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Music Museum exhibit trumpets the enigmatic Miles Davis

Miles Davis, from the photo shoot for the 1985 album You're Under Arrest.

Anthony Barboza/Anthony Barboza

Miles Davis was not an easy man to know.

A towering figure in jazz, he started winning magazine polls in 1947, when he was a 21-year-old playing bebop with Charlie Parker, and stayed at the top almost to his death, in 1991. Although he made no attempt at being entertaining - indeed, he often played with his back to the audience - he was at least as well known as Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington.

But he was also an enigma, with a guarded personality and a penchant for self-mythologizing, ensuring that neither his friends nor his biographers ever fully understood what made him tick.

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If you walk into We Want Miles at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal expecting to understand the mystery behind the man, you may be disappointed (though you'll surely learn things). Instead, the show takes what is, in many ways, a more difficult tack: helping us to understand the man's music.

Music is not easily enshrined in a museum. We go to look at things, to stare and contemplate. Music is neither visible nor stationary; we need to hear it, to feel it move. That's particularly the case with the music of Davis, whose career covered an enormous amount of ground.

Where other jazz giants are lucky to have been linked to a single stylistic revolution, Davis is credited with at least four: cool jazz, which grew out of a 1949 nonet he led with Canadian-born arranger Gil Evans; hard bop, the soulful, blues-grounded style that has largely defined mainstream jazz since the mid-fifties; modal jazz, a scale-based approach introduced on the 1959 album Kind of Blue (and which provided John Coltrane with the toolbox for his subsequent recordings); and jazz fusion, the rock-inflected style popularized by his million-selling 1970 album Bitches Brew.

The challenge facing an exhibit like We Want Miles isn't simply to find ways of illustrating that much music history; it's to make it comprehensible to the musically untutored without boring serious fans. A tough task, but one We Want Miles handles surprisingly well.

Take, for example, the way it presents Kind of Blue, a major touchstone in Davis's career and one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time. Rather than try to reintroduce the album to us, this section of the exhibit takes us behind the scenes. The sound system plays bits from the session that include incomplete takes and studio chatter. Displayed on the wall are three sheets containing Bill Evans's hand-written liner notes, and a one-bar sketch of So What marked "After Paul Bass" indicating the horn part after Paul Chambers's opening bass figure. It's not often you get to reimagine a masterpiece as a work in progress.

We Want Miles doesn't shy away from the technical end of music-making. Around the corner from the Kind of Blue exhibit is a case containing a Martin Committee trumpet and a Selmer Balanced Action tenor saxophone. The former was Davis's horn in the mid-fifties; the latter had belonged to Coltrane. Five other Martin trumpets belonging to Davis are on display, most with exotic colour finishes, as well as the extremely rare Martin Magna flugelhorn he used on such albums as Porgy and Bess.

Even instruments that belonged to his sidemen are included. Among them: a Gretsch drum kit that Tony Williams played in the mid-sixties, and the Fodera Monarch bass guitar Marcus Miller played on Tutu. Gearheads will be in heaven.

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Music is featured throughout the exhibit, of course, and not just recordings. There are handwritten parts from two of the arrangements used on the Birth of the Cool sessions, assorted parts from Evans's arrangement of the Porgy and Bess number Gone, Gone, Gone (the lead trumpet part is simply marked "Miles"), as well as handwritten lead sheets by Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. When I was there, pianist Robert Glasper, in town for the jazz festival, spent several minutes studying Shorter's Dolores.

Although we hear David more than see him, the show's visual component can be stunning. Gazing at blowups of Davis onstage with saxophonist Lester Young may not be the same as having been there, but seeing the affection in the trumpeter's eyes is priceless. There are album covers by the score, paintings both inspired by Davis and made by him, and even some clothing designed for Davis by couturier Kohshin Satoh.

Naturally, there's also video. Some of it seems a bit silly - for instance, footage of Davis and his wife Frances arriving in Paris in 1963. Some, such as the footage of the trumpeter working out in a boxing ring, is unexpectedly illuminating.

Mostly, there's some sublime performance stuff, such as the large-screen display of his 1970 performance at the Isle of Wight festival (his band then included Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette), and an appearance at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal in 1985.

One room of the exhibit is devoted to the 1958 Louis Malle film Ascenseur pour l'échafaud, for which Davis recorded the soundtrack. It's interesting to see footage of Davis improvising music for the movie. But the size of the display compared to other films Davis made music for - Jack Johnson, for example, or Dingo - says more about the show's bias toward Davis's French connections than anything else. But then, We Want Miles was organized by Cité de la Musique in Paris, so a certain degree of chauvinism might be expected.

We Want Miles: Miles Davis vs. Jazz continues to Aug. 29 ( www.mbam.qc.ca).

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