December 1, 2021

Miles Davis – ‘Merci Miles! Live At Vienne’ – “First release of one of Miles’ swansongs”

RHINO RECORDS    25th June 2021  on Vinyl and CD

Miles Davis was a compulsive re-inventor, changing his music in seismic ways; each way bringing new fans and sometimes losing old ones. Equal to the electric revolution, motivated as much by money as creative drive (Miles saw electric rock musicians making more money than him), the return to music in the eighties after a five year break divides opinion. Whilst it was great to get Miles back, was the approachable sound and beat a sop to commercialism? How about the pop covers? There will never be agreement on this. It certainly seemed that his music was once more everywhere and it seemed that he was enjoying collaborations with the likes of Sting and Prince but he no longer seemed to be the leader on collaboration. At this time he was in pain a good deal and in failing health as time went on and it seemed like he rationed his energies for maximum impact.

By the end of 1991, Miles was dead but he was performing even in his last year. This concert sees him perform an expansive set – eight pieces in eighty minutes – to a French audience in Spring 1991 – and sadly, he was only to perform twice more. It hasn’t previously been released but, as archival releases slow down, it has found its moment. Miles has assembled a great band and they are the star here. Miles the knife-fighter brings his trumpet solos out sparingly and we are left to appreciate the way he chooses and directs his bands. The sound is distinctively eighties and perches somewhere between pop, funk and jazz. Tunes are drawn from You’re Under Arrest and Amandla, along with a couple of tracks from an abortive Prince collaboration. The band are capable of funking hard (try Penetration) and the end of Human Nature (the Michael Jackson song) sees the jazz-funk axis turning hard, though the workout energy is coming from Kenny Garrett’s sax rather than the trumpet. Miles has had the keyboardist simplify and told the guitarist to only play half what he usually does, leaving plenty of space for expression.

The first couple of tunes both break the quarter hour mark and let the horns dig deep whilst buoyed up by the bass, drum and piano backbone. Joy arrives with Miles leading the band into Time After Time, unpicking and reforming the melody in that way he had of making the familiar new. Penetration opens with (and sticks with) a filthy sticky bass and Miles makes little jabs into it, whilst preferring to let the band work with the groove of Prince’s song. Wrinkle steps things up into a whipcrack drum sound, tight and funky bass wriggle and stabby trumpet when it comes. The keyboard set up was pretty simple – electric piano, organ, synth – and when we get the piano sound on Amandla, it is a breath of cool air, playing around and flirting with the high bass sound. The trumpet contribution is light and late but the piece has the Miles Davis sound.

Jailbait is a simple beastie, focussing on a low-down Prince groove, a very simple melody, no more than a phrase, some crashing eighties drum sounds and sweeps of organ. Miles pokes and prods where he feels it. The drum solo is saved to the finale instead of inserted mid-set to allow the traditional toilet break and it must have confused the crowd when it didn’t signal another slew of tunes, leading to an encore. Still, to have been there, out in the warm Auvergne air, listening to this band in a Roman amphitheatre must have been magic.

There is much to love here but it has to be acknowledged that ultimately this is a safe sound and not the ahead-of-his-time Miles of previous decades. That said, this has not been released before and any Miles is better than no more Miles and, over any of his studio creations of the period, this will bring you to a new appreciation of what he was doing musically towards the end of his life.