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Matthew Ruddick

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Author of Funny Valentine, an acclaimed new biography of the jazz trumpet player and singer, Chet Baker.
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Saturday, 06 February 2016 18:23

Miles Davis - The Last Word: The Warner Bros Years, 8 CD box set

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Luxury box offers valuable new insights into Miles’ last decade of work.

As a reviewer, it’s difficult to know what to say about Miles Davis’s music that hasn’t already been said. The most iconic of jazz icons, his music is still regarded as the zenith of jazz. To many, he is the king. The god of reinvention. Cool personified. 

This eight-disc box set looks at Davis’ work from 1986 to 1991, an era when across the music world, shoulder pads and loud nylon suits were all the rage in music and musicians had abandoned their instruments for anything that could be plugged in, wired up, programmed and left to run automatically. The late eighties were still the brave new synth age, and much of Davis’ output on the Warner Bros label demonstrates how he, iconoclast that he was, dived head first into this new world and surfaced with a determination to change his musical focus.

Much to the annoyance of traditionalists, Davis brought into using drum machines to offer strange new rhythms and beats. His new bassist and producing partner was slap-meister Marcus Miller. He brought a definite funk vibe to Davis' music. While each cut on this box-set is still absolutely and recognisably Davis, they are a world apart from Kind of Blue and even Bitches Brew and illustrate what an influence the younger bassist had on Davis.

Take Davis' debut Warner Bros album, Tutu, which on every listen confirms my belief it’s one of his best albums ever. With Marcus Miller in the driving seat and George Duke providing some of the musical direction, this album explores new depths of sonic detail and rhythm, over which Davis’ sparse - but impactful - trumpet playing has full reign. This was Davis produced to within an inch of his life, and thriving. That is won a Grammy the same year is not surprising.

What the box set marks is a progression in Davis’ life as a musician from this point on. He looks to move into film soundtracks, demonstrated in disc two, Music From Siesta. The film required Iberian influences and a mournful sound, something which Davis could easily recall from Sketches of Spain. Again one hears the sound of Miller’s musical superstructure on which Davis is joined by soloists like John Scofield, James Walker and drummer Omar Hakim, a fixture in his live band.

The third album on offer, 1989’s Amandla, was Davis’ last album for Warner before his death in September 1991. It marks an elegy of sorts, a final signing off from the master of the trumpet. And it does that triumphantly. Building on Tutu’s South African motif, Amandla gives Davis’ trumpet freer reign across eight tracks which arguably hang together better than those on Tutu. Particularly strong is the last track, Mr Pistorius, a tribute to the late bassist who died in Miami in 1987. You can hear a free, mournful and lyrical trumpet, this time with little effects apart from a touch of echo. Poignant and moving.

Two other collaborations in the set, Doo-Bop and Dingo, were posthumous releases, the latter reflecting recording sessions with hip-hop producer Easy Mo Bee, who finished the last two tracks on the albums with Davis’ parts from 1985 funk sessions, producing a lively album that pumps out street-cool funk and heavy beats, but perhaps is overshadowed by the other albums in the set. 

The final three albums are faithful recordings of live sessions from this period - one from the 1986 Nice Festival, another from the earlier 1985 tour, entitled Live around the World. On each you can hear Davis’ performance had almost reached rock star levels. He was selling out huge stadiums and creating a vibe that jazz rarely had at the time. Davis was a pioneer and an explorer, and these albums map his course into virgin territory. The surprising album is Miles and Quincy at Montreux from 1991, a concert set up by Quincy Jones to celebrate his collaborations with Gil Evans. This is an album full of emotion, with a clearly ill Davis perhaps reaching the limits of his performance capability and struggling at points, handing over to the younger players in the band. But still, what a legacy for a last major live performance.

This box-set, with excellent new liner notes from Ashley Kahn, is a testament to greatness and a musical life coming to an end. In every decade since the fifties, Miles Davis had set out to change, to upgrade and re-boot. This last five years, as celebrated in this box set, shows a musician wanting to challenge himself, and his listeners, right to the last. 

A worthy addition to any jazz fan’s shelf, this deluxe set offers a number of enticements for Davis fans who already own some of these albums already. A snazzy clamshell box, fully remastered recordings, each disc in a replica album sleeve, a sixty-page booklet with period photos and Kahn’s liner notes all add to the allure of the package which is clearly intended as a way for fans to remember this final period of creativity. Whether that justifies the price tag is, however, another matter.

A fine legacy, captured perfectly, and never to be forgotten. What a performer.

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