Judge Victor Valdivia is a dark, mysterious jazzman. His instrument? DVD reviews.
Interviewer: Does the term "jazz" ever bother you?
Watching a Miles Davis concert differs greatly from watching a concert from almost any other artist in one crucial way: it's impossible to get an overall view of Davis' musical oeuvre from just one performance. More than most artists, even jazz artists, Davis changed genres and styles so quickly and radically that there really isn't one definitive Davis recording or style. Collect recordings of Davis in the '50s, '60s, '70s, or '80s and the only thing they'll have in common is that he played trumpet on all of them. Sometimes he could be as minimalist as any lo-fi indie king, other times his music was as ostentatious and elaborate as a prog-rock opus. Sometimes he was a staunch traditionalist, other times he was stubbornly committed to incorporating wildly diverging sounds and instruments into his music. His only overriding constraint was to do what he found musically compelling at any given time, and while this led him to as many artistic dead ends as it did high points, no one could ever accuse Davis of making music for purely commercial reasons or of surrendering his art to others. For better or for worse, he alone deserves the credit or the blame for his body of work.
In that sense, That's What Happened: Live in Germany 1987 could almost be considered emblematic of Davis' body of work: it's equal parts frustrating and transcendent, with some of Davis' least understandable decisions alongside some of his most remarkable music. At this concert, Davis may not be quite the firebrand he was earlier in his career; he was 61 years old and only four years away from his death. Whatever he may have lost in aggression, however, he made up for in dexterity. Similarly, though the backing band, which includes future Rolling Stones bassist Darryl Jones, indulges in some rather dubious arrangements, their musicianship is top-notch even on the weakest songs. It makes for a performance that's not entirely consistent but is, in some ways, precisely representative enough for that reason.
That's What Happened was filmed in 1987 in Munich. Here is the set list:
• "Medley: One Phone Call/Street Scenes/That's What
The material focuses on Davis' '80s work, with many songs taken from Davis' two mid '80s albums You're Under Arrest (1985) and Tutu (1986). These are not particularly considered some of Davis' better efforts, and the show does demonstrate their failings. For one thing, the arrangements tend heavily toward heavy '80s-style synthesizers that overshadow almost all of the other instruments. One of Davis' weaknesses was that he couldn't resist using the latest trends in his music, and in this case it does him more harm than good. The synths are so loud and shrill that they sometimes drown out the other instruments, and they're so cheap and dated that it may be hard for some viewers, especially those more attuned to traditional non-electric jazz, to sit through this concert. Also, even twenty years later, it's still hard to fathom Davis' affection for bland MOR ballads like Michael Jackson's "Human Nature" and Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time." These are not particularly strong compositions and Davis' renditions find no new dimensions or value in them. These covers are as close as Davis ever came in his career to smooth elevator jazz, and it's a shame that they've been preserved here, as they have in most of Davis' '80s concert recordings.
Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to dismiss this DVD outright. While it's true that Davis' playing is much less forceful than it was earlier in his career, and he does rely a bit too much on his mute, it's not correct to claim, as some critics do, that he was way past his prime by the '80s. The best moments here, such as "Tutu" and "Portia," show Davis playing in a softer and more lyrical style than the more ferocious assaults of records like Bitches Brew (1970) and On the Corner (1972). This may disappoint some fans expecting more of his old style, but there are so many moments of beauty and subtlety here that it's hard to quibble. He does show off a bit more in the concert's fastest songs, the opening medley and an extended jam at the end of "Human Nature," but these are still more designed as showcases for the backing band members, especially Jones and guitarist Joseph McCreary, than Davis himself. It's difficult to say if Davis constructed the music to show off the band members in order to accommodate his newer style or if, as some claim, the remaining band members are forced to take up the slack for him. Whatever the case, for all its flaws, this era of Davis' career isn't the forgettable disaster some jazz critics claim and this DVD should help people reappraise it.
Technically, the DVD is top-notch. The 1.33:1 transfer is surprisingly sharp for a twenty-year-old concert shot on VHS, with a pretty sharp image and vivid colors. There's a little blurring, as is the case with old video transfers, but nothing too bad. The Dolby and DTS 5.1 surround mixes are phenomenal, loud but still clear with each instrument separated and audible. The DTS mix is a hair louder than the Dolby, but either one is fine. The extras include an interview with Davis (29:21) from German TV just before the concert. Fans of Davis will be pleased that he is just as truculent and evasive as ever, with some nasty, sharp quotes sure to offend jazz fans of all stripes. Would you expect anything less? Also included is a brief featurette titled "Miles and His Art" (5:32) that has footage from an art opening of Davis' sketches and paintings. It was also prepared for German TV, which means the German subtitles and narration can be a bit intrusive, but it's still interesting for fans.
Ultimately, That's What Happened shouldn't be ignored. The concert shows off Davis' band to full advantage and does perfectly convey what an '80s Miles Davis concert was probably like. This is not necessarily the place to start for someone who is completely unfamiliar with his music; the feature-length DVD biography The Miles Davis Story gives a good look at all the phases of his career. Still, Eagle Rock has done a superlative job of presenting this DVD and anyone interested in Miles Davis should give it a look.
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