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Miles Davis: Merci Miles! Live at Vienne (Rhino)

A review of the all-time jazz legend's previously unreleased 1991 performance in France

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Miles Davis: Merci Miles! Live at Vienne
The cover of Merci Miles! Live at Vienne by Miles Davis

So many ways to say “thank you.” Especially to someone like Miles Davis, who moved the earth to suit his vision for music over and over (and over!) again.

Here’s one: Gather all the qualifiers that have appeared in reviews of Davis’ late-career Warner Bros. titles, including this energetic previously unreleased live album. Look for the backhanded compliments about how Davis sounds “strong” given his age, how he’s still “got it,” how his playing is a marvel considering that he was sick.

Bundle those jazz-legend-at-sunset platitudes together. Incinerate them.

Because that’s pretty much what Davis and his band do throughout the relentless performance captured here, which was recorded at a festival in the South of France less than three months before he died. Working from a set list that includes late-era hits like “Time After Time,” Davis leads an exploration of hip-hop-dusted, post-fusion funk that’s more agile and alive—and in some ways more nuanced—than the iterations on his studio records. The band, led by “lead bassist” Foley, creates a foundational rhythm that’s unshakable and deep—and at the same time flexible and agreeably floppy. From there, Davis attends to performance considerations on levels both micro (check the scissoring melody of “Wrinkle,” delivered in exacting unison by Davis and saxophonist Kenny Garrett) and macro (the misty interlude in the middle of “Human Nature”). Where some late Davis performances tended to wander, this one is all show-biz discipline; there are even a few moments, like the sputtery/torchy Garrett solo on “Penetration,” that feel almost too choreographed.

The two skeletal songs written by Prince, “Penetration” and “Jailbait,” are not the only ones that bear his influence, specifically in his attention to rhythmic detail. “Wrinkle,” the set’s highlight, shifts abruptly from a frenetic up-tempo pulse with EDM subdivisions to a stunningly minimal half-time groove. Each transition brings new drama, with Davis and his crew coalescing around the rhythm and then darting off to examine possibilities. It’s impossible to know if this careening, pulse-quickening approach was what Davis was chasing with his later work. It doesn’t matter. What does matter: Whenever he showed up for work, he was still chasing.

Learn more about Merci Miles! Live at Vienne on Amazon!

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