I Was There When: Miles Davis Impressed Burlington’s Flynn Theater On 12/13/86

Across the entire range of names under which it’s operated during the course of its approximately ninety-year existence, The Flynn has hosted its share of iconic figures. I Was There When This despite the fact that he left more than a few in attendance wondering what they were seeing and hearing

Having returned from his five-year hiatus early in the decade, ‘The Man With The Horn’ orchestrated his band using the instrument as a baton, almost as much (or more?) than he played it. And, as was also his wont during this period, Davis quite often played keyboards during the show, usually as means to harmonize with his trumpet or other instruments in the arrangement. Either way, he was ever cognizant of the prompts he was giving during selections like “Star People.” 

The signals were alternately overt and subtle, whether to continue in the direction they were moving, as in the opening segue of “One Phone Call”/”Street Scenes,” or during the more conventional progression they pursued together on Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time;” on both of the latter numbers, Davis took opportunities, however fleeting, to remind how distinctive and gentle touch he retained on his instrument (he did his share of braying though, too, as on “Splatch”). Those intervals also served to delineate how imaginative these takes on decidedly pop-oriented material, such as the mix of reggae rhythm with oriental accents on the latter.

It’s safe to say that, even without obvious gestures of any kind,  Miles Davis would’ve garnered attention from an audience left at least partially stunned by what it heard and saw. This colorfully (garishly?) attired man belied his age in connecting with the younger accompanists with whom he had surrounded himself: guitarist Garth Webber replaced the much higher profile guitarist Robben Ford. Rejoining the band around this same time too was bassist Darryl Jones (who would go on to be hired by the Rolling Stones in the next decade), while in the very same month of this December concert, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison enlisted to play alongside Bob Berg for a short period.

If, at one time or another, all these musicians played with an eye toward cues from the frontman, the percussionists unceasingly and instinctively maintained the ebb and flow of rhythm on selections like the cover of Scritti Politti’s “Perfect Way” or the title song of Tutu (Miles’ debut for Warner Brothers label after some three decades at Columbia Records). Sitting at his drum kit, Davis’ nephew Vince Wilburn Jr. invariably kept focused on Steve Thornton and Marilyn Mazur so he could, in turn, fill the spaces in the beats they created or set a pace to which they could accommodate themselves.

The somewhat abrupt conclusion to the single set was a marked contrast to the slow-growing acclamation greeting Davis and company as they took the stage. Yet the finish was ultimately no more or less authoritative than the commencement of the playing that subsequently proceeded virtually uninterrupted for the duration of the roughly two-hour concert; as with all the most memorable musical presentations, time seemed to simultaneously stop and pass in a flash within this storied house during an overflow of sensory stimulation.

Miles Davis Setlist Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, Burlington, VT, USA 1986


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