June 01, 1988

Miles Ahead

Filed under: Archive,Music

Miles Davis
Thebarton Theatre

Miles Davis is unique. His forty year career in jazz has been spent at the most avant part of the vanguard. As a teenage prodigy he was, after Dizzy Gillespie, the most distinctive trumpeter in New York, or Paris, or anywhere. At the age of sixty-one he still presides over a band which is bursting with invention.

Inexplicably, on his first Australian tour, Davis attracted a less than full house for his one Thebarton concert. But those who were there won’t be forgetting it in a hurry.

The list of his musical collaborators spans the history of progressive jazz – Parker, Coltrane, Evans, Hancock, Corea, Shorter, Zawinul, McLaughlin, Jarrett, Liebman, and others, have laid the polyrhythms and polytonalitics over which Davis has played his essentially unchangeable, painterly trumpet lines.

Davis’s concert began with the opening phrases of In A Silent Way and switched straight into a non-stop three hour set of complex riffing over the most relentless rhythm in electric music. As in his live recordings at Fillmore in 1971 and the Osaka concerts in the late 1970’s, the Davis band played compositions end-to-end, no intros, no chat, just a seemingly endless serve of material from the recent You’re Under Arrest and Tutu albums.

It is an uncompromising sound, obsessive, loud and insistent. Ricky Wellman’s rock drumming is garnished and paced by Marilyn Mazur’s rippling percussion while Daryl Jones provided a nimble, bone-hard bass. On keyboards Robert Irving III and Adam Holzman (the only one of his session musicians on the tour) traded splashing synth and piano phrases as Kenny Garrett on sax and young West Indian guitarist, Foley, formed yet another paired sound.

Over all this, Davis played his amplified trumpet-bursts of rapid notes and the sinuous lyrical lines that make his work so singular. Eccentric, self-absorbed, he pads about the stage, pointing his trumpet at the floor-boards as he plays, moving to the edge of the stage for others to take solos and tinkering with a bank of keyboards to produce that skinny Farfisa organ sound he has used more recently to set washes of simple chords against increasingly strident guitar riffs.

One of the strongest rock influences on Davis has to be Jimi Hendrix and Foley’s fuzzbox feedback guitar is used almost like an additional reed in duets with Garrett.

But unlike straight rock, Davis’s music weaves, shuffles and turns back on itself. It sets up funk patterns that never resolve with the cross lines of trumpet and reed. It circles, ponders, worries a theme and opens up, only to abruptly pull back into contrapuntal tetchiness again. It is both maddening and exhilarating and must surely be the music of the late 20th century spheres.

The sound, splendidly managed by the band’s engineers, was loud but uncannily clear and the lighting and staging was up to the best standards of rock and roll. We had waited a long time to hear Davis in Australia and the concert was a credit to local promoter Trevor Hunt. That it was so far short of selling out indicates that great jazz in Adelaide may in future need to be under the umbrella of Festival subsidy.

Among a welter of material, the band played versions of Portia, Splatch and Perfect Way from Tutu and a wistful rendering of Cyndy Lauper’s Time after Time. Some of the audience waited in vain for Round Midnight and Sketches of Spain and turned on their heels before the set was over. Miles Davis, in his silver suit and heavy shades, still manages to surprise and dismay even the faithful.

Frailer now, he sends his band out on some of the more dangerous missions but none were more musically memorable than Miles Davis’s own raids on the inarticulate.

“Miles Ahead” The Adelaide Review, No.52, June, 1988, p.24.

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