Do We Need Another Miles Davis Box Set?

The excellent sixth volume of the Miles Davis Bootleg Series shows we haven't had too much of the legendary jazz musician


Miles Davis’s autobiography, published two years before his death in 1991, was many things: uncomfortably honest, acerbic, profane, and, yes, funny. For example, in reference to his “second great quintet” from the 1960s, Davis wrote: “I made six studio dates with this group in four years.… And there were some live recordings that I guess Columbia will release when they think they can make the most money — probably after I’m dead.”

He was right, of course. In 2011, Columbia Legacy inaugurated Miles Davis: The Bootleg Series with Live in Europe 1967, a three-CD, one-DVD set of unreleased concerts by that very quintet consisting of Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. Two years later, Live in Europe 1969: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 2, arrived with more concert dates, this time featuring the mythic “lost quintet,” made up of Shorter, Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette, and Dave Holland, a group that never recorded a studio album together. The following year, we got Miles at the Fillmore — Miles Davis 1970: The Bootleg Series Vol. 3, a 1970 recording from the famed East Village hall. In 2015 came a twenty-year survey titled Miles Davis at Newport: 1955-1975: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4. Miles Davis Quintet: Freedom Jazz Dance: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 5, also from the 1960s, arrived in 2016, the year Don Cheadle’s biopic Miles Ahead hit the screen.

That gets us to Miles Davis & John Coltrane — The Final Tour: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6, which was released on March 23. The Miles Davis vault has proven, yet again, to be the gift that keeps on giving. You can almost hear Miles rasping, “I told you mothafuckers.”

But do we need another box set? And do these collections take attention away from other working musicians? (This is probably a topic for another column, but the short answer is: yes.)

Just when you think it’s another money grab — as Miles implied might happen — you actually find something revelatory in each release. “Miles just keeps growing and growing,” the drummer Jack DeJohnette told writer Josef Woodard, who used the quote in the liner notes to volume two.

Like its predecessors, volume six is pristinely packaged and produced by Steve Berkowitz, Richard Seidel, and Michael Cuscuna, a self-professed “vault rat” who is actually a high-integrity preservationist and historian who also runs the invaluable reissue label Mosaic. Mark Wilder mixed and mastered the set. As with other volumes, Ashley Kahn, author of Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, wrote the notes. Davis’s children, Erin and Cheryl, and his nephew Vincent Wilburn Jr.  (a drummer in some of Davis’s Eighties bands) are executive producers.

The new volume — also available digitally and on vinyl — is a four-CD set of five concerts that were part of the Jazz at the Philharmonic European Tour, which was organized by Norman Granz in the spring of 1960 and also included Oscar Peterson and Stan Getz. It was the last time Coltrane and Miles performed live together before the tenor saxophone star left to start his own quartet. On the tour, Coltrane and Davis play alongside Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums — the same group, sans Bill Evans and Cannonball Adderley, who recorded Kind of Blue the previous year.

A drawback is that the set contains no new work. Previous volumes included never-before released material. Two of them even came with DVDs of live shows. The last one, Freedom Jazz Dance, had unreleased studio takes and banter among bandmates, mainly from the Miles Smiles recording session in 1966.

True to the “bootleg” theme, volume six contains work that was poorly produced and has awful cover art, but that has been more or less available either on vinyl or CD for many years. For instance, the April 8, 1960, Zurich concert from this tour — not included in this set — was put out in 2012 by a label called In Crowd Records. The cover had a photo of a blurry New York building in the snow. (Snow being synonymous with Switzerland, apparently.) Many fans already have some of these records, despite how badly they look and sound. As recently as 2014, the U.K. label Acrobat released eight concerts from the tour.

Even something that looks like a new find on The Final Tour — a rare six-minute interview with John Coltrane on Swedish radio — has been available on vinyl since 1985 from the Swedish label Dragon. Recently, the much longer, and more revealing, hour-long 1966 interview with Frank Kofsky became available from the Pacifica Radio Archives.

Of course, the 1960 performances — two from a March 21 Paris appearance, two from Stockholm the following night, and one from Copenhagen on March 24 — are phenomenal. (And it’s only fair that the Davis and Coltrane estates get to reclaim them from some of those other dodgy outlets.)

At first, Coltrane — who released his own landmark album, Giant Steps, earlier in the year — didn’t want to go on the tour. But Davis persuaded him.

Maybe he didn’t really want to be there, or maybe, as he told the Swedish interviewer, “I’m trying so many things at one time. I haven’t sorted them out.” But his solos, bashful and achingly beautiful at the beginning with lush half-notes, become excessively verbose with an onslaught of sixteenth notes and then turn obstreperous, with the cries and honks that would anticipate his work to come.

Some in the Parisian crowd didn’t appreciate his approach and whistled — the European equivalent of booing — several times, most notably on “Bye Bye Blackbird.” This may have been less about Coltrane and more about the French, who can be an ornery bunch. The Scandinavian audiences instead applauded politely, even during one of Coltrane’s typically digressive solos on “So What” in Stockholm (on disc four in the set).

The rhythm section does not merely act like the other three players on the court with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. They cook, just as a trio — with Davis and ’Trane stepping back — for about four minutes during the version of “So What” on the opening disc from Paris. Their performance alone would’ve been worth the price of admission. Kelly had an elegant touch that Davis loved from his pianists, Cobb kept an irrepressible groove, and Chambers was piquant and articulate, whether playing pizzicato or arco, which he does often throughout the set — and he’s even more spirited on the set from the next night in Stockholm.

It’s interesting to wonder where the Bootleg Series might venture next. In 1996, Columbia — with whom Miles had a thirty-year relationship, from 1955 to ’85, which didn’t end entirely amicably — issued a collection of his exceptional work with his close collaborator and friend Gil Evans, which included plenty of alternate takes. This came a year after the release of the massive Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965 set.

What else is left? Two possible periods to dig through are just before his self-imposed exile in 1975 and post-comeback in 1981. Critics and fans split their opinions about these periods. Some didn’t consider it jazz, or worse, saw it as the work of a sellout, which is ridiculous. I love both of those chapters in his career, especially the former, when Miles, who dabbled with the organ then, used a troupe of talented if not conventional post-bop musicians like Pete Cosey, James Mtume, Sonny Fortune, Michael Henderson, Dave Liebman, and Azar Lawrence. The 1975 concerts from Osaka, Japan — Agharta and Pangaea — are mesmerizing; and there were other recorded sessions from that era that could provide bootleg material, regardless of whether a nugget from Avery Fisher Hall already appears on volume four. The terrific drummer Al Foster played in those pre-’75 groups and was the only one to return after the comeback, along with now-legendary guitarist John Scofield, electric bassist Marcus Miller (the nephew of Wynton Kelly), and the late tenorman Bob Berg. There could, and perhaps should, be some gold there, too.

Whatever it is, whenever it is, I can’t wait to hear what’s next.