On July 1, 1991 Miles Davis played the opening night of the annual Jazz à Vienne Festival in southeastern France. His lineup included saxophonist Kenny Garrett, keyboardist Deron Johnson, drummer Ricky Wellman, bassist Richard Patterson, and "lead bassist" Foley (Joseph McCreary, Jr.). The latter was so designated because the former Mint Condition bassist tuned his custom-made instrument an octave higher, allowing him to emulate a lead guitarist. While Davis' final recordings for Warner Bros. have been subject to debate, this previously unissued performance places his final musical thinking in proper context. Performed less than 90 days before his death, the concert showcases a seasoned band playing an expertly hybridized meld of jazz, funk, and R&B.
The set opener is an extended version of Marcus Miller's "Hannibal." Its lithe, funky bass and keyboard vamp are adorned with Davis' sultry phrasing. The band takes time establishing the hypnotic groove. When Garrett's soprano enters at three minutes, it ascends. The dynamic intensifies as Davis engages in dialogue with him and then his bassists. He drops the mute and his playing and soloing become very physical. As instrumental textures shift, the harmony changes shape as well. The groove ratchets and intensifies as Garrett seemingly blows right through his horn. "Human Nature'' slides in with its signature breezy, Afro-Caribbean ambience. Just under four minutes in, Davis solos with intricate, fleet lines riding the rhythm before turning it inside out. He weaves that spell for another four minutes when Garrett enters and darkens the vamp. Eastern modal and Spanish influences are pronounced amid the funky backdrop. At 13 minutes, the band erupts in swaggering, cacophonous funkiness as Garrett rides the now-explosive groove into the stratosphere. While Davis never performed a bad version of "Time After Time" (he truly loved the song), this one is among his best. His deeply emotive, tenderly wrought intro carries in its minimal expression all the harmonic invention he reveals later in the tune. His musicians wind around him with lush lyricism and polyrhythmic savvy. "Penetration" is the first of two partial Prince compositions from the short period when the two considered recording together. Framed in classic Purple One funk, it's driven by pumping intertwined basses and jagged keyboard lines. Davis extrapolates the minimal melody as Garrett freely indulges his trademark Afrofuturist R&B stylistics before the pair deliver fine individual solos. The second is "Jailbait." A standard blues jam, Davis swings the amp atop Patterson's swaggering bassline. Johnson delivers an electrifying organ solo before Garrett tips in with barwalking R&B honks to wind it out.
While none of this music is revelatory, it is intuitive and energetic. Even in failing health, Davis leads this band with imagination, good humor, and focus. Though this date occurred less than three months before his death, his playing throughout is surprisingly muscular. Unlike many of his other official posthumous documents, Merci Miles! Live at Vienne actually adds to Davis' musical legacy and warrants repeated listening.
|B1||Time After Time|
|D3||Finale (Band Only)|