The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux is, at first glance, a daunting proposition: 20 CDs that do nothing less than document every performance the legendary trumpet player gave at the famed Montreux Jazz Festival, spanning the years from 1973 until 1991, the year of Davis’ death. Since Davis performed at the festival for the first time in 1973 and retired from 1975-1981, the majority of the recordings here are from the 1980s, which is generally dismissed as an inferior footnote to the rest of Davis’ career. But the conventional wisdom is at least partially wrong: The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux clearly shows that Davis was creating vital music right up until the end and that the real substance of what he was doing during the 1980s was not to be found on his studio recordings, but in live performance. This makes it a vital part of the Davis discography, and one that will almost certainly lead to a reevaluation of that period of his career.

A quick history lesson: Beginning in 1968 Miles started searching for new directions in which to take his music. He was interested in getting out of what he had come to see as the dead end of jazz music: theme/improvisation/theme. His 1960s quintet featuring Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter, and Tony Williams had taken traditional jazz forms to as abstract a place as was possible. That left the possibility of free jazz, which Davis rejected. Another possibility came into focus when Hancock first started to experiment with the Fender Rhodes electric piano. Davis loved the new sound of the instrument; it energized him and made him realize that improvisational music did not need to be based on straight-ahead chord changes, nor did it have to be modal. Instead, the music could be based on a bass line, or the barest wisp of melody. The quintet’s last album Filles de Kilimanjaro, used some electric piano and hinted at this new sound and structure, but only barely. Bringing in new musicians such as Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, and Dave Holland, Davis began to try to create this new sound and new structure. Whether what emerged would be jazz or not, no one could say, but Davis was very clear about what he wanted to achieve. He succeeded admirably, recording the groundbreaking In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, as well as numerous live performances and other studio recordings within a year. In 1972, Davis tried to bring a heavy funk sound into the mix as well as some things he was hearing in European avant-garde music by Karlheinz Stockhausen. The result was On the Corner, a thick, bracing concoction that confused many listeners and led to a break with many who felt the jazz great was losing his mind.

The first two discs in this set are from Davis’ 1973 Montreux performance, and they demonstrate just where Davis was as one of the most fertile periods in his musical career matured. The band consisted of woodwind player Dave Liebman, guitarists Reggie Lucas and Pete Cosey, bassist Michael Henderson (who had played with Stevie Wonder before joining Miles), drummer Al Foster, and percussionist Mtume. The first 40 minute set is full-bore Miles, with furious drumming, funky bass holding down the fort, and a series of solos by Cosey and Liebman, culminating in Miles’ fierce blowing and abstract statements delivered through his wah-wah pedaled trumpet. Towards the end of the first disc, the band cuts out and there is a percussion interlude punctuated by Davis’ abrasive chord clusters on the organ. When this first set ends, you can hear actual booing in the audience, though the general reaction is one of polite confusion. Miles asked festival organizer Claude Nobs if he should play more, to which Nobs predictably responded in the affirmative. Davis and the group return and play another hour of intense and exquisitely beautiful music, marked by excellent performances of “Ife” and “Calypso Frelimo”. This set is at least as demanding as the first, but is somewhat better received. Hearing this performance alongside the string of Davis’ studio triumphs from 1968 to 1974 as well as the live performances that have already been released, I would have to ask anyone who still insists that Davis “sold out” by incorporating electronic instruments and discarding many of the trappings of traditional jazz: to whom, exactly, did he sell out? This is not the music that rock audiences were looking for, many were just as dumbfounded by Davis’ heady mixture of funk, rock, jazz, electronics, and music that would later be known by such names as ambient, trance, and techno, but for which no names existed at the time. True, Miles achieved a burst of record sales with Bitches Brew, On the Corner, and a few live albums that were released at the time, but overall his music was not charting nor being played on the radio. He was largely outcast from jazz, though he had provided much of the most exciting jazz music in the post-bop era. Few people, including his musician peers, understood what he was doing. So, if Miles was selling out, what was his reward? Like Bob Dylan’s decision to “go electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, the whole thing should have been a dead issue by this time.

The 1973 performance is of a completely different era than the rest of the recordings in the set, and could have been released as a separate recording had Columbia not opted to maintain the completeness of the Montreux recordings. Starting with disc three, the beginning of 1984’s afternoon performance, (for most years are afternoon and evening performances, with the set lists remaining very similar, even though the performances are very distinct) the real vision of the last part of Miles’ career becomes evident. His band at this time featured saxophonist Bob Berg, keyboard player Robert Irving III, guitarist John Scofield, bassist Darryl Jones, drummer Al Foster, and percussionist Steven Thornton. Beginning with the kinetic energy, angular melodic lines (at which Scofield in particular excelled) and funky vamps of “Speak/That’s What Happened”, Davis is announcing clearly that he has succeeded in distilling the unique combination of funk, rock, jazz, and electronic music that he has long been seeking. The opening salvo is followed by the bluesy jam “Star People”, which brings the tone of the set down a bit and demonstrates that Miles’ horn playing is still clear, beautiful, commanding, and undiminished by his time away. There is a gorgeous rendition of “Time After Time”, which Davis recorded in the studio for the album that would not be released until the following year, You’re Under Arrest. In fact, there are a total of nine renditions of “Time After Time” on the discs in this set and seven of the “Human Nature”, the Toto song made popular by Michael Jackson. Davis got a lot of grief for recording his renditions of these ballads, and the studio versions regularly show up on smooth jazz radio playlists. However, the performances here, particularly of “Time After Time” are all different, occurring at different places in the set lists, and what they offer is a chance to just sit back and hear Miles play trumpet. For all the carping from Davis’ pre-electric fans about just wanting to hear him play great solos again without the electronic gimmickery, these performances should offer just that. Davis recorded popular ballads for his entire career, and some of his work here is very close to hearing him play “My Funny Valentine” in the pre-electric period. When Davis removes the mute from his trumpet almost nine minutes into the rendition of “Time After Time” on Disc 6 and lets his clear, singing tone sail out into the audience, you have to wonder what all the fuss about his supposedly “selling out” was about.