Although traditional and neo-traditional acoustic jazz tends to be the favorite style of the genre as far as the general public is concerned, the audience for electric jazz and jazz hybrids never died away. The post-1965 innovations in electric jazz, often maligned by traditionalists like Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch, still resonate with jazz and non-jazz musicians and listeners alike. This very audience has much to celebrate this fall, as Columbia’s Legacy division rolls out three significant multi-disc sets compiling overlooked and underappreciated post-1965 musical achievements of the most celebrated figure of this music, Miles Davis.
Legacy’s 20-disc Miles Davis set “The Complete Miles Davis Live at Montreux: 1973-1991” presents the most monumental document yet of this period of Miles Davis’ career. Chronicling every performance of Miles at the Montreux Jazz Festival, the set contains only one ’70s performace, which is similar to other performances of this period released on albums like “Dark Magus” and “Pangaea.” The remainder of the set is where the revelations lie.
During the 1980s, Miles Davis’ albums did not accurately reflect what would be happening with his bands on stage. This was also true of many of his earlier recordings, but the differences between studio and live performances of Miles Davis in the ’80s are especially astonishing. Song ideas were mapped out on records like “Decoy,” “You’re Under Arrest” and “Tutu,” and on stage they transformed into full-blown band workouts.
The differences are especially noteworthy with material from “Tutu” and “Amandla,” albums, which saw much of their backing tracks created on synthesizers and computers. On stage, they were done justice. Real live interaction between the musicians transformed the tunes into living, breathing compositions.
Unlike Miles’ work in the ’70s, the ’80s era saw more chords and less dense guitar passages characterizing his sound. Organs were also replaced by very ’80s sounding keyboards, which are really the only touches that date these performances. Even with that small flaw, it’s hard not to notice how Miles had his keyboard players use chords as coloring in a style undoubtedly influenced by the arranging style of Gil Evans. Miles used to play organ chords in this way during the ’70s when he was not playing his trumpet. In the ’80s, he played more trumpet and sounded stronger each year. The sound of this era remained consistent from ’84 on to ’91, but each performance was noticeably different from the last. There are many joys to be discovered among 20 discs of such performances, and these discs should finally dispel any doubts that Miles was a spent force in the latter years of his life.
In the few years prior to the first performance documented on the Montreux set, Miles had recently parted ways with three of his most renowned sidemen. Two of them, Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul, formed Weather Report, while Herbie Hancock went on to change styles even more frequently than his notoriously restless former boss.
On the two disc set “Live and Unreleased,” Weather Report’s various lineup changes from 1975-1983 are documented in a series of non-chronological performances. These performances re-establish Jaco Pastorius as the phenomenal bass player that he was, remind us that the post-Jaco years did in fact yield some noteworthy moments, and also remind us that Jaco’s predecessor, Alphonso Johnson, was Weather Report’s other greatest bass player. Unlike Weather Report’s 1979 live album “8:30,” “Live and Unreleased” is more like a documentary than a piece of product. The joyous and visual musical expressions of Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul take on exciting new qualities as the sidemen change from track to track. Worldly eclecticism is their mark of consistency, and the sound is, put simply, happy.
Whereas Miles and Weather Report consolidated their wide-ranging influences into a singular sound, Herbie Hancock takes the opposite approach with his music, as is plainly heard on the four CD set “The Herbie Hancock Box.” While Hancock’s piano style is quite easily identifiable, the four discs in the box trace his hopscotch musical style in a way that is more easily digested than listening to his albums in chronological order.
Starting in 1972, Herbie Hancock began a decade and a half long relationship with Columbia and Sony Records. In the US, he would release groundbreaking, influential electric funk records like “Headhunters,” “Thrust,” and “Manchild” while simultaneously giving the Japanese market acoustic records that rivaled his ’60s Blue Note output for passion and intensity. Occasionally he would also release the odd funk record exclusively for the Japanese. Highlights from those highly sought-after Japanese acoustic records make up a significant portion of the first two discs in the box. Additional material covered includes a performance of “The Sorcerer” with Wynton Marsalis and a previously unreleased performance of Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay,” performed by Herbie’s legendary VSOP band. The band was, for all intents and purposes, the classic ’60s Miles Davis Quintet with Freddie Hubbard in the spot previously occupied by Miles.
The second two discs in “The Herbie Hancock Box” showcase his funk experiments, and beyond. Everything from “Chameleon” to “Rockit” is included, along with some surprising vocal tracks, including an early vocoder experiment on 1978’s “Come Running To Me.” Jaco Pastorius also makes a guest appearance on “4 AM,” a hidden gem from the excellent “Mr. Hands” album. The real treats of the last half of the box are all the odd cuts from overlooked and/or critically maligned albums like “Monster,” “Lite Me Up” and “Sound System.” These late ’70s and early ’80s albums veered further away from Herbie’s roots than anything he had ever done before and tested the loyalty of his fans. In the context of the box, however, it all makes sense. Herbie Hancock, like Weather Report and Miles Davis, didn’t just play jazz. He played music, and still plays music. This is the most lasting legacy of Miles Davis and his many associates – moving beyond the confines of jazz to simply play music.