I vividly remember the first time I heard the Miles Davis album “The Complete Concert 1964: My Funny Valentine and Four & More.” The experience was exhilarating, confusing, and, dare I say it, life-changing.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of that concert at Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall, and the performance that made for one of the greatest live albums of all time.
The event was a fundraiser for the registration of black voters in Louisiana and Mississippi. This was the height of the civil rights movement, and Davis was a vocal proponent and supporter of the cause. As such, he agreed to waive his usual (and by then considerable) fee for the performance.
Unfortunately, he didn’t tell his band this until they arrived at the show, which resulted in a fierce backstage argument between Davis and his bandmates, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams and George Coleman.
The tickets were very expensive, fetching up to $50 each, and the band was upset that he had made this decision without telling them and letting them decide if they wanted to donate their fees to the cause.
But Davis told them flat-out that if they wanted to be in his band, they had to play the show on his terms. And you don’t say no to Miles Davis! In his autobiography, Davis, looking back on the show, credits the tension between the band for the fire and intensity in the music that night.
Fortunately for us, longtime Davis producer Teo Macero was on hand to record the event, and the subsequent album is widely considered not just one of the greatest live jazz albums of all time, but one of the greatest live albums in any genre.
When I first heard this music, I was an aspiring teenage trumpet player. Up until that point, I had heard and played mostly big band jazz music that contained short, concise solo statements. I had only just heard the classic Davis album “Kind of Blue” with its quiet intensity, mid and slow tempos, and adventurous yet restrained solos.
I was particularly taken with the song “So What,” a mid-tempo groove with only two chords. Miles and the band use lots of space, and the solos are little masterpieces all to themselves.
So when a friend handed me a copy of “The Complete Concert 1964”, with a wry smile on his face. I was excited to get home to put it on the turntable. It was recorded only five years after “Kind of Blue”, but in no way was I prepared for what had happened to Miles and his music in those years.
I dropped the needle on “So What” with great anticipation, and my world was immediately rocked. Gone was the ethereal bass and piano intro, which, to me, seemed to be an integral part of the song, setting the mood for the deep slow groove that followed. In its place, bassist Ron Carter took the original bass line from Paul Chambers and played it at lightning speed, so fast that he had to drop a few notes from the original line to pull it off.
About 25 seconds into the track, you hear the audience start to applaud. It’s a hesitant applause, however, as if they are acknowledging that they recognize the piece but are not sure what to make of this new version.
As I listened for the first time, I was right there with them, not sure what to make of it but anxious to hear more. Before the horns even finish the two-note motif that is the melody of the song, Davis lets out a plaintive wail on trumpet, and it’s clear that he’s about to tell us something, his trumpet imploring us to lean in a little closer.
Davis’ solo, with its trills, bursts of notes and wide dynamic swings, made me fee like I entered an argument that has been going on for some time already. Davis was hurling the notes at us, with Tony Williams drums cracking and popping behind him, egging him on, and Herbie Hancock punctuating everything the others were saying. They shriek, moan and wail through the next three minutes, taking no prisoners.
By the end of the solo, Davis is positively crying through his horn, and ends almost mid-thought, as if to say “I’ve had enough of this.” George Coleman and Hancock take turns next, each wringing everything they can out of the simple two-chord structure of the song. Through it all, the 18-year-old Williams is the engine that drives the band, twisting and turning, crashing and burning behind the soloists.
Without knowing any of the backstory about the argument that preceded the concert, I could clearly hear the tension in the band. One could easily chalk that up to a conscious decision by the group, but I think it was the fact that they went into the concert angry at one another that added that extra fuel to the fire.
The rest of the album is filled with the same ferocity, even the ballads. Take “My Funny Valentine,” for instance. This is a tune that Miles had played dozens, if not hundreds of times prior to 1964. It was one of his signature tunes, and one that audiences that went to see him expected to hear. In this rendition, Miles barely hints at the melody before veering off to bear his soul in alternating bursts of highs and lows, sustained notes and short, clipped jabs. Like the boxer that he was, he seems to be floating around the stage, jabbing, punching, trying to land that knock-out blow on the audience.
Three minutes in, the audience again applauds hesitantly, as if they are pleading with Miles to go easy on them. But it’s to no avail; as the band picks up the tempo, Hancock plays increasingly dissonant chords, and Miles leaves the song far behind, stretching and searching for new meaning in this old chestnut. It’s as if Miles and the band have decided to forgo the reverence with which the song had been played before, in open defiance of the history of the music and the wishes of the audience. Again, that they were angry at each other only heightens this awareness.
As my teenage self sat and listened to every note on this record, I felt my world changing. Miles was teaching, preaching and yelling at me to find my own way through the music.
Hear the original version for comparison:
Like the freedom the civil rights struggle promised to black Americans, this music promised freedom to all who heard it. In subsequent years, Miles wouldn’t even play the jazz standards that made him so famous, preferring rather to look ahead and keep looking for that elusive freedom, as an artist and as a human being. But in these new reworkings of tried-and-true songs, Miles and co. showed us that sometimes the path to freedom can only be found by breaking through the shackles.
For this trumpet player, it was a revelatory experience, a turning point. From listening to this one album I realized that the quest for freedom, for personal expression, was the key. Miles made me see the awesome power that lies is taking standard forms and stretching, bending and turning them inside out.
Music is all about tension and release, and Miles’ ability to create tension by fighting against the form while staying true to the music and his musical ideas was one of the most important lessons I’ve learned about music, and about life. The quest for personal freedom within the bounds of society is really the story of America, and jazz mirrors that struggle.
Me, I’m still on that quest to this day, and everything I play owes a debt of gratitude to this album. And to Matt, the friend who first handed me the record, wherever you are, thank you for the gift of freedom.