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Merci Miles! The trumpeter’s final concert at Vienne
Miles Davis (1926-1991) on the Jazz à Vienne scene, July 1st, 1991 (David Redfern/Redferns) - DR

Merci Miles! The trumpeter’s final concert at Vienne

A few weeks before his passing on 28th September 1991, Miles Davis gave his final concert at a jazz festival in Vienne. Now, 30 years later, the recording has been released. Story by Jacques Denis, who was there...

Discover our tribute to Miles Davis in 100 tracks and 5 playlists.

Miles and France have had a long history. It began in Orly where he landed in May 1949 to play at the Salle Pleyel, and ended during his final festival tour in the summer of 1991, just before he passed away in Santa Monica on 28th September that same year. He spent some long and happy periods in France during his lifetime. It was a country where, in his autobiography, he stated that “for the first time [I] felt free and treated like a human being”. That’s quite a claim. I mean, who could forget Davis’ free and melodic improvisation over Louis Malle’s film Ascenseur pour l’échafaud? That night (4th December 1957) marked an aesthetic milestone for the musician. The release of this final concert then, which had languished in the back of a draw for so long but which remains engraved on the memories of all those who were able to attend, marks the pinnacle of France’s link with the artist who received the Légion d’honneur (France’s highest civilian honour) from culture minister Jack Lang in July 1991. Looking super cool, with aviator glasses and a scarlet trumpet, Miles was still very much alive.

Nightfall on 1st July 1991, in the Vienne arena overlooking the Rhône. It was a magical setting for what was to be a form of requiem for the trumpet player. Surrounded by a rather muscular jazz team – but who were nonetheless capable of taking a softer approach (like on “Amandla”, a Marcus Miller theme) – our trumpeter was concluding a decade that finally saw him back in business, this time as a crossover artist playing a form of metallic funk, rather than the more experimental artist of the 1970s. In other words, it was more of a proto-synthetic performance than a post-psychedelic experiment.

That said, Merci Miles! should grab the attention of anyone who’s ever loved our sound innovator extraordinaire. For those particularly keen on the records made with Marcus Miller, this live album is a godsend. For others who abandoned our Illinois native at the time of his thunderous comeback in the 80s, sometimes even finding it difficult to watch him on stage, this unreleased record is nevertheless not without interest – if only for the presence of two tracks by Prince, whose talent the ‘Prince of Darkness’ greatly appreciated. For these alone, this record is worth listening to: “Penetration” and “Jailbait”, two compositions originally conceived of for Madhouse (one of Prince’s brilliant side projects) are the moment where the funk jam session gets turned up to 11.

Miles Davis – Hannibal – LIVE 1991

And Miles, despite all that was written about him at the time, still had things to say. Listen to the solo on the Hannibal theme, and to the one that follows (both played with a muted trumpet) on the slightly bland song “Human Nature”, which was really just a pretext for a long improvised solo from the trumpeter, surfing on the crest of a harmonic wave. Even his cover of “Time After Time” is an opportunity for a beautiful solo that immediately makes you forget everything else.

Those surrounding Miles helped to set the mood and add weight to proceedings as they tried to pull themselves up to the level of their leader (though some were clearly perplexed by Davis’ rhythmic moods, as attested by the concert’s finale where, alone on stage, the music turns into a cardio-aerobics session). Take note of the presence of Kenny Garrett, an outstanding musician who does some inspired work on the two Prince themes. Each one of his contributions reminds us that, despite Miles Davis’ assertion that the word ‘jazz’ made no sense, the music itself certainly did.

Miles Davis, Merci Miles! Live At Vienne (Rhino/Warner).