When we talk about Miles Davis, we’re always talking about evolution. How he used a scorched earth policy to move from bop to skronk; how he was an aesthetic Pac Man drilling forward while swallowing genre after genre; how he invented a couple of those genres on his own and left them in his wake while obsessing over his commitment to the new; how his refusal to float in place invariably reaped the rewards of innovation.
Ostensibly Miles Davis At Newport 1955-1975 is a collection of the trumpeter’s work for George Wein’s iconic festival brand. But Miles was his own brand as well, and this four-disc set really is something more utilitarian: a concise package that, in the large, accounts for the breadth of his stylistic maneuvering and illustrates just how much ground he gained while unfurling his artistic worldview.
We hear him first as a relative newbie in a dinner jacket blowing eloquent in an ad hoc ching-chinga-ching jam session with Gerry Mulligan and Thelonious Monk. His lines are filled with daring and lyricism. We hear him last as a renegade in psychedelic garb, throwing funk into the fires of Hell while directing two electric guitarists and waxing as aggressive as any rocker of the day. His lines are throttled and disruptive. In the two decades that passed between those events he became a global icon – an inspired trailblazer and superstar headliner who wooed one of the broadest audiences in jazz history.
The bulk of this music is being released for the first time, and certain sections are flat-out fantastic. As far as performances go, Miles’ Second Great Quintet – featuring saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Ron Carter, pianist Herbie Hancock and drummer Tony Williams – has been well documented on their groundbreaking studio albums and The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel set – their signature flexibility an irresistible draw. But on these 12 tracks from 1966-67 the band seems more awesome than ever. They’re almost at the end of their run, and their familiarity with each other opens all sorts of doors as far as interplay goes. “R.J” is a swirl of ideas driven by an overwhelming group consensus; “Gingerbread Boy” is a controlled storm with Shorter blowing supercharged lines. Everywhere, Williams explodes the action with every press roll and cymbal crash. This is must-have music for any Miles fans.
The electric tracks are almost as enticing. The quartet of bassist Dave Holland, drummer Jack DeJohnette and pianist Chick Corea clobber tunes that will eventually turn up on Bitches Brew later in 1969. It’s one of the sparsest ensembles the trumpeter ever gigged with, but between DeJohnette’s assault and Corea’s web of harmonies, it’s rich with ideas. At the center is Miles’ own horn – cocky, intrepid, inspiring. In comparison, what comes next absolutely rages. By ’73 Miles had widened his group to a septet with two guitarists and yen for squall. Riding a fat bottom driven Michael Henderson’s funk bass and Al Foster’s caustic drumming, he sanctioned the kind of polyphony that generated a true disturbance. On a Berlin stage at a “Newport In Europe” date, saxophonist Dave Liebman twisted his lines with Davis’ to create pure fiyah. Between three or four pieces in a stretch of music clocking in at 45 minutes or so, the essence of the leader’s infamous Dark Magus ensemble scalds some of the densest and most convulsive grooves in the Davis discography.
A fascinating tidbit: if this ardent expressionism captured on a German stage harks to anything, it’s the group offensive that’s at the center of the action back in Rhode Island’s city by the sea in ’58, when the acoustic Milestones sextet romps through “Ah-Leu-Cha,” “Two Bass Hit” and “Fran-Dance” among other pieces. In several ways, it feels like the band is invading the tunes – holding ‘em hostage until all their possibilities are stripped away. From drummer Jimmy Cobb’s exclamation points to John Coltrane’s cascading wails, their group’s creative process seeks a spot where exuberance becomes agitation. The music’s flourishes and – most importantly – its attack also has parallels on “It’s About That Time” from a ferocious ’71 Swiss gig that closes At Newport. In both spots – years apart – Davis flaunts his modus operandi of wringing a tune dry. Maybe it’s time to consider a theory that states the more Miles changed, the more he stayed the same.