eccentric pop. But credit the members and their extended family—including Robert Keely, Rob Slater, future Let’s Active frontman and R.E.M. producer Mitch Easter, dB’s-to-be Chris Stamey and Will Rigby—with pioneering such difficult terrain.

“North Carolina was a wasteland,” says Rigby, who now drums for Steve Earle. “It wasn’t until later that it was fashionable to write your own songs. At the time, we were completely out of place.”

And out of synch. Winston-Salem, the band’s hometown, was sympathetic to original music bands, but when the band members moved in the mid-’70s to Chapel Hill to attend UNC, the city was not yet a hipster sanctuary. The music scene was then dominated by cover bands churning out overwrought ’70s anthems, ’60s burnouts culturally rutted back in Woodstock, and, as Easter humorously recalls, “scrubby people driving around in Volvos announcing what kind of vegetarians they were.”

Easter and Stamey had been friends since second grade and began recording their songs in high school. They continued to write and record material on four-track tape machines, and with Keely and Slater, formed Sneakers. Easter guested on the Sneakers EP, but didn’t formally join until after its release.

Then as now, mainstream pop was dermabrazed of its distinguishing features, but Sneakers’ contoured arrangements reveal a rugged topography: Time signatures gently collide like plates on a fault line, percussion (including a car horn, courtesy Don Dixon) juts from a bed of close vocal harmonies, and guitars switch between a jagged crunch and a soft jangle.

The songs’ complexity stems in part from Stamey’s and Easter’s extensive musical training, which included 20th-century composers and 12-tone serial techniques, although you won’t find overt Karlheinz Stockhausen or John Cage influences in either Sneakers record. “For me, it was harder to express myself emotionally using sophisticated language,” Stamey says, “so I reeled it in and wrote much simpler stuff.”

“We used to be accused of being way too convoluted. But I’m not a streamlined hitmaker,” says Easter. “We were earnest and dedicated about playing. We were ambitious about doing our own stuff and had been thinking about music for a long time.”

Nonsequitur proves that pop can be sophisticated and hummable. “Ruby” is buoyant, while “Nonsequitur of Silence” is brooding. “Love’s Like a Cuban Crisis” may be the best use of two minutes since microwaveable popcorn.

Nonsequitur also establishes a complete emotional range, rendering the sort of pop music that feels timeless. Feeling bittersweet? Program your player to “No Wonder” or “Story of a Girl” (which deserves honors for best use of sitar without channeling Ravi Shankar). Anxious and panicky? “On the Brink” (“Heartbreak, heartbreak, heartbreak, here it comes again, now it’s closing in”). Reckless? “Stuck on You” or the Ventures-like caprice “Mark Peril Theme.” Trying to learn French? “Quelle Folie.”

The EP was largely recorded at Cat’s Cradle, while the guitar solos were laid down at the producer Don Dixon’s house in Carrboro, where his wife was watching Kojak in a nearby room.

“It was recorded in a very humble kind of way,” says Easter. “We didn’t have modern tools. It was a special accomplishment.”

“Putting a record out seemed to mean something. There was no competition then and very few independent records,” Stamey adds. “What gave us the idea is that I helped Don Dixon record a Red Clay Ramblers Christmas record. It was a novel idea that you could make the things and sell them.”

With few reference points, the band’s record wound up filed under New Wave, sharing bins with Patti Smith, Pere Ubu and Television. “But it was a spectacular time in that you could call a record store in New York, and they would take your record,” says Easter.

At $1.98 per record, Sneakers sold 3,500 copies, with the band filling the mail orders by hand. But the EP did little for the band’s local profile, and Sneakers played publicly just five times. A memorable North Carolina set occurred at Chapel Hill’s Apple Chill Festival, where they opened for cloggers. Yes, cloggers. They held their ears while the band played, erecting their plywood dance floor in front of the stage.

Out of local options, Sneakers looked north to New York’s burgeoning punk scene. Fueled by a favorable review in Trouser Press—de rigueur reading for underground music fans—Stamey booked Sneakers at New York’s famed Max’s Kansas City, where they shared the bill with the post-Debbie Harry incarnation of the Stilletos. The show was well received by critics (and perhaps by members of the New York Dolls in attendance), but Max’s marked the beginning of the end.

“We were giddy on the way up there,” Easter recalls. “On the way back, I was aware of how doomed all this stuff was. It was still really hard.”

Indeed, the indie music business of the ’70s seems quaint and primitive compared to today’s sophisticated network of bands and fans. While one can certainly imagine what Sneakers might have accomplished with a boost from MP3s, a MySpace page and college radio, their work might have just as easily been lost in the 30,000-plus records now released each year.

“The spark comes from the amateur beginnings, and that it doesn’t go away is the charm of pop music,” Easter says. “But now anybody can form a band and make a record, and that’s not good. We’re drowning in stuff. In ’76, the filter mechanism was the hopelessness of it all.”

The Sneakers never penetrated that filter with In the Red: Released posthumously, it was primarily Stamey and Easter’s home recording project, providing a vehicle for some of their most adventurous work at the time. Stamey and Easter honed their respective voices that laid the groundwork for their future projects: “Be My Ambulance” and “What I Dig” foreshadow Stamey’s compositions in the dB’s; Easter’s compositions, including “No Wonder” and “Decline and Fall,” are consistent with the pop gems on Let’s Active’s Afoot and Cypress.

“This was in an era when musical evolution was considered a good thing,” Stamey says. “Every six months, our heroes would have a new record out and it was a step up.”

Sneakers’ legacy survives not just as the 21 tracks on Nonsequitur, but also as the forebears of a pop scene that previously would have been possible to launch only from one of the coasts: R.E.M. and Pylon from Athens, Ga.; Tim Lee and the Windbreakers from Jackson, Miss.; and of course, a North Carolina lineage including the Beatlesque sound of the Spongetones, the now-defunct Dolphin label that issued Tommy Keene’s brilliant debut, Places That Are Gone, to Superchunk and their talented and prolific Merge Records compatriots.

“So many people think you can’t do stuff from places like this,” Easter notes. “In the early ’80s, that completely flipped around. You could make records from a funny, off-the-beaten-path place.”

Lisa Sorg

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