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Raw Material

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After a long, passionate interpretation of Cole Porter's "All of You," the second set continues with another of the previously unreleased tracks, a theme known as "Teo," after Miles's producer, but here unaccountably titled "Neo." How new it is in this interpretation is hard to gauge. It is not so much reharmonized as industrially strengthened. Kelly puts unbreakable spider-wires across the chords, Cobb and Chambers rev up the pulse and Miles fires off strings of notes that are as elaborate in construction as anything he had committed to record. It's a tune that turns up again on the Saturday night, along with versions of "No Blues," "If I Were a Bell," "On Green Dolphin Street," "I Thought About You" and the little set closer, "Love, I've Found You," which functions much like "The Theme" and rounds things off. After his uneasy pick-up, Miles doesn't choose to revisit "Oleo" but starts off at a rather more familiar velocity with the release version of "If I Were a Bell." The contrast between the two versions of the Frank Loesser standard would be hard to exaggerate. Whereas on Friday, starting off the third set Miles attacks the tune as if it were an air-raid warning, on Saturday he takes it with a much easier swing and bounce and relies on Kelly to fill in the harmony. He's back on the attack for an unbelievably fast version of "So What," which almost doubles the tempo of the version on Kind of Blue. Kelly's open chords leave the field wide open for both Davis and Mobley.

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Brian Morton
Brian Morton is a former academic, Times of London journalist and BBC arts and music presenter. He currently writes and...

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Richard Carpenter's composition "Walkin'" had been the centerpiece of the previous night's second set, despite being marred by articulation problems and a couple of missed cues. The Saturday version is more than a tour de force. In twelve astonishing minutes, Miles deconstructs the tune. Five minutes in, he remakes it again as Kelly and Mobley join him in new harmonic territory. The intensity of Miles's playing is remarkable. His solo is rich, maximal and far from introverted; he sounds almost malevolently focused.

There is nothing else quite as good on any of the four CDs. From a historical point of view, the inclusion of a complete late set from Saturday night--"I Thought About You," "Someday My Prince Will Come" and a double-time "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise"--is very important, not least because it illustrates the unexpectedly hard-swinging nature of this lineup. Leaving aside a few bad cues, miscounts (on Miles's part, largely) and a foreshortened "Autumn Leaves," which starts a little late because the tape machine wasn't switched on, it's hard to see why all this material hasn't been released sooner.

The Blackhawk sessions are among Miles's purest jazz performances. These are the proof that he could cut it as a hard-blowing and straight-ahead jazz musician, terms he probably regarded as demeaning even as he picked up his campaign medals. His seeming lack of interest in this kind of improvisation in later years didn't disguise a lack of ability. Miles's outward cool and sophistication ironically camouflaged a roots artist who constantly tried to take jazz back to the basics, in blues, dance and popular song.

Recognizing all this in turn reshapes our image of Miles in later years. Take that same hard-blowing, blues-laden bopper and see if you can still find him in 1969, when Miles was presumed to be off on another riff entirely. Is he there? On the evidence of Jack Johnson's "Right Off," emphatically yes. Davis may have changed obsessively, but he also obsessively remained the same, true to the rootstocks and wellsprings of jazz all the way from Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong to the revolutionary realignment of bebop.

Whatever its motivation and pitfalls, these most recent reissues have subtly changed our awareness of Miles in the round and not just in the minute detail. A Tribute to Jack Johnson stands as a more important and more radical work than Bitches Brew, which now seems partial and compromised, keeping too much of a footing in an older style. It is also a project on which Miles feels able to let rip at what he did best, playing the trumpet. At the Blackhawk does something rather different. It does not present a great jazz musician as ambitious auteur but as a passionate exponent of a great vernacular art form. The 1961 band spoke with a common plainness of purpose. Mobley and Kelly were important factors in that, but it was Miles Davis's own strong utterance that makes these restored performances so compelling.

Norman Mailer, who crossed paths and swords with Miles at least once, wrote sententiously about trying to "capture the Prince of Truth in the act of switching a style." The Prince of Darkness changed styles less often than he pretended. Miles spoke of change as if it were both vocation and burden, and superficially the Miles of 1971 was a very different artist from the Miles of a decade earlier. Look deeper, though, and it is a consistency of purpose and language that comes through. Miles changed in order to remain the same, and to remain true to what is still a radical understanding of what black American music is about.

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