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Have a taste of Miles Davis at the 1983 Montreal Jazz Festival, from 'The Bootleg Series Vol. 7'

Miles Davis at the Théâtre St-Denis on July 7, 1983.
Robert Etchevery
Miles Davis at the Théâtre St-Denis on July 7, 1983.

“When Miles Davis first came back,” mused Greg Tate in 1983, “I thought it was with a whimper — but I was wrong: Miles Davis has come back to partay y’all. Laugh with him at your own expense.”

Tate, who died last year, was the ultimate, epochal authority on what we call Electric Miles; the quote above is the kicker of a piece titled “The Electric Miles (Parts 1 and 2),” from his game-changing collection Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America. As Tate was writing, Davis had just released Star People, his third release since returning from self-exile, and his first to feature the young dynamo John Scofield on guitar. His comeback was both a settled fact and an evolving story.

Case in point: the insurgent, triumphant concert that Davis performed on July 7, 1983 at the Théâtre Saint-Denis, as part of the Montreal International Jazz Festival. The band featured Scofield, saxophonist Bill Evans, bassist Darryl Jones, percussionist Mino Cinelu and drummer Al Foster. They played for roughly 85 minutes, to a ravenous crowd.

That full performance recently saw release on limited-edition vinyl for Record Story Day, as Miles Davis - What It Is: Montreal 7/7/83. It will also be included in a 3-CD boxed set, Miles Davis - That's What Happened 1982-1985: The Bootleg Series Vol. 7, due out on Columbia/Legacy on Sept. 16. The first two discs feature unreleased material from the sessions for Star People and You’re Under Arrest. WBGO is proud to digitally premiere the title track from the third disc, “What It Is.”

You may recognize “What It Is” from Decoy, which Davis released in 1984. Though largely a studio album, it featured a version of this tune — in fact, a version punched up from this performance. On the album, it opens with a bass intro spliced from elsewhere in the recording. There’s also an overdubbed second trumpet part. And in an effort to bring more focus to the track, Evans’ soprano saxophone solo is edited down.

In what was perhaps his final byline, Tate wrote a centerpiece liner essay for the new box, putting this music in vivid context. “For the ‘80s,” he observes, “Miles returned to his burnished and beloved mid-range tone, incandescent and iridescent as ever, still amplified, still capable of high-flying-death-defying swoops and slam dunks over his daredevil rhythm section’s booming system.”

Tate is describing a general impression, but his words might as well refer specifically to the performance on “What It Is,” which boasts a growly electric bass line, a relentless backbeat, and a twitchy melody adapted from one of Scofield’s improvisations. In the booklet, Tate cites Scofield’s description of this process, whereby a stray flicker of grace in a solo would be fleshed out into a composition, with the help of composer, arranger and longtime Davis associate Gil Evans.

“I'm not even sure if that could be called a collaboration, but I got a credit on most of the stuff that got recorded,” Scofield says. “He was real cool about that. Because, you know, Miles was taking everybody's solos from gigs, from rehearsals, including his own solos, and telling Gil, ‘I like this part, write that out.’ You know, [Duke] Ellington used to do stuff like that.”

Davis plays keyboards for the first five minutes of “What It Is,” most noticeably behind Evans’ muscular soprano solo. When he enters on trumpet at 5:15, the effect is to instantly focus the attention. His sound is bright and molten, his phrasing terse but sure. “Incandescent and iridescent,” the phrase Tate used, is just right.

Miles Davis - That's What Happened 1982-1985: The Bootleg Series Vol. 7 was produced by Steve Berkowitz, Michael Cuscuna and Richard Seidel, and mastered by Mark Wilder. It releases on Columbia/Legacy on Sept. 16; preorder here.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.