Since Miles Davis died on September 28, 1991, the merchandising machine has been in overdrive, pushing repackaged classics (Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain), niche compilations and concert anthologies (Mellow Miles, Heard Around the World), and posthumous remixes aimed, as Miles himself often did, at a new constituency beyond the jazz audience. His two principal labels, Columbia and Warner Bros., have collated his work with saxophonist John Coltrane and arranger Gil Evans. More sumptuous is the boxed set of his appearances at the Montreux Jazz Festival between 1973 and 1991, twenty CDs and well over twenty hours of music. The Miles Davis estate has had the trumpeter’s famously lithe silhouette, familiar from re-issues of Sketches of Spain, registered as a logo. Even the art market was briefly flooded with Miles’s psychedelic doodles, the legacy of a time when he seemed to prefer sketching backstage to playing trumpet on it. It is an astonishing afterlife, though one that perhaps says more about the music industry than about the protean artist it celebrates.
True fans are always archeologists, and boxed sets are the potsherds of genius. But they’re also often long on chaff, a triumph of commercial packaging over musical insight, and some of the recent Miles Davis boxed sets have left one wondering, Do we really need to hear every note Miles played in the studio? The much-trumpeted Complete Bitches Brew Sessions was actually no such thing, but a bland collage of complete and unedited takes that offered little insight into how Davis and his team worked. The earlier Complete In a Silent Way Sessions boxed set was more fruitful, but left most listeners feeling that the original album edit was as close to perfect as anyone might wish.
The two most recent Miles boxed sets are exceptions to the rule. Nothing short of revelatory, they alter our understanding of two of the most overlooked recordings–indeed, moments–of Miles’s career. The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions, a work of electric jazz recorded in 1970, shows how an apparently minor soundtrack project led to one of Miles’s most dramatic stylistic and demographic shifts, a phase in his career when his and his audience’s understanding of “jazz” was robustly challenged. The straight-ahead jazz on In Person Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk, Complete, a generously augmented version of two live LPs taped at the San Francisco club in 1961, seems, at first, a more routine affair. Yet it arguably contains even more significant revelations.
It’s a cliché that Miles Davis’s two instruments were the trumpet and the recording studio. It’s probably more accurate to say that just as the shimmering orchestral projects of the late 1950s and early 1960s were collaborations with arranger Gil Evans, the innovative and controversial work that came along at the end of the next decade represented a new form of collaboration between Miles and his producer, Teo Macero, who spliced and collaged the jam sessions into the sleek artifacts that were released as In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. It’s easy to satirize the way the men worked together: Turn on the machines, watch for the red light and play formlessly until you decide to stop, then hand over the material. For debunkers, Miles’s seeming abdication of basic musical control was seen as a symptom of artistic carelessness, if not lethargy. In this view, it was Macero who was the artist, not Miles Davis, who simply provided the raw material.
The argument doesn’t hold much weight, however. For one thing, Miles was always attracted to radical shifts in the means of production, almost as much as he was to new ways of playing. He was one of the first jazz musicians to experiment with overdubbing, and by the late 1960s he had come to see the studio as a new way to approach composition, a conviction that was reinforced by his awareness that studio-confected rock was fast encroaching on his audience. Yet within the enclosed space of the studio, Miles remained an improviser. And, as The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions demonstrates, he was seeking to generate structures from the impromptu discoveries of improvisation. Until now, A Tribute to Jack Johnson (the title of the 1971 release) was a sleeper in the Miles Davis canon. Columbia Records paid it scant attention, putting their marketing effort squarely behind Live at the Fillmore East, recorded a month earlier.