In my Cratedigger colum last Saturday, I got out my vinyl copy of the 1965 Miles Davis album, E.S.P. The journey from that classic album to this DVD of a 1987 Miles concert in Munich is more than just 20-plus years. Musically, it’s a lifetime, stretching from the acoustic hard bop of the great Miles Davis Quintet to the hard funk of his late ’80s band.
One of the great misconceptions about Miles is that following the six-year hiatus that began in 1975, when he stayed off the road to address health issues, he was never the same as a trumpet player. If this DVD exists for no other reason, it would have value simply because it gives the lie to that perception. Miles plays wonderfully here, and he plays a lot. According to keyboard player Adam Holzman, “When he first made his comeback, he was not that strong and he was building his lip strength so he didn’t play a whole lot. By ’84,’85 he was playing a very healthy amount on stage again. He had all his strength back and he was on top of it.”
Miles Davis: That’s What Happened (Eagle Rock) is a well-shot document of a particular evening in Munich when Miles, just four years from his death, and his band appeared before an enraptured German audience. They play songs from his then current album, Tutu, including the title track, and the Middle Eastern-influenced “Portia,” which closes the set. “Human Nature,” made popular by Michael Jackson, and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” both featured on Miles’ 1985 album You’re Under Arrest, are also included. A medley of “One Phone Call”/”Street Scenes”/”That’s What Happened” opens the show and finds Miles playing brilliantly over a thick groove laid down by bassist Darryl Jones. Jones, of course, went on to take over the bass position in the Rolling Stones when Bill Wyman retired in 1993, and has been with them ever since.
As Miles says in the interview that is a special feature of this disc, the musicians that he’s chosen are the right group for the music that he wants to make. They include drummer Ricky Wellman, percussionist Mino Cinelu (who plays a fascinating extended solo on “Tutu”), keyboard players Adam Holzman and Bobby Irving, and the brilliant sax and flute player Kenny Garrett, who is the other main soloist in the band. Joseph “Foley” McCreary is listed as a guitar player, but he’s actually playing a four string Steinberg bass with light strings, providing the band a second bassist, and another soloist.
For the most part Miles sticks with his tradition of playing with his back to the audience. Critics claimed that this was demonstration of the disdain that Miles had for his audience. The truth is, it’s critics that he disdained. He played facing his band so that he could signal the young players about changes that were coming in the music. At this point in his career, Miles was very interested in the music that artists like Prince and James Brown were making, so there’s not as much creative exploration going on as there had been in past eras, but by no means is the music here stagnant. Instead, it’s filled with color and movement, funk and finesse.
The special features include an interview with Miles by a young journalist that’s very special indeed. Miles is, as usual, thorny, prickly, sensitive, difficult, and endlessly fascinating. Between railing about lazy journalists and striking back at his critics, he provides wonderful insights into the music. Speaking in his low, gruff voice his words aren’t always easy to understand, but his meaning is very clear. The other bonus feature provides a look at Miles’ burgeoning career as a visual artist.
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