Miles Smiles Again on Stellar Late-60’s Box Set

Attention, readers: Miles Davis now has his own Web site. As of May 26, type in and you can browse through audio clips and digitized crypt furnishings of the great trumpeter. Label sponsor N2K Inc. inaugurated the site with a live “cybercast” of a Birdland concert celebrating Miles’ posthumous 72nd birthday featuring one of the most famous Miles-bashers of all, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. But then, as the Prince of Darkness himself might have said, so what. Diverting as these doings may be, the fact is, occasions for remembering Miles seem gratuitous since the jazz world has never had the luxury of properly forgetting him in the first place.

Since his death in 1991, no one has assumed Miles Davis’ egomaniacal burden of making jazz-or at any rate, music intimately connected with jazz-matter to the 270 million or so Americans who don’t subscribe to Down Beat . Granted, after he returned from a self-imposed exile in the late-70’s, which his autobiography tells us was resolutely devoted to sex and drugs, Miles was running mostly on star power and glittery stage wear. (Mr. Marsalis is not without ammunition here.) But as two recent recordings make clear, during the previous decade, from 1965 to 1974, Miles earned the right to coast into eternity.

Released this past winter, Columbia Legacy’s six-CD Miles Davis Quintet 1965-68: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings is devoted to what might be called Museum Miles. It is every scrap of music recorded by Miles with tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams. The quintet goes down in history not only as the last Miles group that everyone can agree is great, but also the last jazz that wins consensus smiles across the ideological board. (When a young and preternaturally ambitious Wynton Marsalis took it upon himself to shovel 70’s free-jazz and fusion off the great sidewalk of jazz, it was Miles’ hip hard-bop albums from the mid-60’s that spurred him on.)

In particular, the first four albums in the set- E.S.P. , Miles Smiles , Sorcerer and Nefertiti -represent an almost mysterious balancing of jazz hot and cool. Liberated from strict time-keeping, Tony Williams provided a muscular barrage of cross-accents and polyrhythms unprecedented in jazz. But the horn players, usually the emotional mainline of any combo, sounded intriguingly fastidious and detached. (Check out the Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965 box set for the quintet in take-no-prisoners mode.)

Miles, of course, had ice in his veins and acid in his trumpet tone; space never scared him. And Wayne Shorter has a chameleon quality to his tenor playing that leaves one grasping for emotional subtext. But as Mr. Shorter demonstrated at his recent Jazz at Lincoln Center gig, he can be the most insinuatingly tuneful of composers. With Mr. Shorter functioning as lead writer on the early albums, the quintet could be masterfully laissez-faire about bar lines and chord changes-and then, before you even knew you were paying attention, the melody of “E.S.P.” or “Footprints” had gotten under your skin.

This was, in short, perhaps the most exquisite chamber jazz ever, and Miles happily blew it up in the late 60’s to bring in the funk, rock, ambient soundscapes and sonic collages that occupied him until he repaired to his Upper West Side apartment in 1975. In the new Columbia reissue, the classic quintet lives on in pretty exquisite digs of its own-a slim avocado and maroon package as slick as one of Miles’ Italian silk suits (or, as Miles puts it in the autobiography, “as clean as a broke-dick dog”).

Massively liner-noted and annotated, the Columbia box set is one of the better $90 investments in jazz. My only reservations have to do with the genre of the CD box set itself, which mostly seems to excite that part of the brain responsible for obsessive-compulsive disorders, not listening to music. Once you start going after complete sets, it doesn’t matter whether it’s porcelain statuettes of Elvis: Order and control are all. Which is why the other recent Miles album is so interesting. Somehow, avant pop producer Bill Laswell was given the keys to the Columbia vaults and permission to fiddle around with history. He came up with one CD, a “reconstruction and mix translation” of the studio tapes that Columbia producer Teo Macero originally fashioned into three Miles albums: the ambient-jazz In a Silent Way (1969); the funky and, at the time, much reviled On the Corner (1972); and the obscure Get Up With It (1974).

At first listen, Mr. Laswell’s new Panthalassa: The Music of Miles Davis 1969-1974 (Columbia) might seem to be an update on the famous Jorge Luis Borges story “Pierre Menard,” in which the narrator unwittingly rewrites part of Don Quixote word for word and then congratulates himself for creating a new masterpiece. Possibly at second listen, too. But Mr. Laswell reminds us that those late-60’s and early-70’s Miles albums were created partly by Teo Macero and his X-acto knife, furiously cutting and splicing studio tapes to meet Columbia’s production quota of a couple of Miles albums a year. (Imagine a time when jazz was big business.) “This extreme manipulation produced a result of which there could be many,” Mr. Laswell says in his best Menardian manner. Museum Miles, make way for the Living Miles.

As for Mr. Laswell’s “result,” the Miles I know best on the album, the In a Silent Way material, I like the least. The Columbia original is sufficiently disembodied for my taste-the synthesized misterioso ether, a white electric guitarist floating by. Mr. Macero’s fits-and-starts editing style whittled Miles back down to earth a bit. But Mr. Laswell smooths out the trip. All of that digital gee-wizardry just highlights the planetarium geekiness that was always there in the original material. On the other hand, the original On the Corner is so staccato and noise-wracked that Mr. Laswell’s hyper-fidelity doesn’t soften the blow. It just reverberates with fuller bass.

Electronic Miles is in now. (There’s even a new beginner’s anthology, Miles Davis Electric on Columbia.) Then again, how could it not be when many of the techniques and styles Miles and Teo Macero stumbled on 25 years ago have become, in slicker, digitized form, standard practice in the profitable realms of hip-hop, house, techno, drum ‘n’ bass, fill ‘n’ the blank. Indeed, when Miles emerged from his cocoon in the early 80’s, the pop world was just catching up with him. Mr. Laswell says he and Miles talked about doing a record back then, returning to the dark, dissonant grooves of his best electronic work, heard on live albums like Agharta and Pangaea . Nothing came of it. Miles was more interested in covering Cyndi Lauper tunes and, Mr. Laswell suggests, adhering to a Lauperian philosophy that aging jazz stars just wanna have fun. Which is fine. Seven years after Miles’ death, it’s time for someone else in jazz to do something big.

Now Hear This …

· The JVC festival, which kicks off June 15, has its pleasures, but the Texaco-New York Jazz Festival, June 1-14, boasts mind-blowing depth. A new 1,500-seat tented space on the Hudson, near Battery Park, features John Zorn and the Sun Ra Arkestra on June 6; Bela Fleck and the Flecktones on June 9; and Joe Henderson on June 13.

· The Cubans are coming! Again! Virtuoso Chucho Valdes is managing the neat trick of bi-island pianism. He’s the director of the Havana Jazz Festival, and he’s becoming a New York regular with a must-see gig at the Village Vanguard, June 2 to June 14, to mark the release of his Blue Note debut, Bele Bele en la Havana . Miles Smiles Again on Stellar Late-60’s Box Set