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One night in Berlin

Miles in BerlinAt the start of the film of the Berlin concert which forms a bonus DVD to three audio CDs of the recently released Miles Davis Quintet Live in Europe 1969 set, you can’t help being struck by the impassive demeanour of the musicians as they are announced, one by one, to the audience. Jack DeJohnette doesn’t even look up as he fiddles with the placement of a microphone boom over one of his cymbals. Dave Holland, the young Englishman, is expressionless as he adjusts his double bass. Chick Corea reaches out his left hand to twist a knob above the keyboard of his Fender-Rhodes piano. Wayne Shorter licks his mouthpiece and stares into the middle distance. Meanwhile Miles has already prowled on to the stage, clearly not caring that the spontaneous wave of applause for his arrival has disrupted the MC’s scene-setting introductions. From none of the musicians comes even the tiniest acknowledgement of the audience’s welcome. This is how far the influence of Miles’s own super-cool on-stage deportment had spread, to men a generation younger than him (and, in the case of Corea and Holland, with naturally outgoing temperaments); he, in turn, is taking his wardrobe cues from them.

None of that stops it being a great concert, of course — or half a concert, in fact, since Miles’s group were sharing the bill at that night’s concert with Stan Kenton. You might think it an unlikely combination, even by the eclectic standards of the Berliner Jazztage, and that was how the 2,400-strong audience saw it, too. I remember half of them vociferously expressing their dissatisfaction with Kenton’s set, while those who acclaimed Kenton were clearly disconcerted by what Miles was up to (although their presence can be detected in the film only in the shot of some listeners frowning and shaking their heads as the camera scans the audience while the band leaves the stage). This intolerance was typical of Berlin audiences of the time and seemed particularly impolite since the whole festival, including that evening’s performances, had been dedicated in advance to Duke Ellington, who was due to appear at the same venue the following night in a concert scheduled in celebration of his 70th birthday.

It was my first exposure to Miles in person, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. Urged on by sidemen who were leading him to the frontier of free jazz, he was spellbinding. Less than a year later, as he veered away from freedom towards an engagement with funk, he would be wanting his musicians to anchor the beat in a much more explicit way. But this was enthralling, a  freewheeling post-In a Silent Way, pre-Bitches Brew journey into abstraction, with a gorgeously oblique version of “I Fall in Love Too Easily” to seduce even those scandalised by the black shirt, trousers and leather waistcoat and the orange and gold scarf in which he took the stage, an outfit to match his black and orange trumpet.

Poor Kenton suffered far worse from the hecklers. He was booed even before he started, and later confessed that the experience had given him a sleepless night. Conducting the specially assembled Berlin Dream Band, a 19-strong multinational emsemble which included the trumpeter Carmell Jones, the trombonists Ake Persson and Jiggs Whigham and the alto saxophonist Leo Wright, he ran through a series of his best known pieces: “Artistry in Rhythm”, “Intermission Riff”, “The Peanut Vendor” and so on. Towards the end, however, he gestured the band to stand down as he performed his personal homage to Ellington, a five-minute variation on “Take the ‘A’ Train” delivered with such sincerity of emotion that the dissenters were temporarily silenced.

From the point of view of the audience’s divided reaction, it was one of the most bizarre concerts I’ve ever attended. The festival’s director, the late Jo Berendt, a man of broad vision and catholic taste, was intensely embarrassed. The following night, however, Ellington took the stage at the head of a band including Cootie Williams, Lawrence Brown, Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves and Harry Carney, and harmony was restored.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. A lot of online comments in situations like this tend toward the slavish, and this is no exception. It’s such a pleasure to get stories like this one dropping unannounced through the cat flap. Quite a revelation to think of Kenton suffering a sleepless night. These new/old Miles CDs present a mouthwatering prospect, but I have heard Milestones from this collection, and the sound of the trumpet, that glorious open tone, sounds boxed in and distorted.

    March 6, 2013

    I really enjoyed your piece on the Miles Davis – and Stan Kenton – concert in Berlin. It reminded that it was about this time – late 60s – that, at the tender age of 16, I bought my first Miles Davis record, Filles de Kilimanjaro; it remains one of my favourite Miles recordings. It’s clear now that it was a transitional piece, with Hancock and Carter making way for Corea and Holland. A major attraction of the recently released Miles Davis Live in Europe 1969 set is that it also features Jack deJohnette alongside Corea and Holland; this version of the Miles quintet is not well documented so it’s great to have these recordings. By the way, isn’t this Miles Davis ‘bootleg’ series shaping up well? I know it’s not fashionable to praise large companies these days but Columbia/Sony surely deserve huge credit for releasing these live dates. At this rate the series could rival the quality of the Dylan bootleg series (all quiet on that front at the moment; is it too much to hope that the time is being spent planning a definitve version of Dylan and The Band’s Basement Tapes?).

    A final point about Jack deJohnette. Over the years he has become one of my favourite musicians. I haven’t conducted a count but I would not be surprised to discover that I have more recordings featuring him in my collection than just about anybody else – with his own groups and playing drums with, amongst others, Miles, Keith Jarrett, John Surman and Kenny Wheeler. His recent Queen Elizabeth Hall concert was, for me, one of the highlights of last year’s London Jazz Festival. I really believe he deserves to be recognised as one of the greatest of all modern small group drummers, up there with Art Blakey, Max Roach, Tony Williams and the immaculate Philly Joe Jones. The little ECM 4 CD box set, collecting together Jack deJohnette’s Special Edition recordings for the label, is one of the best and most welcome reissues to come my way for a very long time.

    March 9, 2013
  3. Mick Steels #

    Same here, ‘Filles de Kilimanjaro’ was my first Miles album. I remember buying it mainly
    because it was voted Melody Maker’s Jazz LP of 1969. To say it blew me away, after
    listening to too much British Blues/Rock, would be an understatement.
    I remember seeing the 69 band on ‘Jazz at Ronnie Scott’s’ even in Black and White they
    cut a sartorial dash, as RW mentioned. I believe one of the tunes featured was
    ‘Madamoiselle Mabry’, which was the subject of a disapproving letter in the MM postbag.
    One of my favourite Miles recordings it has a beautiful languid feel, no doubt the Beeb
    have wiped the tape long ago.
    Agree about the DeJohnette band, very good gig.
    May I put forward the still excellent Roy Haynes as the doyen of small group drummers,
    always supportive and always listening, Bird knew what he was doing.
    Mick Steels

    March 11, 2013

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