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11/15/11

Miles Davis Quintet
Live in Europe 1967: The Bootleg Series Volume 1
Columbia/Legacy

George Varga reviews the new 3-CD/1-DVD collection featuring Miles' "2nd Great Quintet."

Is patience truly a virtue? If so, Miles Davis’ most devoted fans might qualify for the jazz equivalent of earthly sainthood while waiting, seemingly endlessly, for a new musical treasure trove of his music to be unearthed. Since 1995, four years after the iconic trumpeter and bandleader’s death, Columbia Records has released no fewer than nine hit-or-miss box sets of his work, including last year’s 70-CD Miles Davis: The Complete Columbia Album Collection.

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Miles Davis 1967

That high-priced assemblage included a live DVD of Miles Davis Quintet concerts from 1967, which were filmed in three European cities. The same DVD, revelatory then and now for capturing the man with the horn’s fabled second great quintet at the height of its breathtaking powers, reappears in its entirety as part of Live in Europe 1967: The Bootleg Series Volume 1. What makes the DVD all the more striking is its new context as part of a package featuring three live CDs, each at least an hour in length and each a marvel of ferocity and finesse, sonic propulsion and poetry in perpetual motion.

Two of the CDs contain recordings that, until now, were only available in unauthorized form (hence the “bootleg” designation). The third disc is the real find, with five previously unreleased songs from a Copenhagen concert, including Davis’ “Agitation” and “No Blues,” and the Wayne Shorter-penned “Masqualero” and “Footprints.” The quintet’s playing is so galvanizing in its emotional intensity, instrumental vigor and musical richness that some listeners may find the experience both exhilarating and draining.

The same may have held true at the time for Davis, Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. Their incandescent performances here still sound so thoroughly fresh, contemporary and daring that one wonders why Davis subsequently disbanded this quintet and began turning to what became known as jazz-rock fusion. Should the change be credited to his famously restless and searching nature? Or did he sense how difficult it would be for this quintet to soar any higher without risking an Icarus-like fate?

Or, as Hancock told me recently about the tour that yielded The Bootleg Series Volume 1: “We were aware it was new territory. That’s what we wanted to do, that exploration, but the different approaches each of us used were uniquely our own. We didn’t know the extent that it would impact other musicians in the jazz world. For a long time, other musicians didn’t know how we were doing it.”

What this quintet did, if not always precisely how, is demonstrated by the 34 sterling performances showcased here. Songs are repeated—“Agitation” appears five times, “Footprints” four and “Masqualero” three—but that’s much of the treat. Despite the fact that these concerts were recorded within a 10-day period, with similar setlists from night to night, the seemingly telepathic performances vary dramatically. The musical intentions, inflections and points of ignition are never the same, which is why the Paris version of the set-closing “The Theme” clocks in at just 76 seconds, while the Antwerp version stretches to more than eight utterly magnificent minutes.

Better yet is the heady manner in which individual selections are strung together to create extended, suite-like pieces that segue from one to another, often turning on a dime, almost before the audience (or, in a few instances, all of the quintet’s members) realize it. This elastic approach is underscored by how startling it is to hear the first sustained applause a full five songs and 33-plus minutes into disc one. This is the rare live album where the sound of the audience almost feels like an intrusion. Sometimes, silence—and not just patience—can also be a virtue.

Originally published in November 2011
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