Original Liner Notes
The expression is common to many languages and cultures. Known as “hitting the target,” “being on target,” “hitting bull’s eye,” “shooting in the eye,” and many other variations on the same theme, it describes the exhilaration that comes from getting things right. It's the powerful and universal experience of striking gold, when everything comes together and fits perfectly.
Hitting bull’s eye is often accompanied by a whiff of inexplicable magic. Suddenly and quite unexpectedly, without any apparent difficulty, a creation comes into being that’s so bang on target that it takes our breath away. This magic is a clearly recognizable part of Miles Davis’s first album for Warner Bros, Tutu. Many people will remember their first encounter with Irving Penn’s extraordinary cover photograph of Miles’s face when the album first appeared in 1986. It exemplified many of the qualities that we have come to associate with Miles Davis, whether his personality or his music: severe, imposing, cool, mysterious, larger than life, and utterly vulnerable and beautiful, all at the same time.
The cover fit the music like a glove—Marcus Miller, the main player and writer of the music on the album, had also hit the target. The foil he created for Miles to cast his trumpet spell over consists of complex orchestral-sounding arrangements performed largely on synthesizers and drum machines. Pioneering in 1986, some of the music retains a timeless quality today, especially the title track, which came together during the first serendipitous sessions for the album. In addition to Miles and Miller, they featured the legendary producer Tommy LiPuma, engineer Eric Calvi, and the synthesizer programming skills of Adam Holzman and Jason Miles (the latter was not present, but had programmed sounds for Miller’s demos that were used on the final version).
Holzman, LiPuma, and Miller all retain vivid memories of the palpable sense of magic that accompanied these early sessions at Capitol Recordings Studios in Los Angeles. “It was probably the hippest time to be there,” Holzman explained. “There was that creative, magical buzz going on that you get when you know you’re really onto something, something that’s unique, and that has a really special, new sound. It was a very exciting and charged time.”
“I’ll never forget when Miles put his solo on 'Tutu',” LiPuma added. “It was the first time down. Bam, that was it. I kept looking around to the tape machine, making sure it was recording, because it was so good. Overdubbing the non-solo parts to the track probably cost Miles a couple of hours, and Marcus, Eric, and myself spent an evening picking the best sections and putting it all together. I remember when I left the studio in the early hours of the morning, I must have played the track ten times on the way to the hotel. I couldn't get over it. When I got up in the morning, I immediately played it again. It had a magic quality about it. I hadn't heard Miles play like that in a long time. It blew me away.”
“I felt like, this is new and actually sounds like Miles at the same time,” Marcus Miller commented. “I was really excited about that. I was trying to find a way to combine what I knew to be Miles's personality and musical identity with what was happening in music at that time. My first reactions are usually the best, so that became Tutu. And the album cover was so sweet man, it had so much mood to it. The music had exactly the same mood. The people who worked on the art work just went right to it, right to the heart of the music.”
Desmond Tutu and Tommy LiPuma
In an uncanny act of synchronicity, Tutu, named by Miller and LiPuma after the South-African bishop Desmond Tutu, is also the Yoruban word for “cool.” For the Yoruba people of south-west Nigeria “tutu” means, “The state of being composed... [it] is an ethical/aesthetic quality... The person who is composed behaves in a measured and rational way; he or she is controlled, proud, dignified, and cool.” The Western adaptation of the word has gradually lost its original meaning of poise to the point that it now mainly refers to pose, to being fashionable or trendy.
But some echoes of the deeper roots of the word “cool” remain, and more than any other artist in contemporary Western culture Miles Davis embodies this. He has been called “the coolest man who ever lived,” and such hyperbole suggests an intuitive recognition that his coolness was about more than just pose, that it was about his capacity for maintaining dignity under pressure, in the original Yoruban sense of the word. The album’s title was right on target in more ways than Miller, LiPuma, and Miles had envisioned. Bull’s eye.
It has often been assumed that Tutu came out of nowhere, and/or that it was mainly the brainchild of Marcus Miller and George Duke (who contributed one track). However, many of its influences stretch back all the way to Miles’s early beginnings New York in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and the place where he grew up, East St. Louis, Illinois. In Miles Beyond: the Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991, I trace those ingredients that were known at the time of writing. The Last Word makes several new missing links available for the first time, meaning that the story of Miles’s final era, his Warner years, can now be told with more accuracy and detail than ever before.
Perhaps the most crucial thing to keep in mind when surveying the musical development of Miles Dewey Davis III is how much he was influenced by different cultures. Born on May 26, 1926, Miles came from a well-to-do middle class background, highly unusual for a black family in those years. There were also substantial amounts of Native American blood running through his mother’s veins. As a result, the young Miles combined aspects of the white American dream with a strong awareness of black culture, racial issues, as well as a Native Americans mode of being that fit like a glove with the Yoruban concept of coolness. This eclectic melting pot made Miles Davis a quintessential 20th century North-American, and led him to spend his life exploring and blending as many different influences and cultures as he could. Until his death he was focussed on building bridges between different musical styles, while working with musicians of a great variety of ethnic, cultural, and musical backgrounds
During his forty-six year recording career Miles hit bull’s eye in an astonishing amount of musical styles and directions. Driven by an intense musical openness and curiosity he had, as his friend and legendary musician Gil Evans once famously pointed out, the courage to trust his own ears rather than continuously look over his shoulder to find out what other people were thinking. In addition, Miles possessed a remarkable talent for spotting the undercover talents of bright young musicians and getting them to play, as he put it, “what they know, and more than what they know.” As a result, Miles’s music went through myriads of musical changes, always keeping his finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist and drawing on his past at the same time, and regularly containing an element of transcendence, of more-than-what-we-know.
The first indication of Miles’s bridge-building instincts was his musical education, which was as strongly influenced by the popular music played in blues bars, jazz clubs, and dance halls as by the formal teachings of his trumpet tutor Elwood Buchanan. Buchanan taught him to play without vibrato, one of the most important lessons the young Miles received. It formed the foundation for Miles’s inimitable, immediately recognizable trumpet sound and style, which spoke of yearning, of softly whispered words and cries from the heart, of tenderness and of loneliness. It humanized everything he did, instantly connecting with the hearts of millions of listeners, and of countless musicians—as the tributes in this booklet testify. Combined with the often aloof, stern, uncompromising persona he displayed to the world, it added to the air of mystery that surrounded him.
Miles arrived in New York in September 1944, where his education continued in the jazz clubs in Harlem and in 52nd Street—under the tutelage of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie—as well as in Juilliard, a classical music college. Although Miles left Juilliard after a year and spoke negatively of his experiences there, classical music influences were to remain part of his music until his death. They immediately came to the fore when he first formulated his own direction in music, after having risen to prominence as one of the champions of bebop in Charlie Parker’s bands of the mid to late 1940s. In 1949, Miles put together a nine-piece orchestra that played the orchestral arrangements of Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, and John Caresi. The resulting album, The Birth Of The Cool, became one of the most influential in the history of jazz.
By the middle of the 1950s Miles had risen to the position of the world’s leading jazz musician. Exemplifying how he transcended traditional boundaries his fame spread to the mainstream and he counted many whites among his fans. His prominence was the result of his explorations into hardbop, a blues-influenced development of bebop, most notably with the legendary “first great quintet,” featuring saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones. In 1959, with Coltrane, Chambers, saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, pianists Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly, and drummer Jimmy Cobb, Miles gave birth to the most famous and best-selling jazz album of all time, Kind Of Blue.
As if this was not enough, Miles also recorded three celebrated orchestral recordings during the late 1950s, Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and Sketches of Spain. Made in collaboration with Gil Evans, these recordings once more exemplified Miles’s classical leanings. And during 1964-1968, Miles was part of the legendary “second great quintet,” with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. This group explored the outer boundaries of jazz and flirted with free-jazz, before going beyond jazz by incorporating the music styles that came out of the ‘60s counterculture, such as folk, soul, funk, and rock.
Until this point Miles’s musical progression had unfolded without any notable controversy. But when Miles’s openness towards different cultures led him to embrace the music of the ‘60s counterculture many of his jazz colleagues and fans, blinded by snobbish prejudice and envy at rock’s popularity, attacked him viciously, accusing him of “selling out,” “self-violation,” and so on. The landmark jazz-rock album Bitches Brew, recorded in August 1969, was the first major source of contention. It paved the way for the entire ‘70s jazz-rock movement, with many of the players, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Lenny White, going on to found famous bands such as Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Return To Forever.
After Bitches Brew, Miles and the jazz world increasingly parted company. Elaborate melodies, arrangements, structures, and chord schemes almost entirely had disappeared on the experimental precursor of dub and dance music, On The Corner (1972), and the Herculean psychedelic funk-rock experiments of Agharta and Pangaea (1975). Instead Miles explored African influences using short phrases, circular bass vamps, and multi-layered rhythms. In its time this music was derided by jazz critics and all but forgotten by others, but an ongoing re-appraisal began in the ’90s, demonstrating how far ahead of its time it was.
Painful physical problems, a connected slide into drug problems, and the constant barrage of criticism from his native musical community, took their toll on Miles. From late 1975 to early 1980 he drew the curtains of his New York apartment, didn’t touch his trumpet, and retreated into a destructive netherworld of drug abuse, depression, and sexual excess. Miles turned 50 in 1976, and with many jazz musicians dying in their 40s and 50s, few would have been surprised if they’d been informed of news of his death. For this reason his unexpected comeback in 1981 attained mythological proportions, making headline news around the world.
Although Miles’s trumpet skills left much to be desired in the early 1980s, his old magic still shone through in his phrasing and choice of notes, and in his scouting of some of the brightest young talents in jazz of the day. His live band members—guitarist Mike Stern, saxophonist Bill Evans, and bassist Marcus Miller—were top-flight musicians, who have since become important artists in their own right. Drummer Al Foster, with whom Miles had worked since 1972, complemented the new quintet. A few years later known jazz players like guitarist John Scofield and saxophonist Bob Berg would also rise to new heights under Miles’s tutelage.
After Miles’s comeback the strong African influences had largely gone, and his music was less abstract, in part based again on the traditional theme-solos-theme format. Miles seemed to want to ease himself back into his armour by working with more traditional structures and material, occasionally even reverting to traditional jazz swing rhythms, as well as to playing “My Man’s Gone Now” from Porgy and Bess. As part of this drive to reconnect with his St. Louis blues roots, Miles also played straight blues again in the track “Star People” (recorded in 1982), from the eponymous album.
Around the same time, 1982, Miles’s confidence and energy had grown enough for him to aspire to the exploration of new musical horizons again. He asked Gil Evans to transcribe certain sections of solos by his band members, particularly Mike Stern and John Scofield. These transcribed lines functioned as themes, and were played over ferocious driving funk rhythms. Both Stern and Scofield use many chromatic (out of the regular scale) notes in their improvisations, reason why I call the resulting musical style Miles’s “chromatic funk” direction. It was arguably his most explicit and successful attempt at radical experimentation during the 1980s, and the results can be heard on Star People (1983), Decoy (1984), You’re Under Arrest(1985), Alive Around The World (1996), and The Last Word.
Decoy also contained Miles’s first attempt at integrating the technology that was prominent in the rock music of the day. Robert Irving wrote the arresting title track, that featured chromatic melodies, polyphonic harmony, and several synthesizers and drum machines. And You’re Under Arrest contained covers of Cindy Lauper’s “Time After Time,” Toto’s “Human Nature,” and “D” Train’s “Something’s On Your Mind.” Some jazz critics predictably reached for the “selling-out” charge again, but Miles commented that these covers were entirely in line with his adaptation in the ‘50s and ‘60s of such popular songs as “My Funny Valentine” or “Some Day My Prince Will Come.” During 1985-1991, “Time After Time” was to achieve a similarly iconic trademark status for him as “My Funny Valentine” had done almost three decades earlier.
In May and June 1985 Miles signed contracts with Warner Bros., the record company, and Warner Chappell Music, the music publishers, respectively, thus ending a fruitful 30-year relationship with Columbia records. Whatever Miles’s reasons for this surprising move, he subsequently complained that his then manager had given away too much of his publishing rights to Warner Chappell, and gave this as the reason why so few of his Warner recordings are of his own hand.
It is true that almost all Miles’s Warners studio work was composed for him by others, and that his live music, in which he was not hampered by publishing contracts, incorporated more of his own musical material. But it is too simplistic to claim that the direction of Miles’s studio music was dictated purely by the nature of his contract with Warner Bros. There is an inherent logic to both his live and studio music during his Warner years that has roots going back a few years to several decades.
Regarding his studio music, what emerges from The Last Word is how intensely Miles was looking for new directions after his signing to Warners. The first track he recorded for his new company, “Maze,” in September 1985, is point in case. While at heart a continuation of the “chromatic funk” direction instigated on Star People, “Maze” expands on the concept by incorporating contemporary pop and rhythm and blues influences.
According to Adam Holzman, keyboardist with Miles’s band from October 1985 to October 1989 and co-producer of The Last Word, the track was in part inspired by the music of the Frankie Beverly & Maze, a popular funk and soul-influenced rhythm and blues outfit. Miles was a big fan of the band, and the three-note riff right at the beginning of the track was adapted from them. In addition, Miles improvised a chromatic-sounding phrase that is used as a theme and played repeatedly throughout the track by Miles, Bob Berg, and Mike Stern. It can first be heard just after the two-minute mark, seconds after Angus Thomas drops out of his ferocious bass riff and switches to half time. A second theme was also used, and can be heard soon after Stern’s solo.
“Maze” became a regular feature of the live concerts. On this studio version the interplay between the musicians sounds seamless. Miles is prominently present on open horn, taking several awesome solos. Mike Stern, who had returned to the band in the month before (replacing John Scofield), also takes a scorching solo, and contributes some great accompanying licks, while Bob Berg on soprano saxophone is given space to show off his considerable skills. This rendition of “Maze” is an indisputable highlight of The Last Word.
Quite why Miles did not continue on the path set with “Maze” is unclear. But it seems likely that it was at least in part due to his reluctance to issue his own compositions on his Warner Bros. recordings, because soon after signing the new deal, Miles approached several musicians who were not part of his band with requests to write material for him. It was something he had not done since his albums with Gil Evans in the late 1950s. One of the musicians Miles approached was Randy Hall, who had co-written and played on two tracks of Miles’s 1981 comeback album The Man With The Horn, and who was now working with guitarist/writer Zane Giles.
Hall, Giles, with help from Adam Holzman, and the occasional involvement of percussionist Steve Reid, saxophonist Glen Burris, keyboardists Neil Larsen and Wayne Linsey, and Vince Wilburn, took part in what has become known as the “Rubber Band sessions,” taking place in Los Angeles from October 1985 to January 1986. The material was never officially released, although Miles’s soloing from two of the tracks was used on Doo-bop (1992). The Last Word finally lifts the veil on these sessions with two of its best tracks, “Rubber Band” and “See I See.”
“Rubber Band” was recorded during the first session of October 17, with the help of Mike Stern, who Miles had flown in from New York for the occasion. “The groove really pops,” Holzman asserted. “Zane and Randy were going for a Cameo [a synth-based ‘80s band] vibe, using a synthesizer bass and drum machine. They decided to create only a very skeletal structure, because Miles often changed and added things. The whole thing came together in an afternoon. I played a little bit on MiniMoog and PPG synthesizers, Miles also played some keyboards, and Zane and Randy were on rhythm guitars. Miles was very excited about the track. He played around with a short phrase, constantly turning these notes up and down and inside out. Against that huge wallop of a track it’s very effective.”
Miles and his band went on a European tour immediately after the October 17 session. Studio sessions took place intermittently after his and Holzman’s return in November, with Giles and Hall recording more than a dozen tracks during as many sessions. Much of the material was not finished, while the musical directions were very diverse, including pop, rhythm, and blues, soul ballads, latin and calypso, and so on. According Holzman, “Miles played great on about half of the tracks, but didn’t play on some others.”
In January 1986, Miles had a musical idea of his own, and called Holzman over to his Malibu home. “He played me some melodies,” Holzman recalled. “I transcribed them and recorded them on keyboards. I also programmed a drum machine, Zane added some electric bass, Miles played the atmospheric keyboard intro, and overdubbed his horn part pretty much in one take. The chromatic melodies that are played on the synthesizers [played soon after Miles comes in for the first time on muted trumpet] are Miles’s original idea. I dropped them in were I thought they were cool. This became ‘See I See.’ The track has a kind of trancey feel that is quite popular at the moment.”
When working on the “Rubber Band” material, Miles had also approached keyboardist/composer George Duke. The two had met in 1971, when Miles told Duke that he’d call with a view to the keyboardist joining his band. He did not call until 1985, but now Miles asked Duke to write a few songs. The result was “Backyard Ritual.” “It had an R&B edge,” Duke commented, “because Miles and I both lean that way. I think it’s the reason he called me.”
In addition, another artist offered his services to Miles without being invited. Sometime in late 1985/early 1986, Miles received a package from Prince. According to Miles it contained a letter that read, “If this tape is of any use to you, please go ahead and play whatever you feel over it. Because I trust what you hear and play.” The enclosed track was called “Can I Play With U,” and consisted of some frantic playing and singing by Prince, with horn overdubs by Eric Leeds.
With a body of unrelated tracks in diverse styles accumulating, yet no clear focus in sight, the then head of the jazz division of Warner Bros., Tommy LiPuma, became concerned. LiPuma was a big-name producer who had worked with Barbra Streisand and George Benson, and he suggested to Miles that he produce the project. Perhaps becoming aware that producing wasn’t really his métier, Miles agreed to LiPuma’s involvement. The producer immediately steered things in a new direction. He’d heard the “Rubber Band” sessions, but concluded, “I wasn't too impressed with what I heard. I wanted to take a different direction.” This left only the Prince and Duke tracks as serious contenders for the new album. LiPuma wondered where he was going to get more material and found the answer in Marcus Miller, with whom he had already worked on David Sanborn/Bob James and George Benson/Earl Klugh albums, and who had played in Miles’s live band 1981-83.
To give Miller some sense of where things were heading, LiPuma played him “Backyard Ritual,” which seemed to offer the most promising direction forward. “When I heard the track,” Miller recalled,” I thought, ‘Wow, if Miles is willing to start using drum machines and stuff, let me show my take on that.’ George’s track gave me a direction, and I wrote ‘Tutu,’ ‘Portia,’ and ‘Splatch’ in response. I demo-ed them using synthesizers and drum machines, as well as bass guitar and bass clarinet.”
When Miller arrived in Los Angeles with his demos in hand, he was surprised to be almost instantly asked by LiPuma to turn them into multi-track master tapes, alone, without any additional musicians. “I thought that the demos that Marcus brought in were just great,” LiPuma explained his decision not to use musicians from Miles’s live band. “The drum tracks on ‘Tutu’ were done on a drum machine, but in the manner of a jazz drummer, playing licks and things like that. It was the first time I had heard a drum machine playing those types of manoeuvres. It was innovative. Prior to that drum machines just laid down a groove.”
LiPuma now had five tracks: one track by Prince and Duke each plus the three tracks by Marcus Miller. Since it was “Tutu” that had the greatest sense of hitting bull’s eye, LiPuma asked Miller to write additional similar material to fill out the album. In New York, with Jason Miles assisting on synthesizer programming, Miller wrote and recorded “Tomaas,” Don’t Lose Your Mind,” and “Full Nelson.” The latter, with its staccato, hiphop-like rhythm was deliberately designed by Miller to be “a bridge with the Prince track”—the title was a reference to both Miles’s 1950s song “Half Nelson,” and Prince’s last name, “Nelson.” Inspired by the success of Miles’s treatments of “Time After Time” and “Human Nature,” LiPuma had also been looking for a pop song to cover, but it was Miles himself who came up with Scritti Politti’s “Perfect Way,” and the idea that it was made the title song of the album.
LiPuma instead suggested calling the finished album Tutu. Prince was responsible for the omission of his track; apparently he felt that “Can I Play With U” did not fit with the rest of the music on the album. The playful, almost throwaway energy and lyrics of “Can I Play With U” are indeed of a very different nature than Miller’s material. Miller had taken his inspiration for his harmonies and arrangements from the voicings that Gil Evans had used on The Birth Of The Cool, and that Herbie Hancock had applied with the second great quintet. Combined with Miller’s eminently hummable melodies these roused Miles to some of his most lyrical and melodic playing since the 1960s.
Tutu has a grandeur and a coolness that has led some people to see it as a Birth Of The Cool for the 1980s. Yet it is so different from Miles’s 1940s and 1950s work that direct qualitative comparisons are rather pointless. Tutu is best judged on its own terms, and what can be said is that despite the dated sound of some of the drum programming and sampling, parts of the album still hold up in the 21st century. Of course, Tutu was not as musically influential as Miles’s collaborations with Gil Evans, but it nevertheless set new standards for instrumental music in the 1980s. The rich melodies and tapestries of Tutu became the blueprint for much of the music of Miles’s last five years.
Tutu had a powerful impact immediately after its release in September 1986. It became one of the era-defining albums of the ‘80s, and won Miles a Grammy for “Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Soloist.” Like his other watershed album, Bitches Brew released sixteen years earlier, it delivered Miles an entirely new and mostly young audience, and separated his audience into two sides that could agree on very little. Tutu was heralded as “the best jazz record of the decade” (writer/musician Mike Zwerin), despised as “glossy, coffee-table music,” or dismissed out of hand by jazz fans because of the abundance of synthesizers and drum machines.
There were also critics who regarded it as all but a Marcus Miller solo album in name, but others recognized the parallels with Miles’s orchestral work with Gil Evans, in which the latter also provided a backdrop for Miles to shine over as a soloist. And like with the collaborations with Gil Evans, Miles’s spirit permeated the whole of Tutu. “I did everything with Miles in mind,” Miller commented, “and would never have done this music had it not been for him. I mean, with who else would I have been able to get away with these harmonies, or these kinds of rhythms?”
However one judges Tutu, it is indisputably a studio creation in which Miles had less hands-on creative involvement than most of his other recordings. The absence of a band meant that he could not play to one of his main fortés: directing a group of musicians to “play what they know, and play above what they know” with the power of his presence and his trumpet playing. He certainly inspired Marcus Miller and George Duke to compose “more than what they know,” but during his Warner years Miles’s talents as a band leader and arranger found their main expression on the live stage. Here he experimented with a wide range of directions, from jazz to rock to go-go to orchestral-type arrangements to pop ballads to chromatic funk. “I think that in some ways you have elements of his whole career appearing in the sets that we were playing in the late 80's,” Adam Holzman remarked. “Without claiming to know what was on his mind, he might have been wrapping things up.”
Confirming the perception that there was more than a whiff of revisiting his past in his late 1980s live music, Miles told writer Bob Doerschuk in 1987, “I’m crazy about the way Gil Evans voices his music. So I wanted to get me a Gil Evans sound in a small band. That required an instrument like the synthesizer, which can get all these different instrumental sounds.”
The rapid technological advancement of the synthesizer in the 1980s meant that Miles could finally realize his old dream: to tour with a band capable of playing Gil-Evans-like orchestral arrangements. Always with his finger on the pulse of the latest developments Miles began working with this new generation of synthesizers in 1982 on Star People. Keyboard player Robert Irving’s, who played an important part in the creation of Decoy became part of the live band in August 1983. Holzman joined immediately after the “Rubber Band Session” of October 1985, and together the two musicians laid down many layers of richly colored synthesizer parts. In this context Tutu came as a godsend. Miles did now not only have the technical means and the personnel, but also the musical material at his disposal to fulfil his old dream.
The above is not intended to suggest that Miles’s work with synthesizers and sophisticated arrangements was purely backwards looking. As always during his long career, Miles drew on the past while simultaneously taking his music to a new level. An indication of the intensity of his creative search on the live stage during his Warner years was that he enlisted an astonishing 32 musicians and played at least different 50 tunes. Almost half of these songs have yet to be released.
There has been relatively little critical and public recognition of this live music. This was perhaps partly due to the fact that during Miles’s life only two fairly obscure visual registrations were officially available: a Pioneer video and laser disc of a concert on June 28, 1985, Live In Montreal, and the Warner DVD/video Miles in Paris, documenting a performance of November 3, 1989. The superior Live Around The World, documenting tracks performed between August 1988 and August 1991, was not released until 1996, and was instantly lauded by reviewers around the world. [This was written before the superb The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux, 1973-1991 came out.]
The Last Word again makes some important live material officially available, in this case from the summer of 1986 and from Miles’s celebratory concert at La Villette in Paris on July 10, 1991. The latter will be discussed further down, but the relevance of the live music of 1986 is greatly enhanced by the presence of one of America’s greatest blues and fusion guitarists, Robben Ford. Ford had entered Miles’s live band in April 1986, after mediation by LiPuma, who produced some of the recordings Ford had done with the Yellowjackets.
To capture the live band featuring Robben Ford, Warners recorded several performances of the European tour of July 1986, four in Nice, and one in Montreux. The recordings of two of these concerts meant another bull’s eye hit. “We played some brilliant stuff in Montreux,” Ford explained. “The band really came together that night, and Miles played some of the best trumpet playing I ever heard when I was with him or afterwards.” “Miles and Robben sounded awesome in Montreux,” Holzman concurred. “But the last recorded concert in Nice was also really fantastic. That’s where the ‘Opening Medley’ comes from.”
This “Opening Medley” is in fact “One Phone Call/Street Scenes,” the opening track of You’re Under Arrest. “One Phone Call” is based on a riff used in “Right Off,” from A Tribute to Jack Johnson (Miles’s 1970 film score for the film of the same name) and adapted from Sly Stone’s “Sing A Simple Song.” “Street Scenes” is based on one of the two chromatic themes and funk vamps of “Speak” from Star People.
This “Opening Medley” was Miles’s set-opener from April 1985 to February 1988, functioning as a knock-out, high-energy introduction. Especially notable in this blazing version are Miles’s dominant open horn playing, a great solo by Robben Ford, and the catchy little fill-ins with which the keyboards ornament the main melody towards the end. “Time After Time” is taken from the same concert, and features some delicate interplay by Ford and Miles.
“Miles would just nod to you when he wanted you to take a solo,” Robben Ford reminisced. “The trouble was, it wasn’t up to you when to end your solo. So it was very hard to develop your solo with a sense of: ‘OK, this is my beginning phrase, and I’ll develop this, and I’m going to peak there.’ It’s the way most musicians solo, but since Miles might let you go on and on and on, it was hard not just to blow your brains out. He gave you enough rope to hang yourself, or to prove yourself. You’re playing almost in a state of panic, it’s like either sink or swim. He’d often end your improvisation by coming back in on his trumpet, usually to very dramatic effect.”
Two other tracks from Ford’s tenure with the band included on this set are “Tutu,” performed on Night Music on US television, and “Portia,” recorded in Montreux. Alto saxophonist David Sanborn was a guest star for the last half hour of Miles’s Montreux concert, and distinguishes himself with some gloriously lyrical lines. Sanborn, one of the world’s foremost horn players, commented, “Miles sounded great. Your sense of time and your use of space do not leave you. Whether or not his chops were the same as before is irrelevant. If you apply purely technical standards Billie Holiday was perhaps not as great a singer in her later years as she was in her earlier years. But to me her music was more meaningful in her later years, because she told a story. And Miles did the same, he told a story.”
The story Miles Davis’s Warner years was characterized by a quickening of developments on many different fronts. They became his superstar years, courtesy of the hits he had enjoyed with “Time After Time,” “Human Nature,” and Tutu, all of which attracted a new, younger, and much larger audience. In tandem with this, Miles began to wear striking, richly colorful outfits, sometimes created for him by the likes of famous fashion designers such as Gianni Versace and Koshin Satoh. These colors reflected the multitude of instrumental colors that were now the hallmark of his music, as well as the bright colors of his paintings. His third wife Cicely Tyson had given him some drawing pads and pencils in the early 1980s, but what began as a kind of occupational therapy gradually developed into a full-blown career, featuring art exhibitions and art books.
Another, perhaps inevitable, aspect of Miles’s superstar status were the endless invitations to do interviews and appear on talk shows, advertisements, and in television series and movies. Perhaps tired of his previous aloof and stern persona, Miles loosened up so much that he began talking to his audiences, did more interviews than during his entire previous career, appeared on talk shows and in advertisements, and in an episode of Miami Vice. Two other signs of his increasing mainstream popularity were invitations to play on other people’s recordings, and to write the music for films and TV series.
A “best of” selection of Miles’s guest performances of 1985-1991 is presented on The Last Word. The earliest dates from the summer of 1985, when he played on three tracks on Sun City, by Little Steven’s Artists Against Apartheid, which also featured Peter Gabriel, Bono, Lou Reed, Bruce Springsteen, and others. The track included here, “The Struggle Continues,” saw Miles reunited with three of the other four members of his second great quintet, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. Although rather formless, the song is characterized by a driving groove, and excellent solos by Miles, guitarist Stanley Jordan and Herbie Hancock, while Miles can be heard saying a few words.
On the film score front, in October 1985 Miles recorded a number of cues for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents called “The Prisoner.” Some of this music, which mostly consisted of Irving on synthesizers and sequencers and Miles improvising, is made available on CD for the first time. “The demand of what the director wanted, meant that there were many pieces that weren’t typical Miles Davis,” Robert Irving explained. “And there wasn’t enough material to warrant a sound track album featuring Miles.”
Miles’s tour of other people’s recordings continued at an unknown date in 1986 with him playing muted horn on Toto’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” which appeared on the band’s album Fahrenheit. The track has a slow, lazy, midnight feel, and Miles distinguishes himself by cutting through what could otherwise have veered into slick smooth jazz. He also performed “Don’t Stop Me Now” a number of times with his live band.
Exactly a year after the sessions for “The Prisoner,” Miles recorded the sound track to Street Smart, a movie featuring Morgan Freeman, Christopher Reeves, and Mimi Rodgers. The music is slightly closer to Miles’s usual territory, and contains some excellent playing by members of his live band, among them Mike Stern and Bob Berg. It was Miles’s third major feature movie soundtrack, after a Ascenseur pour l’Échafaud in 1957 and A Tribute To Jack Johnson in 1970. But like with “The Prisoner,” the score of Street Smart was not substantial enough to warrant a complete soundtrack album.
This changed with Miles’s next venture into movie scoring, Siesta, a movie set in Spain featuring Ellen Barkin, Gabriel Byrne, Isabella Rossellini, Martin Sheen, Grace Jones, and Jodie Foster. The director, Mary Lambert, had used sections of Sketches of Spain as a temporary soundtrack, and wanted some newly composed music. Miles agreed to supply some, and together with Marcus Miller he recorded “Theme For Augustine” and “Siesta” in early January 1987. The former is based on an evocative melody written by Miles, while the latter has strong flamenco-influences, with Spanish guitar playing by John Scofield. Miles’s hauntingly beautiful playing on open horn is reminiscent of his best playing on Sketches Of Spain. The tracks were considered so successful that Miller and Miles were asked to write the remainder of the score. “I had to get it finished in two weeks, so I basically holed myself up in a studio, and knocked it out,” Miller commented.
Miles was much less part of the recording process for Siesta than with Tutu, and also does not play on all the tracks on the soundtrack. For this reason the album was issued as a Miles Davis-Marcus Miller collaboration, the first time Miles had shared billing since his albums with Gil Evans in the late 1950s. Despite the plastic nature of some of the synthesizer sounds, Siesta is a powerful work, lifted greatly by Miles’s exquisite open horn playing, especially in tracks like “Lost In Madrid Parts I and V,” and “Los Feliz.” Having written a Birth Of The Cool for the 1980s with Tutu, Miller had now delivered an update of Sketches Of Spain. This set contains for the first time some previously unreleased cues…
With two successful collaborations under their belt Miles and Miller went into the studio again in June 1987 for the recording of the follow-up to Tutu. This time Miles gave Miller strong directions on what musical influences he wanted to see on the album, most notably go-go and zouk. Go-go has a slightly skipping swingbeat and was invented in the 1970s by Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers in Washington D.C.. Drummer Ricky Wellman had been part of this band, and Miles enlisted him for his live band in March 1987. Zouk is a dance music originating from the French Antilles. “The question was, how do we go to the next step incorporating these two new elements and trying to build on what we started,” Miller commented.
With Miller also wanting to “involve more live musicians,” the scene was set for the creation of an album that was to sound and feel very different than Tutu. Amandla (meaning “power” in Zulu) was completed during a second series of sessions between September 1988 and January 1989, and featured live band players like Ricky Wellman, Joe “Foley” McCreary on lead bass, saxophonist Kenny Garrett, and keyboardist Joey DeFrancesco. The mood of the album is more colorful and upbeat than of Tutu. This is exemplified in the white cover with a colorful drawing made by Miles and Jo Gelbard, his romantic partner and artistic collaborator for much of his Warner years.
Like on Tutu, George Duke once more contributed a track, while Miles had taken an unknown young guitarist under his wing called John Bigham, who wrote several tunes. Only “Jilli” ended up on Amandla, characterized by a nervous skipping beat, Billy “Spaceman” Patterson’s weird wah-wah guitar effects, and strong solos by Kenny Garrett and Miller. The Last Word premières an outtake from Amandla written by Bigham, “Dig That.” Again featuring Patterson, it has a similar but slightly slower beat, and a strong presence from Miles, both on muted horn and, unusually, on vocals.
During the one-and-a-half year over which the recordings of Amandla were spread, Miles continued to tour relentlessly, and once again was a featured guest performer on other artists’ recordings. In December 1987 he recorded a track for the movie Scrooged, with David Sanborn, guitarist Larry Carlton, keyboardist Paul Schaffer, and Marcus Miller. “We Three Kings of Orient Are” is an excellent piece, with an intriguing, limping jazz rhythm, a strong atmosphere, and fine solos by Sanborn, Miles, and Carlton.
In the first month of 1988 Miles again found time to be a guest player, this time on Cameo’s “In The Night,” issued on their album Machismo. On the fierce, very ‘80s, funk/disco/reggae track Miles is expressive on open horn, and Kenny Garrett stars on alto saxophone, Half a year later, in June, Miles played on two songs on his old friend Chaka Khan’s album, C.K. One of them is included here, “Sticky Wicked.” Until The Last Word this was the only officially released evidence of Miles’s collaborations with Prince. Its frantic energy and intense rhythms, interspersed by brass playing from Eric Leeds and Atlanta Bliss, place this track in a similar vein as “Can I play With U.”
In the beginning of 1989 Miles played on Kenny Garrett’s solo album Prisoner Of Love. All musicians on the track included here, “Big ‘Ol Head,” Garrett, Foley, Wellman, bassist Darryl Jones, and percussionists Mino Cinelu and Rudy Bird, had been part of Miles’s live band during the late 1980s. This recording therefore offers an interesting window into how his live bands might have sounded had Miles gone into the recording studio during the late 1980s with a whole band, and without the addition of guest artists or drum machines. On the tight and funky evidence of “Big ‘Ol Head” we can only regret that this was a rare occasion.
Around 1989 Miles was beginning to take larger breaks between tours, a signs that he was increasingly often feeling unwell and needed to take care of himself. He also appeared to be retreating from the recording studio. Aside from a session guesting on Quincy Jones’s Back On The Block in March 1989, there were no more studio activities during the year. And even his next studio project, his collaboration with Michel Legrand for the film score to the movie Dingo, appeared to be done reluctantly.
Michel Legrand is a French composer, arranger, conductor, and virtuoso piano player. Classically trained, he has written over 200 film scores, and has crossed over into popular music, working with the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, and Barbra Streisand, and having his songs covered by Frank Sinatra, Cleo Laine, and Nina Simone. In 1958, Miles played on four songs issued on Legrand’s first jazz album, simply called, Legrand Jazz. A friendship between the two men developed, and they remained in touch over several decades.
In March 1990 Legrand received an unexpected phone call. “He called me The Frog, because of me being French,” Legrand explained. “He said to me: ‘The Frog, bring your ass to Los Angeles, because I’ve been asked to do the score of a movie, in which I am also supposed to act.’ When Miles calls, you go, so I took the first plane to Los Angeles, and went to visit Miles in his house in Malibu. For several days we just laughed, and drank, and joked, but didn’t do any work. He seemed tired and didn’t feel like working. In the end I said to him, ‘Miles, we promised to do this score, let’s do it.’”
During the sessions, which took place soon afterwards in Los Angeles and New York, Miles played with such sensitivity that he had Legrand in tears. Director Rolf De Heer had much excellent musical material to work with for his movie, which is set in the Australian outback and Paris. It tells the story of John Anderson, whose chance meeting at the age of ten with the famous trumpeter Billy Cross (Miles), inspires him to take up the trumpet. Anderson develops an unusual style (his parts are performed by trumpeter Chuck Findley), and as an adult, when his dreams of becoming a professional musician appear to come to nothing, he makes a pilgrimage to Paris to visit his hero. Cross is by now retired, but of course Anderson gets him to play again. Perhaps naïve in its story line and execution,Dingo is nevertheless a touching and affecting movie, in which Miles features prominently and impressively as a player and an actor.
Dingo contains a sizzling funk-jazz track in “The Jam Session,” featuring live band members keyboardist Kei Akagi, John Bigham on percussion, bassist Benny Rietveld, and Ricky Wellman. Most striking are the big band tracks, such as “Concert On The Runway,” “Trumpet Cleaning,” “Paris Walking II,” and “Going Home.” All feature a jazz feel, giving substance to Legrand’s assertion, “My first jazz album was with Miles, and his last jazz album was with me.” Echoes of Miles’s past hover over Dingo, for instance “Trumpet Cleaning” is based on the bass-vamp of “All Blues.” With a haunting and memorable main theme, wonderful arrangements, and great soloing by Miles, Dingo has long been a forgotten jewel in Miles’s discography, which may finally receive the attention it deserves through the inclusion of the tracks on which Miles plays in this set.
Two months after the recordings for Dingo, Miles was again involved in the recordings of a film score, but this time as a guest performer on the soundtrack for Dennis Hopper’s The Hot Spot, a movie starring Don Johnson, Virginia Madsen, and Jennifer Connolly. The music is entirely blues-based, and also features guitarists John Lee Hooker, Taj Mahal, and Roy Rodgers. Miles clearly enjoys going back to his blues roots and showing off his great blues phrasing in the company of these blues legends.
In the summer of 1990 Miles ventured into radically different musical territory, first by playing on some tracks by the Italian keyboard player Paolo Rustichelli, which appeared on his solo album Mystic Jaz, also featuring Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana, and Wayne Shorter. “Capri” is by far the best track Miles participated in, a beautiful ambient soundscape brought alive by Miles’s affecting contribution on muted and open trumpet.
A month later, in August 1990, Miles recorded “You Won’t Forget Me,” with an old protégé from the early 1960s, jazz singer Shirley Horn. This deeply felt and poignant performance, on which Horn and Miles appear to be suspended in timeless sadness, is held together and prevented from descending into sentimentality by the driving rimshot snare playing from drummer Steve Williams. He may have taken his cue from the In A Silent Way piece “It’s About That Time,” on which Tony Williams’ similar rimshot snare playing lifts and harnesses the ambient proceedings of the other musicians.
Recuperating from the strains of touring in 1990, Miles was absent from the live stage from November 17, 1990 to March 13, 1991. He did, however, begin work on a new studio album during this period, which was to be his most ambitious for Warner yet. One of his aspirations was to engage with the latest black music, hiphop and rap. Matt Pierson, Warner’s current Head of Jazz, and at the time head of A&R, remarked, “Miles was planning a 2-CD set of urban music and funk and hip-hop and jazz. It was to contain collaborations with Prince, John Bigham, and two different hip-hop producers, Sid Reynolds and Easy Mo Bee.”
During January-February 1991, and again in July-August, after his return from his European tour, Miles overdubbed to tracks constructed by Easy Mo Bee, who recalled, “The tracks were mostly comprised of samples and loops, while the bass lines were for the most part created on a drum machine. Miles found this incredible, and told me that he wanted to take me and my drum machine on tour in 1992. Miles brought his live band keyboard player, Deron Johnson, who was one of the best keyboard players I ever met. Miles was real focussed during the recordings. I’ve never seen anybody who was so professional and so demanding in the studio.”
Easy Mo Bee had completed and mixed six tracks by the time Miles died in September. In collaboration with the Miles Davis Estate it was decided to take two performances by Miles from the “Rubber Band” sessions and have Easy Mo Bee create backing tracks underneath them in the same style as the other material. These became “High Speed Chase” and “Fantasy.” The resulting album was released in June 1992 as Doo-bop. “I was in a group called Rappin’ Is Fundamental,” Mo Bee explained. “We tried to combine hiphop with doo-wop, and named our style ‘doo-hop.’ Doo-bop was a wordplay on this, with a reference to bebop.”
Those who read Miles Beyond will know that this writer is not a great fan of Doo-bop. But there are eminent critics who think differently. John Fordham, one of Britain’s most respected jazz writers, stated, “This last project is a collector's piece and half of it is as hip, sexy, open and complex as the best of his [Miles’s] work since he elected to turn to FM airplay music in the 1980s.” A review in Down Beat noted, “Very Good… What excites me about Doo-bop is the way Miles was playing in his last days... Where he has sounded tentative at times on recent recordings, here he starts and ends his ideas crisply... It's a hell of an exit, chief..." Listeners will, of course, make up their own minds, but one assessment by the Down Beat reviewer is indisputable: Miles is in razor-sharp form throughout Doo-bop. His performances earned him a posthumous Grammy for Best R&B Instrumental Performance.
Although the planned collaboration between Miles and Prince came to nothing, Prince did send Miles eight instrumental compositions in the beginning of 1991. Miles played three of these, “Jail Bait,” “A Girl And Her Puppy,” and “Penetration,” during his 1991 tour. Some of these live performances found their way onto bootlegs, but what was hitherto unknown is that Miles went into the recording studio during the German leg of his 1991 tour, and laid down these three tunes with his live band. One of these recordings was complete enough to be mixed and released, and is included on this set. “Jail Bait” is a fine blues, with excellent solos by Miles and Deron Johnson on organ.
The magnificent “Penetration” is also included here, but taken from one of the two extraordinary retrospective concerts Miles played during July 1991. The first took place in Montreux where Miles and Quincy Jones re-created some of the classic orchestral works Miles had recorded with Gil Evans (released by Warners on video and CD under the title Live At Montreux). The other, much less publicized concert, from which “Penetration” is taken, was arguably more impressive and musically superior. The place was La Villette in Paris, the date July 10, 1991, and the performance featured many of the jazz luminaries that had played with Miles during the previous quarter century: John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Al Foster, John Scofield, and many others. They were all present on Miles’s personal invitation, and deeply touched by the occasion.
“I was very surprised by this retrospective,” Dave Holland remembered, “for everything I knew about Miles was that he didn’t really like to look back. But when we got to the rehearsals in the afternoon, Miles was already there, going around to all the musicians, and planning the night. He was totally involved all the way through. I didn’t see any difference to what I’d always remembered how he dealt with situations like this… to go right in and be involved.” “That concert was wonderful,” Chick Corea added. “Miles had the vibe of recounting his life. He was a very unsentimental guy, but during that 1991 concert he embraced all of his old friends. And it looked like he was really enjoying himself while making a review of large parts of his past.”
Five tracks from the concert are included here. Two feature Miles’s live 1991 band on its own. After the large and keyboard-heavy bands of the mid to late 1980s, Miles trimmed down the size and sound of his 1991 band to a sextet. New keyboardist Deron Johnson was not predominantly playing “orchestral parts” but often took solos and interacted with the band, playing electric piano and organ in a manner reminiscent of Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Keith Jarrett twenty years earlier. “It was a smaller and looser band,” Deron Johnson commented. “Miles wanted to go into a whole lot of different areas. He even suggested we might play some of the older music, like from Kind Of Blu. Because of his death we never had the chance to do this.”
Tantalizing as the idea of Miles playing material from the 1950s with his regular live 1990s live band may be, his sextet proves itself to be a formidable unit with 1980s and 1990s material such as “New Blues” and “Penetration.” “New Blues,” an update of “Star People,” is tight and focussed, with great solos by Miles, Garrett, and Foley. Prince’s “Penetration” features an unbelievably raunchy bass riff, a sparkling theme, and Miles, Garrett, and Johnson stretch impressively.
Regarding the all-star tracks, Zawinul and Shorter use “In A Silent Way” to experiment in an abstract, out of time sequence, while “It’s About That Time” is wonderfully sustained by the rhythmic drive of Al Foster and Richard Patterson, while offering the three saxophone players, Shorter, Bill Evans, and Kenny Garrett, the opportunity for some engaging interplay. “Footprints,” Wayne Shorter’s classic composition recorded by the second great quintet in October 1966, is performed by a quintet consisting of Miles, Shorter, Chick Corea and Dave Holland (two members of the quintet that succeeded the second great quintet), and Al Foster (who played with Miles from 1972 to 1984). Miles, Shorter, Holland, and Corea use the track’s gorgeous, wistful melody as a basis from which to construct their solos. Holland especially plays a star role with the way he sustains the rolling bass riff, and weaves in and out of a very elastic solo.
Less than twelve weeks after the La Villette concert, on September 28, 1991, Miles Davis died. Ten years later it is possible to have a more objective perspective in his final years, and what jumps out is how little this music has aged. With the exception of the synthesizer and drum machine sounds that have an 1980s flavor, most of the music presented here has a timeless quality.
This is remarkable for two reasons. First, Miles always moved forward by incorporating and adapting the latest developments in music. Yet the 1980s was a rather stale time for music, with very little on the horizon that was genuinely pioneering. Miles nevertheless managed to come up with fresh music that bore his unique signature. Second, the list of ageing rock and jazz musicians who have tried to look trendy and hip by jumping on the latest musical bandwagon, only to emerge with egg on their faces, is impressive. But Miles, in his 60s during his Warner years, was able to connect with the musical trends of the 1980s and 1990s, and come out looking and sounding convincingly contemporary and cool.
Aside from Picasso in painting, there is no popular 20th century artist who has been able to remain modern until his death, and to hit the target in so many different styles. Miles was able to achieve this because he constantly moved forward while never losing touch with his musical roots, and because he fully trusted his own musical judgements and never waited for others before making a move. An anecdote from the mid-1970s illustrates how deeply steeped Miles was in this mode of being. A fan came up to Miles and said, “Miles, you’re my man, but that new shit you’re into, I just can’t get with it.’ And Miles answered, quick as lightening, ‘Should I wait for you?’” Bull’s eye.
Ever since Miles Davis began incorporating influences from rock, soul, folk, and funk in his music in the late ‘60s, he was faced with similar mixtures of appreciation and bewilderment. Yet he pressed on with this direction regardless, culminating in the music he played during his Warner years. As the years pass by the criticism of his electric music is dying down and gradually replaced by praise. We, and perhaps that 1970s fan as well, are still catching up. As so often, Miles had the last word.
—April 2001, Paul Tingen.
THE LAST WORD