The heart always beats a little faster when there’s news of a ‘previously unreleased’ Miles project. And if it’s from the 1980s, even better.
The era is still one the least understood/lauded periods of Miles’s work, despite the stellar efforts of George Cole.
It also has not been served well posthumously, particularly by his final label Warners; in recent years. there has been the weirdly undercooked/incomplete Rubberband project, and the appallingly-mastered/incomplete Warners Years box set.
So hopes were high for Sony’s new Bootleg Series 7, which takes in the years 1982 to 1985 and looks at the sessions that made up the (classic) albums Star People, Decoy and You’re Under Arrest. The packaging looks OK:
But what about the music? Before his death, Teo Macero, producer of many epochal Davis albums and also Star People, was very critical of the ‘complete sessions’ boxes that appeared after Miles’s demise. It’s safe to say he would not like this one either.
We essentially get a collection of long studio jams, with occasional familiar sections that Teo edited in to the final masters, plus some alternative versions of some You’re Under Arrest material, some full-length, unedited versions of released tracks and one or two outtakes such as ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’.
The full, unedited versions of ‘Freaky Deaky’ (Darryl Jones’ first recording with Miles) and ‘Katia’ (before Miles took his razor blade to John McLaughlin’s remarkable solo) are well worth hearing. Marcus Miller plays a brilliant bass solo on ‘Remake Of OBX Ballad’. There’s also a really strange duet between legendary jazz trombone player JJ Johnson and Miles on keyboards.
Unlike some of the previous Bootleg Series albums, there’s a lack of interesting studio chatter, which would have enlivened things (though there is the occasional funny Miles interjection). And there are still tracks that refuse to leave the vaults, such as Miles’s version of Nik Kershaw’s ‘Wild Horses’.
Disc one just contains too many formless jams, with Mike Stern, Miles and Bill Evans struggling to put together cogent solos (despite Al Foster’s beautiful drumming), and basically the band is crying out for John Scofield’s arrival in autumn 1982. He brings immediate relief, from both a soloing and compositional perspective. The live disc is serviceable and quite well recorded, but certainly not one of the best nights from the 1983 tour.
Essentially, we learn three things from the very uneven Bootleg Series 7: Scofield was a vital addition to Miles’s band and prolonged his career, Miller was Miles’s best bass player of the 1980s and Macero did a great job on Star People. But we probably knew all of that already.
So, basically, it’s another opportunity missed. I’ll stick to the original albums, with one or two exceptions. But you gotta check it out if you’re a fan of Miles’s 1980s music. George Cole covers the box in a lot more detail here.
And look out for new documentaries about Darryl Jones and Scofield.
Though he had recorded the very successful You’re Under Arrest and was in some of his best trumpet lip of the ’80s, his relationship with Columbia Records was at an all-time low.
For one, the label’s other star trumpeter Wynton Marsalis was at his peak of popularity, and, as far as Miles was concerned, Columbia boss Dr George Butler only had eyes for Wynton.
Then Miles felt that Columbia had procrastinated over releasing his cover of the Cyndi Lauper song ‘Time After Time‘ as a single. At the time, with typical mordant humour, Miles said, ‘He (George Butler) ignored it because he’s so busy with Wynton Marsalis. He heard us do it at the Montreux Jazz Festival last year and said “We gotta do it! We gotta do it!” I said, “George, I told you man. We already did it!” And he still didn’t release it…’
And the final nail in the coffin seemed to be Columbia’s unwillingness to put any financial clout behind Miles’s stunning collaboration with Danish trumpeter/composer Palle Mikkelborg, Aura, recorded at the beginning of 1985. For unknown reasons, the music didn’t see the light of day until 1989.
Again, in contemporary interviews, Miles rounded up the usual suspects: ‘I wanted $1400 for a digital remix and Columbia wouldn’t pay it. And then George Butler calls me up. He says to me, “Why don’t you call Wynton?” I say, “Why?” He says, “Cos it’s his birthday!” That’s why I left Columbia.’
Later reports had Miles carrying out Butler’s request, barking ‘Happy Birthday!’ to Marsalis and then slamming down the phone.
Miles officially became a Warner Bros. artist in autumn 1985. House producer Tommy LiPuma was delighted to get him – but what to do with him? Miles first took his touring band into the studio and embarked on a kind of You’re Under Arrest part two, covering tunes by Mr Mister, Nik Kershaw and Maze.
But this project was quickly abandoned, and Miles contacted various musicians including Prince (who supplied the rather humdrum ‘Can I Play With U’, later replaced by Marcus Miller’s ‘Full Nelson’), George Duke, Bill Laswell, Paul Buckmaster and Toto’s Steve Porcaro. He was desperate for new music and a new direction.
But he finally settled on an old contact, Randy Hall, the young Chicago multi-instrumentalist who had worked on his comeback album The Man With The Horn back in 1981.
Around a dozen tracks were completed between October and December 1985 in what was now known as the Rubber Band project. However, again for unknown reasons, the project was shelved, LiPuma quoted as saying, ‘I didn’t hear anything. To me, it didn’t sound like nothing was going on.’
Other collaborators were quickly suggested and then discarded including keyboardists Lyle Mays and Thomas Dolby. So Miles went back to George Duke. Their paths had crossed many times over the years, particularly when Duke was playing keyboards with Cannonball Adderley in the early ’70s.
As Duke remembers, ‘When Miles called, I initially thought it was a prank, one of my friends impersonating him. So I didn’t do anything, and a week later he called again. I said, “Who is this?” and he started swearing at me, “Mother****er, write me a song!”‘
It seems finally that George Duke’s demo of ‘Backyard Ritual‘ was deemed a direction worth pursuing by Miles and LiPuma. A strong, drum-heavy track put together by Duke using a Synclavier digital sampler with a simple but memorable main motif, he never intended it to be used as a final version, highlighted by the rather cheesy sampled alto sax solo.
But Miles eventually used almost the whole demo for Tutu, embellishing it only with some slithering percussion by Steve Reid and Paulinho Da Costa and of course his own pristine trumpet playing.
Miles’s take on it was that he respected a quality arrangement, demo or not: ‘A guy like George Duke, he writes a composition, it’s all there. All you have to do is play on it and respect that man’s composition’, he told writer and musician Ben Sidran.
And Duke revealed that he had even played a ‘sampled’ trumpet solo on the original demo, which tickled Miles. Duke: ‘He said to me, “You think that’s the way I play trumpet?” And I said, “That’s the way it sounds to me!”‘
At the beginning of 1986, Marcus Miller phoned Tommy LiPuma out of the blue. The bassist and composer had of course played in Miles’s comeback band from 1981 to 1983.
He had since made two solo albums and worked with a huge variety of artists, from Luther Vandross and Aretha Franklin to Bryan Ferry and Carly Simon, and was aware that Miles had migrated to Warner Bros and wondered if he was looking for new songs.
LiPuma sent him the ‘Backyard Ritual’ demo; Miller was instantly inspired: ‘I thought, “Wow, if Miles is willing to use drum machines and stuff, let me show my take on that.” I wasn’t directly musically influenced by George’s track but it gave me a direction.’
Miller wrote and recorded demos for ‘Tutu‘, ‘Portia‘ and ‘Splatch‘ back-to-back, playing all the instruments himself. Previewing the tracks with Miles and LiPuma in LA in March 1986, he got an immediate green light to turn this into an album project – this was the direction they had been looking for.
Miller began recording the final versions of the three tunes immediately with the help of keyboardist and programmer Adam Holzman.
There’s been a lot of speculation as to why none of Miles’s touring band were invited to play on the Tutu sessions, with opinions differing as to who made the decision. Miller insists, ‘I wasn’t party to the decision not to use the live band but Tommy didn’t push me in any direction. He let me do my thing.’
Miles seemed to resign himself to the convenience of the situation, saying, ‘Rather than get myself, the working band and Tommy into all kinds of hassles by trying to bring my band in the studio to record music I might like, but Tommy doesn’t, we do it this way.’
Consequently, although some choice session players appear on the album, such as drummer Omar Hakim and the aforementioned Paulinho Da Costa, as well as some of Miller’s trusted friends and collaborators like keyboardist Bernard Wright, synth programmer Jason Miles and electric violinist Michal Urbaniak, there’s a unified sound to Tutu that comes directly from Miller’s contributions on fretted and fretless basses, keyboards, drum programming and occasional live drums.
His soprano sax acts as Miles’s main instrumental foil on the album, particularly evident on the call-and-response phrases in ‘Tomaas’.
Once the backing tracks had been laid down, LiPuma and Miller documented Miles’s trumpet playing as spontaneously as possible without resorting to too many ‘comp’d’ takes (final versions made up of several performances).
Apart from this being a necessity as Miles didn’t like to do more than two takes, it was also an intelligent arrangement idea serving as a contrast to the painstaking and meticulous piecing together of the backing tracks.
According to legend, Miles’s solos on the title track and ‘Portia’ are complete takes from beginning to end. Miller found himself performing on soprano sax at the same mic as Miles during the recording of ‘Portia’. He called it ‘one of the most tense experiences I’d ever had’.
But, by most accounts, Miles was a receptive and willing participant in the creative process, once telling Miller, ‘Come on, man, I don’t mind a little bit of direction! You wrote the tunes. Tell me where you want me to play.’ Again, Miles demonstrates his total respect for the composer.
Miles was also reportedly responsible for the inclusion of one of the more controversial cuts on the album, the Scritti Politti cover tune ‘Perfect Way‘. Miles apparently cajoled Miller into recording the song, believing it had the potential to be the new ‘Time After Time’, and even wanted to call the album ‘Perfect Way’ until just before release.
But Miller expressed reservations about replicating Scritti’s legendary ‘Swiss watch’ arrangements, and with good reason – the Tutu version does sound rather laboured and weedy compared to the original. But Miles remained a big Scritti fan and two years later made a memorable guest appearance on their ‘Oh Patti’ single.
So has Tutu stood the test of time? The title track, ‘Portia’ and ‘Tomaas’ would surely be right at home on any Miles best-of, with their majestic themes, engaging harmonies, slinky grooves and strong trumpet playing.
‘Full Nelson‘ remains a great tribute to Prince’s sound circa Parade and Sign Of The Times, while ‘Don’t Lose Your Mind‘ is a classy approximation of Sly and Robbie‘s mid-’80s collaborations. But ‘Perfect Way’, ‘Backyard Ritual’ and ‘Splatch’ unfortunately now sound suspiciously like beautifully-produced filler.
But, taken as a whole, Tutu is a very important album whose success was helped immeasurably by Irving Penn‘s striking cover portrait. It crystallised Miles’s interest in funk, soul and R’n’B more successfully than Decoy or You’re Under Arrest, whilst retaining a crucial ‘jazz’ flavour.
It was also a statement of political intent and black pride, significantly referencing both Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela in its song titles. And – perhaps most crucially – it was a hit, introducing a whole new generation to Miles’ unique trumpet sound.
For much more on Tutu and Miles’s ’80s work, check out George Cole’s great book ‘The Last Miles’ and also Paul Tingen’s ‘Miles Beyond’.
I’ve always had a somewhat ‘troubled’ relationship with Toto’s music, to put it mildly…
Toto IV (1982) was obviously a classic of its kind, Hydra (1979) had its moments and there are other classy tracks dotted around, but I’ve generally thought: David Hungate, David Paich, Jeff Porcaro and Steve Lukather are fantastic musicians who have played on some of the greatest albums of all time – so what are they doing in this band, writing these songs?
But I found a solution of sorts when I came across a track buried at the end of their lacklustre Fahrenheit album from 1986. ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ is a cracking instrumental with nice chord changes, a great melody, gorgeous bridge, slick playing from co-writers Paich and Lukather and a memorable guest spot from Miles Davis.
Of course Miles was no stranger to the world of Toto and the LA session elite in general. He was tight with Quincy Jones, producer of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, an album that heavily featured Jeff Porcaro, Paich and Lukather.
Miles had also covered Thriller‘s ‘Human Nature’ (co-written by Toto keyboardist Steve Porcaro) on his You’re Under Arrest album the previous year. He was also apparently a big fan of Jeff Porcaro’s painting, not to mention his drumming, so a full-scale Miles/Toto collaboration was surely always on the cards.
Miles and Robben Ford, Montreux Jazz Festival 1986
But the recording of ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’, which took place at Jeff Porcaro’s home studio in early 1986, wasn’t a walk in the park, as Steve Lukather told George Cole in the excellent ‘Last Miles: The Music of Miles Davis, 1980-1991’:
‘We cut the track and left the melody off – we just left open spaces. When Miles got there, we ran it down together with him and he wasn’t really playing the melody. So we figured, we’re not going to tell Miles Davis what to play, so we said, “Miles, we have a take of this, would you mind just giving it a listen and play whatever you want?” He says, “Okay, I’ll play like that. You like that old shit, right?” So he gets out the Harmon mute and he played it – one take. We’re all stood there completely freaked out – it was unbelievable. At the end, the song just kind of fades out, but he just kept playing the blues. I was sitting there with chicken skin on my arms – it was an unbelievable moment. And that’s how we ended the record, with just Miles blowing. Later on, David Sanborn came down to play on a different tune on the record and he’d heard that we had cut a tune with Miles. He said: “I gotta hear it!”, so we played it and he flipped and said, “Please just let me be on the track!” He doubled the melody and played a couple of flurries. So we got Sanborn, Miles and us on one track – that was pretty cool!’
But Steve Porcaro alluded to the wider issue of including a ‘jazz’ track on a ‘heavy rock’ album when he told George Cole: ‘I don’t know how thrilled the record company or our managers were, but for us working with Miles was a major feather in our cap.’
But that kind of political scene didn’t affect Miles: he loved ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ and quickly integrated it into his own live set. It remained a staple of his concerts from 1986 right up until 1990, the year before his death. It’s a beautiful piece of work. But while we’re at it, has anyone got a lead sheet of the tune? I want the chords…
My love for Miles’s music was just getting into its stride when this album hit. As a teenage jazz/fusion fan and burgeoning muso, 1983’s Star People caught my ear but it was You’re Under Arrest that really captured my imagination.
Everything about the package was designed to be provocative, from the garish cover design to the in-your-face but always funky music. It’s a far more colourful and multi-layered listen than the previous year’s Decoy, partly because Miles was going public with his views on police intimidation, racism and the nuclear threat for the first time (and also getting involved with the anti-apartheid movement on the Sun City project).
In the era of ‘We Are The World’, even Miles was demonstrating that he had a social conscience, but he used gallows humour and an uncanny ear for a gorgeous melody to make his points.
Between 1981 and 1984, the primary musical style of Miles’s comeback had been so-called ‘chromatic funk’, a hard-driving, minimalist style consisting mainly of one-chord vamps, heavy bass lines, frantic Latin percussion and fleet-fingered melodic heads, usually played by sax and guitar in unison (and more often than not based on transcribed John Scofield guitar solos).
But in early 1984, Miles took his band into New York’s Record Plant studios to record a whole host of pop and AOR tunes, including ‘Wild Horses‘ by Nik Kershaw, Tina Turner’s ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’, Dionne Warwick’s’ ‘Deja Vu’, Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’ and Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’.
Though of course Miles was by no means new to recording pop songs, it’s doubtful whether any of these were anywhere near the calibre of ‘My Funny Valentine’ or ‘It’s Only A Paper Moon’.
Various 1985 band members have since expressed their dissatisfaction Miles’s ‘pop’ direction and it’s telling that only ‘Time After Time’ and ‘Human Nature’ made the cut for You’re Under Arrest (and, to be fair, became centrepieces of his live gigs until the end of his life). The other covers are yet to see the light of day.
By all accounts, the album eventually came together very quickly and just under the wire; Miles took his band into the studio and re-recorded much of the 1984 material over a very short period in January 1985, later saying that the tempos had been wrong on the original takes and that they didn’t have enough punch.
The opening ‘One Phone Call/Street Scenes’, with its sound effects, darkly-comic spoken-word shenanigans (‘Smokin’ that marijaroney’!) and fleet funk, is the kind of thing you might expect from Prince or George Clinton, but not the most famous jazz artist in the world. The track was surely a big influence on Prince’s Madhouse project and also B-sides such as ‘Movie Star’.
John McLaughlin delivers an exciting modal guitar blowout on ‘Katia’ (named after his then wife the pianist Katia Lebeque) finding endless lines to play over the one-chord vamp. Despite the dated Simmons drums and synthesized horn blasts, the track is still gripping and dramatic after all these years.
Ditto the title track, the ultimate take on ‘chromatic funk’. The ‘Jean Pierre/And Then There Were None’ medley is also arresting with its eerie sound effects and childlike celeste. Listen out for Miles’ mordant closing remark too, intended either for Reagan or recording engineer Ron Lorman (or both?).
The only tracks I really can’t take are the two ballads, ‘Time After Time’ and ‘Human Nature’. Although the latter became a really powerful live number, Miles’s playing is fairly underwhelming and the arrangements don’t add anything to the originals. But, in general, You’re Under Arrest is a really strong album and quite a stunning statement from a 59-year-old ‘jazz’ musician.
Watching footage of Miles playing live in 1985 shows what an extraordinary presence he still was – stalking the stage, sometimes whispering into his bandmates’ ears, sometimes throwing mock-right-hooks towards the camera lens – coupled with possibly his best trumpet chops during the last decade of his life.
I came across this gem in a big crate of reduced cassettes in the old Our Price shop in Richmond town centre. I was a huge fan of Miles and Marcus’s ’80s work but Siesta had somehow passed me by.
It was hardly reviewed anywhere and didn’t get any kind of promotion from Warner Bros despite the fact that it was the official follow-up to Tutu, possibly because it was ‘just’ a movie soundtrack and – even worse – the soundtrack to a really terrible movie.
But it quickly became the soundtrack to my summer of 1988 along with Prefab Sprout’s From Langley Park to Memphis, Prince’s Lovesexy, Thomas Dolby’s Aliens Ate My Buick and Scritti Politti’s Provision. Its Spanish-tinged melancholia, beautiful playing by Miles and stunning bass/keyboard work and production by Miller drew me in immediately.
Miles’s stock was rising high at the beginning of 1987. He was healthy, enjoying critical and commercial success with Tutu and playing to packed concert halls. The question was, how would he follow Tutu? A film soundtrack was definitely not the predictable option.
Of course, Davis was no stranger to the world of movie scoring, even though his famous Ascenseur Pour L’échafaud (Lift to the Scaffold) soundtrack was mostly improvised in just two days, and his music for Jack Johnson was similarly spontaneous though subject to detailed post-production work by Teo Macero.
But when Davis got a call from the producers of Siesta after their request to use Sketches Of Spain on the film’s soundtrack was turned down, he turned to the trusted Miller for help.
Miller was also on a roll at the beginning of ’87. Fresh from co-producing and co-composing Tutu, his career was branching out in all directions.
He hadn’t done any soundtrack work before and embraced the project, thrilled to work with Miles again and rightly sensing that the movie’s Spanish elements might open up some dramatic musical possibilities. But the clock was ticking, the budget was tight and time was of the essence.
Siesta is a fascinating companion piece to Tutu and it features some of the most arresting and spontaneous Miles trumpet playing from the last decade of his life. Indeed, some Davis-watchers such as critic Paul Tingen reckon it’s the pinnacle of Miller and Miles’s ’80s collaborations.
Miles sounds fit and strong, investing the material with both power and pathos, consistently providing a sound that someone once described as ‘a little boy looking for his mummy’.
Apparently when Miller played the elegiac ‘Los Feliz‘ to an assembled cast and crew, several people broke down in tears. Miles solos at length with glorious open horn on several tracks. The dramatic, flamenco-tinged ‘Conchita‘ was used by American ice skater Nancy Kerrigan for her 1992 Olympic routine – she got a bronze medal.
The ghost of Sketches of Spain/Miles Ahead arranger Gil Evans looms large and the album is dedicated to him, ‘The Master’. One can only imagine how ‘Los Feliz’, ‘Siesta’ or ‘Lost In Madrid‘ might have sounded with Evans’ full orchestral backing and arranging, but Miller and main collaborator Jason Miles consistently find just the right musical ingredients with gorgeous piano voicings, subtle synths and fretless bass.
As George Cole pointed out in his great book ‘The Last Miles‘, only Michel Legrand, Gil Evans and Miller’s names have shared a Miles Davis album cover, and that really proves how highly Miles rated Miller’s efforts. According to Miller, there is much more Siesta music residing in the Warner Bros vaults – here’s hoping the album gets the ‘Special Edition’ treatment soon.