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Photograph by Dennis Stock/Magnum

Miles to Go

Flurry of activity on Miles Davis' 75th anniversary

By Greg Cahill

KEN BURNS be damned. In his recent marathon documentary series Jazz, the PBS wonder-boy filmmaker fixated on the swing era, shamelessly deifying jazz pioneer Louis Armstrong while relegating trumpet legend Miles Davis to a historical footnote. Yet, despite Burns' unswerving support of the traditionalists, Armstrong never contributed any major musical innovation after the mid-1930s, whereas Davis ushered in many of the genre's most sweeping changes in the modern era.

For Burns, Davis was no more than a charismatic bandleader with a bad heroin habit, flashy lifestyle, and a love of fast cars and faster women, a man who supposedly "sold out" to the rock audience. But others find a shining brilliance in Davis' lonely lyricism, seeing him as a liberating figure who freed the musicians of his day and beyond from the limiting confines of traditional jazz as it had evolved in the first half of the 20th century. And Davis--who died in 1991--did it over and again with a series of influential recordings that served as creative signposts: the quintessential Birth of the Cool sessions, recorded in 1949 and 1950, codified cool jazz; 1959's landmark Kind of Blue (which has been examined meticulously in no less than three behind-the-scenes books in the past year) broke free of the chord-based improvisations of the bop era and introduced a modal, or scale-based, framework; and 1969's In a Silent Way heralded the beginning of jazz/rock fusion.

In his excellent book Jazz: America's Classical Music (Spectrum, 1984), Marin jazz educator and author Grover Sales hailed Davis as "the dominant influence" in the genre after his ascendancy in the mid-1950s. Sales rightly lauds Davis as a trumpet stylist, "a best-selling recording star who broadened the audience for authentic jazz, as a leader with an uncanny gift for launching important new trends and for introducing innovative musicians who were to help the future course of jazz."

Among those musicians were John Coltrane, Bill Evans, John McLaughlin, Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, John Scofield, Keith Jarrett, and Tony Williams.

Indeed, Davis emerged in the '50s as a high priest of cool, one of the holy trinity of modern jazz, along with John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. He possessed all the traits of a great artist--fearless, always reaching for new ground, and unaffected by the commercial trends of the day.

"With his 'clean as a motherfucker' custom-tailored suits, his Picasso-like 'cold flame,' his 'take no prisoners' approach to his work," Lewis MacAdams writes in his new book Birth of the Cool: Beat, Bebop, and the American Avant-Garde (Free Press; $27.50), "Davis came to epitomize [the period's] art."

In celebration of the 75th anniversary of Davis' birth, and in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of his death, a flurry of new books, CD anthologies, previously unreleased recordings, and reissues are hitting the stores. This ambitious salute to the jazz legend will culminate later this year when Warner Bros. Records releases what is expected to be a monumental six-CD compilation, featuring unreleased live material in addition to tracks recorded with Prince and jazz singer Shirley Horn (who persuaded Davis to once again begin performing and recording ballads shortly before his death).

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Miles, 1; Wynton, 0: There was no love lost between Davis and Marsalis.

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IN HIS NEW BOOK Miles Beyond: Miles Davis, 1967-1991 (Guptill Publications; $24.95), music critic Paul Tingen takes on those who contend that Davis "sold out" and abandoned jazz in the late '60s when he recorded In a Silent Way, which returned Davis to the pop charts. The album, which will get the royal treatment in September when Epic/Legacy releases a three-CD boxed set The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions, was the forerunner to the Top 40 album Bitches Brew and launched the jazz/rock fusion-era that helped carry the genre through the otherwise creative doldrums of the early '70s.

Tingen faithfully traces Davis' often-denigrated fusion experiments and makes a compelling argument that his electric jazz was a serious attempt to incorporate the idioms of contemporary African-American music into his vocabulary. The Kirkus Review has praised the book as "a valuable revisionist look at one of the key figures of modern American music."

To underscore the incredible vitality of that period, Epic/Legacy in May is releasing Live at the Fillmore East, March 7, 1970: It's about That Time--a driving session that supports Tingen's claim. The two-CD set contains previously unreleased material recently unearthed and featuring the original Bitches Brew lineup (a different lineup than on 1970's Miles Davis at the Fillmore: Live at the Fillmore East, which was recorded several months later than the newly released concert sessions). Four weeks after this March 1970 concert date, saxophonist Wayne Shorter left Davis' band to co-found with pianist Joe Zawinul the influential fusion ensemble Weather Report.

Meanwhile, Epic/Legacy has released a 75th-anniversary series that includes the two-CD anthology The Essential Miles Davis, the first Davis compilation drawn from all seven of the major labels for which the trumpeter recorded. The 23-track retrospective serves as a monument to Davis' genius, from the rollicking blues of "Walkin' " (oddly missing from the new Prestige compilation Miles Davis Plays the Blues) to the lyrical cover of Gershwin's "Summertime," from the white-hot sensuality of "Nefertiti" to the West Indian fusion on "Black Satin."

The Miles Davis Series, inaugurated in 1997, also includes new reissues of three classic 1950s Columbia recordings with bonus tracks or extended performances--'Round about Midnight, Milestones, and Miles Davis at Newport--plus the never-before-released-on-CD 1958 live sessions Jazz at the Plaza, Vol. 1 and Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Best of the Complete Columbia Recordings, 1955-1961, a nine-song sampler from last year's acclaimed box set.

In addition, Berkeley-based Fantasy Records has reissued two classic Prestige albums that predate the aforementioned Columbia material. Relaxin'--featuring Davis, Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones--was drawn from two marathon 1956 sessions that resulted in four albums. It is widely regarded as one of the strongest works by this great quintet. Bag's Groove, recorded in 1954 at the dawn of the post-bop era, features Davis, tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, vibes player Milt Jackson, pianists Horace Silver and Thelonious Monk, and the celebrated rhythm section of bassist Percy Heath and drummer Kenny Clarke. Music critic Scott Yanow has called the eminently soulful Bag's Groove "timeless music that defies easy classification [and that] belongs in every jazz collection."

Both Prestige reissues are digitally remastered, repackaged, and available as limited editions (10,000 copies of each were pressed).

AS A WHOLE, these Fantasy and Columbia recordings chart the explosive growth of a towering jazz giant--an often defiant and heroic figure really--whose cutting-edge music blazed a path for generations of musicians. "Miles became a kind of existential hero, insisting always on making his own choices, always finding his own route, and committed to being the exact person and artist that he strove to be without making allowances for the expectations of others," Eric Nisenson wrote in The Making of Kind of Blue: Miles Davis and his Masterpiece (St. Martin's, 2000).

"If he was an innovator, it was always in the service of his effort to understand who he was and who he was becoming, and to create the music that reflected his own evolution."

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From the April 26-May 2, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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