critic’s pick 285: miles davis, ‘miles davis at newport 1955-75: the bootleg series’

miles davisOf the dozen or so boxed set anthologies chronicling the career of Miles Davis issued after his death in 1991, the new four-disc Miles Davis at Newport 1955-75: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4 is perhaps the most intriguing.

The other sets tended to focus on one band, one era, one tour or even unreleased material related to one specific recording. Newport centers at an event traced through time, and when it comes to jazz, Davis was a time traveler and then some. They didn’t call him Miles for nothing.

What this means is that by chronicling segments of eight different performances at the Newport Jazz Festival over a period of two decades, we are presented in as encapsulated a form as any box set can capture, Davis’ astounding jazz voyage, from the his ‘50s era of acoustic cool to his ‘70s rebirth as a fusion and funk renegade. The package offers plenty for Davis die-hards, too. With a whopping collective running time of 296 minutes, Newport boasts nearly four hours of unreleased performances.

Still, it’s the stylistic metamorphosis that stands out. The first disc has Davis introduced by no less a jazz icon than Duke Ellington before launching to a version of Hackensack that places Davis’ serene trumpet runs alongside the modal mischief of the tune’s composer, Thelonious Monk. This performance has been well chronicled already, but as a time piece within the larger canon of Davis’ Newport history, it is an integral introduction that bears repeating.

Fast forward a decade and we have the prize of the package – a full disc devoted to previously unissued sets from 1966 and 1967 of the great Davis quintet featuring Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and the especially devilish drum colors of a young Tony Williams. The diplomacy of these performances is often astounding. While the unison swing of All Blues is a thing of beauty, the ’67 ingenuity fortifying Shorter’s Footprints lets the pure musical cunning of Davis and pianist Hancock loose. The ensuing drama is Newport’s clear high point.

Davis goes electric for the rest of the package which is where the real transformation begins. The music becomes more groove-centric (and, in some cases, more static), but the sense of adventure, especially in a 1969 set featuring a young Chick Corea going wild on electric piano and a series of 1973 rumbles with saxophonist Dave Liebman, never relents.

A brief 1975 version of the percussion-heavy Mtume is the only real instance where the sound quality dips to actual bootleg level (an oddity, given how it’s the most recent recording in the set). The rest of Newport sounds like a dream. It’s a jazz journey of fearless and epic proportions.

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