By Mike Shanley
The Newport Jazz Festival began in 1954 and it went on to impact both the music it presented and it jumpstarted the whole concept of live music festivals. It was there, in the third year, that Duke Ellington’s career came back to life in large part because of the performance of “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” with saxophonist Paul Gonsalves’ crowd-slaying 27-chorus solo. Launched by visionary club owner George Wein — who still has a hand in it to this day — the festival made the world safe (so to speak) for the Bonnaroos and Lollapaloozas that would follow years later.
Listening to the performances of Legacy’s new Miles Davis at Newport 1955-1975: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4 offers a fascinating trajectory of the trumpeter’s musical evolution as well. By 1955 he’d kicked his drug habit and performed in a Newport jam session that is regularly referred to as the major comeback which led directly to his contract with Columbia Records. Over the next 20 years he would appear six times at the outdoor event and twice in concerts that Wein presented in Europe. Throughout that time, he matured as a bandleader and visionary, moving beyond bebop to music that didn’t depend as much on chord structure, eventually getting electric and involving more of an atmospheric approach to sound. Hearing it all together, over four discs, his innovations don’t seem as radical as they might have been considered at the time, but they’re nonetheless fascinating to devour.
Davis was a late edition to the 1955 bill and, without a working band, he was placed in a pickup group with Thelonious Monk (piano), Gerry Mulligan (baritone sax), Zoot Sims (tenor sax), Percy Heath (bass) and Connie Kay (drums). Duke Ellington cautiously introduces the group with the somewhat backhanded assessment that they’re playing “in the realm that Buck Rogers is trying to reach.” The ensemble passages sound a little sloppy and unprepared, but the solos contain some diamond-in-the-rough magic. Two Monk compositions, “Hackensack” and “’Round Midnight” are played, the latter spotlighting Davis who had yet to bring his signature Harmon mute and arrangement to the tune. While a few years prior, Davis famously chastised the pianist for comping behind the trumpet solo (an argument that made it onto a recording), here he relies on Monk for guidance. The group salutes the recently deceased Charlie Parker with his “Now’s the Time,” which again starts sloppily but takes off during the solos. Perhaps the history of the event has more weight than the music, but it still contains some magic moments.
The 1958 performance by the Davis Sextet has appeared in edited form on Miles and Monk at Newport and in complete form on a 2000 box set. With both John Coltrane (tenor) and Cannonball Adderley (alto) on the front line, and Bill Evans (piano), Paul Chambers (bass) and Jimmy Cobb (drums) bringing up the rear, it was an interesting cross-section of styles. Coltrane, in his sheets of sound approach, chews up everything is sight, while Adderley blends a funky tone with Charlie Parker lessons. Some have argued that Evans’ more laidback approach didn’t gel with this band, but he displays a command of his instrument in this setting, maintaining a firm grip even as Cobb goes wild.
During “All Blues” at the 1966 Festival, Davis casually quotes the old chestnut “I Found a New Baby.” It’s remarkable because he rarely deigned to the jazz tradition of quoting other material in a solo. Yet, it could be seen as a statement on the band he was leading at the time, with Wayne Shorter (tenor), Herbie Hancock (piano), Ron Carter and Tony Williams (drums). The group brought a new malleability to the music with regard to tempo and chordal foundation. “All Blues” goes from a fast 6/8 into a heavy 4/4 thanks to Williams’ direction. When they tear through “Seven Steps To Heaven” in that same set, Shorter sounds as if he has trouble keeping up with the tempo.
The following year (like ’66 available here for the first time) begins the same way, with “Gingerbread Boy” at a wilder tempo, Hancock now acting as a more discriminating accompanist and Shorter firing off rounds like an avant-gardist. But Davis wasn’t ready to completely cut off the past. He revisits “Round Midnight,” curling the ends of the phrases but keeping the melody in check, with Hancock adding some deeply moving chords behind him.
Part of Davis’ Bitches Brew album included a dozen musicians in the studio at one time. But when Davis headed to Newport a month prior to those sessions, in July 1969, he was fronting a quartet. They were all new bucks too – Chick Corea (on electric piano), Dave Holland (bass) and Jack DeJohnette (drums). Sparse by comparison to both previous appearances and to his recordings, the new unit nevertheless has its appeal. DeJohnette combines the feel of R&B backbeats with a propulsion that fills space vacated by additional horns or percussion. Corea sounds delightfully overdriven. They test run two Bitches Brew tunes, stretching out “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” and briefly sketching “Sanctuary” (with the song’s catchy trumpet lick not yet in the upper octave wail area), and they offer a version of “It’s About That Time” that differs from the one on In A Silent Way, released that same month.
The problem with a wah-wah pedal is that it came make everything start to sound the same if it’s used too much. By 1971, in a performance from Switzerland, not only was Davis running his trumpet through said pedal, his “songs” were now largely based on vamps. Granted, “What I Say” is a solid groove that bassist Michael Henderson holds onto like a rock, when he’s not letting drummer Ndugu Leon Chancler turn the beat around and sideways, or slowing it down for a soulful electric piano solo from Keith Jarrett. But the staccato trumpet blasts sometimes sound like Davis is spinning his wheels. Nevertheless, the performance features plenty of musical electricity, not the least of which is the 25-minute “Funky Tonk” which uses space almost as deftly as the Art Ensemble of Chicago was at the time.
With guitarists Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas chopping away, and no need for a keyboardist, Davis’ 1973 performance in Berlin pushes the music further away from jazz as the trumpeter once played it. Wein recalls in the liner notes that by this time, Davis’ chops weren’t what they were a few years earlier, so he wasn’t playing as much. But the band more than makes up for him in an overdriven recording that includes both loud vamps (“Turnaroundphrase”) and subdued sections (“Ife,” a showcase for Dave Liebman’s flute).
The sole selection from the 1975 festival (back in the states, albeit New York City), “Mtume” sounds even more raw, yet it lends some edge to Henderson’s bass and to the tenor solo by the lesser known Sam Morrison. The track, and the set, ends rather abruptly, which would really leave the jazz trads scratching their heads. But Miles wouldn’t care, and neither should anyone else.
DOWNLOAD: “Directions,” “Seven Steps to Heaven.”