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Miles Davis: Miles Davis at Newport 1955-1975: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4

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Even the most special, consistent performers can have venues where they grab a kind of inspired toehold and secure that next level. For an athlete like Michael Jordan, that venue was Madison Square Garden; for an equally dynamic jazz artist like Miles Davis, we’re talking the Newport Jazz Festival.

The metrics of this box are enough to get you pacing in excitement: four discs spanning 20 years, four cities and two continents, and featuring nearly four hours of officially unreleased music. Newport, in later years, became something of a roadshow festival, hence a November 1973 electric-raga set in Berlin, with Davis’ horn rejoicing in post-blues detonations, and an October 1971 Switzerland appearance with Keith Jarrett acting almost as de facto co-leader. Davis’ final pre-hiatus live appearance of the 1970s is also here, in “Mtume,” recorded at Lincoln Center. But we all know what the real fuss is about: the 1955 jam on “‘Round Midnight” with the solo that saved Davis’ career, the 1958 set from the Kind of Blue sextet, the 1966 and ’67 sets from the Second Great Quintet, and a 1969 appearance in which Davis and his crew essentially live workshop Bitches Brew.

As much as Davis’ solo from that first Newport appearance featured in his legend-and got him signed to Columbia when no one would touch him-it’s fascinating to note just how stately it is, regal even. It’s not hard to imagine Davis’ solo having been transposed from a classical trumpet concerto, as though he’d taken 10 years to compose it.

The Kind of Blue lineup, in turn, may have been the perfect Newport band: not too frenetic, but impeccably stylish and well suited to en plein air proceedings. Jimmy Cobb has a nice, full presence here, as is evident in his rolls on “Ah-Leu-Cha,” while John Coltrane, who didn’t really seem like a Newport kind of guy, is in genial sparring mode throughout with Cannonball Adderley, a man playing like here was a jazz gig, in awesome digs, that he could really get onboard with.

The Second Great Quintet sounds like it’s playing as much for posterity as for the moment, first in an absolute blazer of a set in 1966 and then, fascinatingly, with a sort of suite-based, live-concept-album of a gig the next year. Their first appearance was on the Fourth of July, and Uncle Sam would have had a devil of a time trying to juke along to this music; when drummer Tony Williams wishes to go fast-as he does on “Gingerbread Boy”-these guys are going to haul. The Summer of Love date is one continuous performance, the live gig as single organism, with a version of “‘Round Midnight” that shows we have come very far indeed. Welcome to the new outdoor-friendly modern American Baroque music.

The 1969 festival went the rock route in a big way, and even Zeppelin was there, but no one must have known what to even term material like “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” and “It’s About That Time.” Davis, Newport-wise, was clearly feeling it, so why not trot out the most extreme, in-flux music and see how it goes down? With Davis’ wah-wah blasts and the band’s collective proto-funk roiling alongside, it’s as if some jazzy version of Charon had stepped in from the adjacent sea and decided it was his turn to play. Here was music to all but turn the nearby yachts into fire ships.

Originally Published