Reflecting the life of a mercurial jazz musician in a static museum exhibit seems like an impossible feat, and it's true that some of We Want Miles: Miles Davis vs. Jazz, an exhibition that runs at Montreal's Museum of Fine Arts until August 29, can feel a little overly staged. If you've spent hours listening to Davis' music, though, the exhibit can also move you in strange ways.
Stare down the length of one of the several Davis trumpets encased in glass and try not to imagine what it takes to breathe life into the instrument and move several generations of listeners to tears. Examine John Coltrane's tenor saxophone in detail and remember what flowed through his lungs and fingers and out of that horn. Or watch Tony Williams suddenly slam his hi-hat in a totally unexpected gesture that, in that instant, makes perfect musical sense and defines his genius.
Music plays throughout the exhibit, and pieces that you've heard hundreds of times take on new hues as you stare at blowups of studio photographs or album artwork. A long segment of the 1960s quintet—with Williams, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter—shimmers magically on a large, transparent digital screen, and an excerpt from Davis' electrifying show at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival dominates a dark room.
For my taste, there is too little of Davis' humour (don't you just know that the long-rumoured biographical film will be filled with drug use and dark deeds) and not enough from his prime decade spanning Kind Of Blue and Bitches Brew, but there's no denying the reverence and attention paid.
I spent an enjoyable four hours lost inside the exhibit, and left wishing that more, less venerated, artists could have this kind of care taken with their memory.
Here's a video blog entry on the exhibit, including a few words from Davis' youngest son Erin and his nephew Vince Wilburn.