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Following two jazz legends on their last tour

A new box set captures the varied nuances of Miles Davis and John Coltrane's final tour together

Miles Davis plays his trumpet beside tenor saxophonist John Coltrane. Photo: Getty Images
Miles Davis plays his trumpet beside tenor saxophonist John Coltrane. Photo: Getty Images

Some great albums also have equally good stories behind them. But seldom do you get a story as fascinating as the one that hides behind The Final Tour: The Bootleg Series, Vol.6 by Miles Davis and John Coltrane. The four-disc box set, released this March, comprises recordings from five concerts performed by trumpeter Miles Davis’ quintet in 1960. The concerts were all in Europe—two in Paris, one in Copenhagen, and two in Stockholm—and before he and his group left for the tour, Davis had to persuade tenor saxophonist John Coltrane to come with them. Coltrane had been playing as a sideman with Davis off and on since 1955 but was ready to leave Davis’ employ and pursue his solo career. He had just released his breakthrough album, Giant Steps, with his own band and very reluctantly agreed to come.

That’s only the beginning of the story. Davis and Coltrane’s collaboration is the subject of jazz legend. The two had many similarities. Both were born in 1926. Both struggled and fought with heroin addiction (Davis kicked his habit earlier than Coltrane). And both blazed exciting new trails in the genre. But there were also differences. Davis had an affluent background and a relatively easy path to success—beginning with his stint as a trumpeter in Charlie Parker’s quintet when he was still in his teens. Coltrane had a middle-class background and a tougher road to travel—spending years as a journeyman sax player in his native Philadelphia before getting picked up by Davis. Offstage, Davis was an extrovert, exuberant and ready to party; onstage, at least during the period the two played together, he was subdued, subtle and sensitive. Coltrane was the opposite. When he wasn’t playing, he was a quiet introvert who would practise instead of partying; but when he was playing, he was loud, flamboyant and audacious.

Davis and Coltrane have been called the “yin and yang" of jazz of their time. And, probably, that is why their collaborations have been fabulous. Anyway, back to the story. When Coltrane began playing with Davis in the mid-1950s, the latter was his mentor, on whom he would lean for direction. But by 1959, when Davis released what is widely acknowledged as jazz’s greatest album, A Kind Of Blue (on which Coltrane played tenor), he was already forging his own new musical direction boosted by the recent release of Giant Steps. So when he reluctantly accompanied the quintet to Europe in 1960 (packing, as the lore goes, only two white shirts and a blue suit), his mind was elsewhere. That tour, according to later accounts from other band members, who, besides Davis, included drummer Jimmy Cobb, pianist Wynton Kelly and bassist Paul Chambers, was marked by constant tension between Coltrane and the rest of the quintet but chiefly between him and band-leader Davis.

The tension spilled over to the stage, which was probably a good thing because that’s what makes The Bootleg Series, Vol.6 an extraordinary album. The set list during those five concerts was not unfamiliar and comprised standards as well as Davis’ compositions: On Green Dolphin Street, ’Round Midnight, Bye Bye Blackbird, The Theme, Walkin’, and Fran-Dance. Two compositions from Kind Of Blue—All Blues and So What—are also on the set lists. Coltrane had played them with Davis before. But when he played them at those five gigs, he took everyone by surprise. It began with the album’s opening track, All Of You, which the quintet played in Paris. After Davis’ measured and nuanced trumpet solo, Coltrane takes off on his own solo, a blisteringly long stretch during which he experiments with feverish energy, takes off on speedy tangents, tries to vary his breathing techniques, and seems to be in a world of his own. That trademark style, which Down Beat magazine called “sheets of sound", marks Coltrane’s playing through all the gigs on that tour. At times, the contrast between Davis’ exquisite yet understated style and Coltrane’s all-out, upfront aggression can make you wonder who the bandleader really is.

In fact, during the gigs, particularly the ones in Paris, applause, but also a lot of whistling, greeted Coltrane’s solos. In those more genteel days, jazz audiences were known to whistle when they wanted to boo. Enthralled by the nuanced and gentle ballads of Kind Of Blue, which had already made Davis hugely famous, audiences had come wanting to listen to more of that sort of music. When they got Coltrane’s flying-off-the-rails solos, it was a disappointment. But in later years, these gigs became the cynosure of jazz fans (some of these recordings have been accessible in quasi-bootleg forms before the box set came out). The reason is obvious when you listen to them: Coltrane’s wild solo performances are a superb complement to his one-time mentor Davis’ measured style of playing. And the two of them, along with the rhythm section of Kelly, Chambers and Cobb, make the recordings on The Final Tour, Vol.6 one of the genre’s greatest live performances.

Those European gigs would be the last time the two musicians performed together. Coltrane would go on to forge his storied solo career—but would die at 40, in 1967. Davis would traverse many miles more before he would die in 1991, at age 65. He would experiment with styles; collaborate with the composer, Gil Evans; have an electric phase during which he would release albums such as Bitches Brew; as well as wild and erratic phases of his own. But his short yet volatile collaboration with Coltrane will always stand out.

The Lounge List

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘All Of You’ (Live from Olympia Theatre, Paris) by Miles Davis and John Coltrane from ‘The Final Tour: The Bootleg Series, Vol.6’

2. ‘So What’ (Live from Tivoli Konsertsal, Copenhagen) by Miles Davis and John Coltrane from ‘The Final Tour: The Bootleg Series, Vol.6’

3. ‘Walkin’’ (Live from Konserthuset, Stockholm) by Miles Davis and John Coltrane from ‘The Final Tour: The Bootleg Series, Vol.6’

4. ‘Freddie Freeloader’ by Miles Davis from ‘Kind Of Blue’

5. ‘Naima’ by John Coltrane from ‘Giant Steps’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

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