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Published: 2009/07/01
by Brian Ferdman

Miles Davis Thats What Happened Live In Germany 1987Charles Mingus Epitaph

Eagle Rock
Two groundbreaking innovators of jazz have just seen the posthumous release of live performances of some of their most controversial work. Each has its merits and showcases the wildly divergent paths the two legends took later in life.
By 1987, Miles Davis was floating in a different orbit. After years of extracurricular pharmaceutical activity, having kicked habits on and off, his onstage behavior was odd at best. He had become known for facing upstage and turning his back on the audience, although that tactic is somewhat stifled in this performance by the in the round venue. His music had traveled through wild developments in fusion into a melding of elctronica and new wave, and this performance features lots of synthesizers and funky, if not monotonous bass. Davis trumpet playing resigns itself to a muted, tinny sound, and occasionally he plunks out a few notes on a synthesizer, as well. The selections are an odd mix of rambling improvs locked into one seemingly never-ending groove, as well as covers of pop hits, such as Michael Jacksons Human Nature and Cyndi Laupers Time After Time. In short, we jump back and forth between strident excess and sparse, light arrangements of familiar songs. Much of what is heard here lays the groundwork for the upcoming onslaught of smooth jazz that would unfortunately sweep the music industry. While such music might not be your cup of tea, watching the mind of Davis at work is always fascinating, especially in a performance that comes toward the end of his storied life. Speaking of this bizarre mind, its on full display in a wild bonus interview, where he discusses his visual art and insists a German gallery display his works on the floor, not on walls. Although the music here is a far cry from the genius of Kind of Blue or the bold derring-do of Bitches Brew, its still Miles Davis at the helm, and the interview certainly proves that the man was one-of-a-kind.
Bassist and composer Charles Mingus was no fan of playing by the rules, and as one might imagine, his railing against the norms of the business often found him painting himself into a corner. He had no qualms about pushing the limits with his compositions, but producers had plenty of qualms about committing the funds needed to record some of these sprawling works. For obvious reasons, he knew Epitaph would never be recorded or performed in his lifetime; hence the prescient title he chose for this work, which, at over two hours in length, stands as the longest composition for the largest jazz orchestra ever assembled. IN In 1989, ten years after Mingus death, a collection of musicologists painstakingly restored and copied the work, and it finally received its debut at New Yorks Alice Tully Hall with an all-star assemblage of musicians, including trumpeters Randy Brecker and an up-and-coming Wynton Marsalis. The work itself is massive and engrossing with several movements that stylistically shift between swing, blues, mambo, and controlled chaos bordering on fusion, laced with occasional clever allusions to well known songs. However, once we hit the free verse spoken word and handclapping segment known as Freedom, the entire piece begins to step up a notch in cohesion and gravitas while members of the orchestra hum and sing a spiritual melody. As soon as Mingus major composition, Better Get Hit in Your Soul appears, the performance really vaults to a new level. With specific instruction for a small handful of musicians to come forward and jam on this classic chart, the orchestra follows the composers direction and blows the roof off the joint, leading to a rollicking and tremendously satisfying finish of what must be described as a truly epic work. While there are a handful of wrong notes and missed claps here and there, the orchestras performance is largely spectacular, giving Epitaph the fitting send-off that Mingus richly deserved.

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