Miles Davis: Live in Montreal
“ This DVD has some of the most dynamic camera work of any Jazz DVD yet to appear on the market. ”
The debate will continue to rage over whether Miles Davis' later period output (post-1980) is creative music or simply an aberration to an otherwise creative career. One thing is clear however; that the best way in which to experience the later Miles Davis bands is not through the overproduced studio albums cut for Warner Bros., but in live documents of these bands, such as the Live Around the World disc from a year ago, the forthcoming 20-cd box set from Montreux, and this: a concert video on DVD which represents the concert experience of this "Arena Jazz" band as well as it could probably be documented. It's one of three Miles concert DVDs available, but it was the first issued.
"Arena Jazz" (parallel to "Arena Rock") is an evocative term because with this bands synthesizer choruses and general layering effects in the band, it really tends to project well in a larger hall (as opposed to a studio.) In this setting for example, playing for a festival crowd, it seems perfectly appropriate. "Arena Jazz" also connotes the energy of this band: it's "charged" music for more than the obvious reason of involving electric instruments. Indeed, the writer finds it baffling that anyone would call this music "smooth". With the exception of the pop ballad features for Miles like "Human Nature", this band plays hard throughout and usually funks it up pretty good also. The only charge that might fairly be made is that the material itself is a little too basic and that the band tried to make a lot more out of it than was really there to work with. So be it- in spite of this, the music is not anywhere near boring or mundane. There are stretches of repetitiveness but all in all, there is groove and soloing interest in abundance here. A lot of this has to do with the individual musicians involved, not the least of which being Miles.
Miles doesn't play with abandon on this set, true enough, but he does act as a consistent catalyst in adding some intrigue to the music through his spare solos and use of space. He stands in stark contrast to the other two soloists, Bob Berg and John Scofield, who tend to fill up space and get the adrenaline flowing. On "One Phone Call" The late Bob Berg takes a freak-out solo on soprano that might serve as a wakeup call to anyone who thinks this band had an anti-soloing credo. Then however as sweet as that was, he is radically upstaged by John Scofield, who delivers a truly blistering solo on the same tune and really steals the show time and time again. As an aside, it's funny and revealing to watch Miles getting into their solos and in presenting all the musicians to the crowd following the last number: it's a "cheerleader" Miles that contradicts the normal understanding of Miles.
This DVD has some of the most dynamic camera work of any Jazz DVD yet to appear on the market. There are interesting angles and framing throughout (like focusing on soloists from behind the drums), and it is obvious too that the production team intended to keep the focus on Miles even when he wasn't soloing. We often get to see Miles reacting to what is going on or to see him engaging in some seemingly eccentric behavior like talking to himself, mock-applauding himself, or fiddling with extra synths on stage. At one point he is joshing Scofield and the two share a hearty laugh. This, incidentally, is a good thing about this DVD: there's a certain fun quality that comes out whether between the musicians having camaraderie or simply in Miles entertaining himself. He may have been a tad erratic, possibly senile, at this point, but the eccentricity is nonetheless amusing, much like watching Monk dance around the piano. The camera also captures Miles in some poignant moments, like gently telling the crowd to hush during one of his solos.
The featires for Miles on ballads: Michael Jackson's "Human Nature" and Cyndi Lauper's "Time after Time" are what people most often point to in calling this band smooth or glorified muzak. The writer however, simply calls them the slight exception to an otherwise grooving, funky band.
The bottom line is there's always going to be naysayers to Miles 80s work, but for those who find some value in it or are open to having their views modified, this DVD is a good place to start. Certainly, anyone who tends to believe that this was Miles in a degenerate period should hear/see the band in live mode before they make a final judgement. The studio albums just don't do any justice to the actual vitality of this band. The writer's own view is that this music is very good at what it does: whether that is "jazz" in some conventional understanding is another matter.