You see Miles Davis’ age, you sense it, in his fingers. Otherwise remarkably well preserved on this date, just months before his death, the legendary trumpeter certainly looks the part — from the technicolor jacket to the red horn to the stylish purple-hued glasses.
An early shot, however, pulls in on Davis’ hands, as he takes on “Boplicity,” the opening cut in a series of songs from his lengthy collaborative relationship with arranger Gil Evans featured on this 1991 performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival. His fingers are like gnarled tendrils, wrinkled and frail.
The ears hear new things then, beneath the smooth urbanity of Evans’ charts — performed by his group, under the direction of conductor Quincy Jones. The times when Davis reaches for a note, but doesn’t quite get there. The times when protege Wallace Roney steps in to double his parts, adding depth where there isn’t anymore. The times when Roney simply takes over as the soloist because Davis can’t anymore.
If you let you mind stay right there, to dwell on this specific time and place, Live at Montreux — finally being released as a film on March 19, 2013 by Eagle Rock, some two decades after the Warner Bros. audio edition — feels shrouded in a dark sadness.
But stick with it, as Davis takes this loving look back, that rarest of things for a man so obsessed with living an unnostalgic life, and you see something different. Davis gathers strength, as he moves through the sequence of tracks from 1957′s Miles Ahead. Roney can be seen, more than once, looking over in bright-eyed wonder.
You will too, as Davis rises, phoenix like, from the haze of his own final illness to tangle with saxophonist on Kenny Garrett, to push back once more against the orchestral flourishes all around him. By the time Davis gets to selected cuts from 1958′s Porgy and Bess and then from 1960′s Sketches of Spain, he’s found a new grasp of the material, impishly running through “Summertime,” drawing these long impressionistic lines across “Solea.”
For the always-restless Davis, who was caught mid-way through a new experiment in blending hip hop and jazz when he suddenly passed, this concert is the valedictory you never expected, the farewell you hoped for but feared you’d never hear. Live at Montreux, flawed though it may because of his failing health, brings everything full circle for Miles — and for us.