Amid the swirls of birthday tributes to Bob Dylan, another milestone date of birth arrives tomorrow with what would have been Miles Davis’ seventy-fifth. The observation of Dylan’s birthday focused on a successful lifetime (thus far) of eluding public definition and a dogged determination to remain creatively restless. Dylan’s path followed a template of isolation and disdain for predictability pioneered by Davis. It’s a furious creative pursuit captured in three Davis packages: the recently reissued Round About Midnight, Milestones and At Newport 1958; Live at the Fillmore East — March 7, 1970: It’s About That Time, which is due at the end of next month; and The Complete “In a Silent Way” Sessions, a three-disc set, due in September, that may capture the actual process of musical evolution better than any other single release on record store shelves, as it charts Davis’ last blast of pure jazz before defining fusion.
Although his was a career that passed through numerous jazz subgenres, Davis’ work proved daring in all formats, with moments of immense clarity and focus before again changing the face of jazz. Those sound-shaping records are the titles with the reputations: The Birth of the Cool, Kind of Blue, Miles Smiles and Bitches Brew. But some of Davis’ best work is there to be mined between the masterpieces of public notoriety.
Within this year’s releases, there are two such moments. The series of individual reissues aren’t particularly revelatory — aside from the pomp of a reissue, which can be conducive to rediscovery — as the material was included last year on the Complete Miles Davis and John Coltrane, a six-disc marvel of a box set that contained the inspired collaboration between the two. These sessions feature inspired interaction between the teacher and student and are the catalyst in two fundamental jazz reckonings: the recording of Davis’ landmark album, Kind of Blue, and Coltrane’s emergence as a creative genius in his own right. Round About Midnight (1956) marks the beginning of Davis’ lengthy and fruitful recording career with Columbia and the subsequent two releases Milestones (1958) and Newport capture the gradual lineup changes (including the addition of pianist Bill Evans and drummer Jimmy Cobb and saxophonist Cannonball Adderley) that defined Kind of Blue. Newport is the revelation of the three, as album features the entirety of the performance that Davis and Co. put on; it had previously been snipped to fit onto the Miles and Monk at Newport album.
The Complete “In a Silent Way” Sessions again catches Davis not so much at the end of something, but shedding a skin and moving sliding menacingly towards new territory. Having exhausted what was arguably his finest ensemble, acoustic or otherwise — drummer Tony Williams, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Ron Carter and pianist Herbie Hancock — Davis began laying the groundwork for Bitches Brew. A documentation of six months in Davis’ creative life, the first disc is embellished with the wah-wah of the electric keys suggesting the shape of Davis’ jazz to come, but Davis seems reluctant to let go; his trumpet textures have yet to take on the spacey echo that would define Bitches Brew.
By the album’s second disc, the ground is shaking. The addition of Joe Zawinul’s compositions and swooping organ create lush meditative soundscapes that Davis dances over with noir-ish lines on “Ascent.” By the middle of the disc, with John McLaughlin added on electric guitar, the compositions that make up In a Silent Way — “Shhh/Peaceful” and “In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time” — are waxed in what might not have been the first true fusion album, but what certainly ranks as one of its most important.
Another new gem from Columbia’s vaults has captured the aftermath. Those on the fence about Davis’ fusion pursuits might best hop off the train with In a Silent Way, as this performance captures Davis’ six-piece on a bill that included the Steve Miller Band, and Neil Young and Crazy Horse. With Airto Moreira adding percussion and Jack DeJohnette drumming with the Davis/Shorter/Corea/Holland lineup, the unit blazes through what would become the roadmap for fusion, previewing Bitches Brew material like “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” and “Spanish Key” with an aggressive lineup that play with a loose desperation and fury. For fans of Davis’ fusion, the disc is a revelation, and for those who turned on him, it’s an opportunity to reassess his most controversial period of development.
For as Dylan absorbed rock & roll, God, and other forces that influenced his career in an attempt to never run in place, Davis was determined more than anything to leave the past in the past. Davis’ friend and biographer Quincy Troupe tells of visiting New York City’s Metropolitan Museum with Davis and visiting the Egyptian exhibit. “He came upon a mummy in the glass, and pointed at it and said, ‘Quincy, I don’t ever want my music to be like that,'” Troupe relates. “‘If you don’t listen to what your muse is telling you now, if you don’t listen to what the music is telling you now, you’ll be like that mummy. You just have to keep listening, and keep absorbing and changing.’ He said, ‘To me, music is a curse. I have to keep playing it, but I have to keep challenging myself too.’ He just had to reinvent himself at all times.”