I’m sure all the bloggers will offer their two cents on Miles Davis’ 85th arrival anniversary, and, as I never had a chance to meet Miles or write about him til he’d left the planet, I don’t have much to add that hasn’t been or won’t be said. So I’ll focus on my single Miles-related assignment, for Jazziz, which was framed around a prospective 5-CD reissue of his output for Warner’s in the ’80s. Of all of Miles’ epochs, this is the one that I find least engaging; however, many friends and peers whose acumen I most respect feel differently.
Now, most people looking at this blog know enough about jazz to know that just staying ahead of the curve wasn’t enough for Miles, who still holds the sobriquet “The Dark Prince,” two decades after his death. He was a son of the Mississippi Valley, and students of archetype and myth might surmise that he cut some sort of Faustian crossroads deal imparting Nostradamian gifts that enabled him to occupy aesthetic space a great distance from the pack at each stop on a 45-year career timeline. With a introspective sound that, as Olu Dara once noted, “sucked the juice out of each note like a stick of sugarcane,” his instrumental voice changed over the years by degree but not in essence, and with it he created definitive statements that resonate vividly for successive generations of hungry spirits.
During the first 28-year phase of his recorded corpus, which begins with a 1947 date on which Charlie Parker played tenor, Miles favored the crucible of collective dialogue with musicians of similar ability and mutual affinity (perhaps the iconic collaborations with alter-ego Gil Evans are the exception, but not really). In conjunction with the most individualistic young musicians of the day — a short list includes pianists Horace Silver, Red Garland, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea; saxophonists Lee Konitz, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Hank Mobley, George Coleman, Wayne Shorter, and Dave Liebman; guitarists John McLaughlin, Pete Cosey, Mike Stern, and John Scofield; bassists Oscar Pettiford, Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Dave Holland, and Michael Henderson; drummers Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Philly Joe Jones, Jimmy Cobb, Tony Williams, Lenny White, Jack DeJohnette and Al Foster — he designed a succession of ensemble sounds that exactly suited the mood of the time during which he conceived them. He was fearless, discarding universally popular approaches that bore his signature for untrod territory.
But the context of real-time interplay that defined Miles’ first four decades is almost entirely absent from the ’80s music documented on Warner. Though his chops were somewhat diminished, he constructed a series of pithy, sometimes classic set pieces over a backdrop of various contemporary rock, funk, and hip-hop beats. It’s not that Miles didn’t stay on the cutting edge, but the goalposts shifted. He continued to work with the most talented, hungriest musicians of the era. But his interests now centered on the Warholian, Fashi0n-centric, technocratic, MTV notion of pop culture that mainstreamed during the Reagan era. To my admittedly idiosyncratic way of looking at things, his musical production provided a pitch-perfect soundtrack for the apolitical, consumerist, Yuppie-Buppie, gentrification climate of the decade. From today’s perspective, it seems kind of apropos.
My pontifications aside, you’ll get a much more useful perspective from the remarks of the great electric bassist-arranger, Marcus Miller, Miles’ primary muse of the era, the producer of the prospective aforementioned box set, and the primary voice for the Jazziz article. Here’s the verbatim interview, from May 7, 2002.
By the way, for Mr. Miller’s perspective circa 2011, read this comprehensive interview conducted by George Cole on http://www.thelastmiles.com/interviews-marcus-miller-tutu-revisited.php
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TP: When you were recruited to do the music for Tutu, was that your first encounter with Miles?
MILLER: I played bass in Miles’ band on his first comeback stuff, Man With A Horn and We Want Miles and all that kind of stuff. I left in ’83.
TP: Did you during that time have a vision of the way you would want the music to sound if you ever had that opportunity?
MILLER: I began to imagine stuff for Miles when I heard that he had left his old record company and moved to Warner Brothers. I talked to Tommy LiPuma and said, “If I can come up with something, would you guys be interested?” He said, “Yeah.” That’s when I began to imagine things that could happen.
TP: How much of what’s on Tutu was existing in your head at the time you went in?
MILLER: A lot of it. A lot of it was arranged in my head. The stuff that I didn’t imagine, obviously, was what Miles added to it. There were some things that Paulinho DaCosta added and some things that Adam Holzman added musically, but mostly… I have a demo you can hear that sounds pretty close, except it’s not as cool because it doesn’t have Miles on it.
TP: ’81 to ’83 is when Miles was getting used to the trumpet again and re-finding his sound and all this… Can you talk about how that music evolved toward what he wound up doing for Warner Brothers? The two entities sound rather different, with a few exceptions, at least the recorded examples.
MILLER: To me it sounds like… The stuff that we did with Miles in ’81, when he first came back, a lot of it seemed like it was along the same thread as the stuff that he was doing before he retired. Obviously, there were big differences, and there were big differences in the players. But the way he was putting the music together and the way the music came to be, when I listened to the stuff he was doing with Michael Henderson and Mtume and those guys… I think Miles was still on that track when he came back. Eventually he started listening again to what was going on in the music world in the ’80s, and began to slowly incorporate that stuff and those kind of musicians into his scene.
TP: How would you distinguish musicians like Michael Henderson and Mtume from the people he played with when he was coming back?
MILLER: I think those guys, at least toward the end of their stay with Miles, were pretty comfortable with themselves and were comfortable with the fact that they had to bring a lot to the game when they would play with Miles. When the ’81 band first got together, I don’t think they realized that. I think a lot of guys in the band were looking to Miles for real specific instruction, and it took probably a year or two to realize, “You know what? I’ve got to bring some personality and bring my thing to this, and then Miles will shape it. But I’ve got to bring the raw materials.” I don’t know how Mtume and those guys started. They might have started the same way. But by 1975 or whenever it was when Miles stopped playing, they seemed like they were there.
TP: As I recall, being alive in 1973 was a very different proposition than being alive in 1981.
MILLER: Yeah, and I think that’s the main difference, that the 1973 band was very much a product of its time and the 1981 band was very much a product of its time.
TP: But one qualitative difference, and maybe the most notable one between the stuff you’re responsible for with Warner Brothers and before that is that most of the music is created within a context where Miles is dialoguing with a group of musicians. The content is created through that dialogue in a lot of ways.
MILLER: Yeah, that’s true.
TP: It’s somewhat a different proposition with you, which I’d say is to your credit, because the environments you came up with resonate so well. But does that make it a different experience listening to it in a detached way, or does it not, from your perspective?
MILLER: From my perspective, it’s very different. In 1985, when I looked back at the last 15 years of Miles’ music, it had been all done in a certain way, which is the way you just described, where it’s a dialogue between musicians — some great musicians. That was fantastic. There was fantastic music done there. What I felt was an exciting idea was to maybe begin a different kind of sound with Miles. When Tommy LiPuma called me, he said, “Miles is looking to do something different; let me send you something George Duke did with Miles.” He sent me this song George did called “Backyard Ritual,” very obviously done with overdubs, and it was done with a lot of technology involved since George was a heavy synclavier guy at the time.
This was exciting, because this was something new for Miles, and Miles is about new. There’s dialogue on those new records, but it’s not a dialogue between the individual musicians as much as it is a dialogue between the guy who composed and arranged it a lot of the time, who was me, and Miles. . .more like Miles had dialogues with Gil Evans when he did those records. Those Gil Evans records weren’t really about dialogue between Miles and the other musicians as much as they were about dialogue between Miles and Gil, where Gil had ideas and he had environments that he wanted to set up for Miles. They fit Miles well, and Miles really thrived in those environments. So I tend to compare the stuff that I did more with those settings than with the music that came right before it.
TP: Do you have ideas on Miles’ own attitudes toward framing his sound… It’s obvious that he never did anything without thinking a lot about it, that he knew precisely what he wanted to do, or at least knew the environment he wanted to put himself in or knew where to look for that environment. Do you know what was going on in his mind at that time?
MILLER: I think he got excited by things that are new and, besides being new, have an obvious substance. I think that he knew that he’d been making music a certain way for a while, and I think he was excited by the prospect of doing something different, especially when he heard it back. Because it was a different process for him also. A lot of times he and I were in the studio by ourselves, just kind of talking about music, and then rolling tape and playing. The thing that I think he dug the most, even though he never said this… Miles was really into painting at the time, and when you paint, you draw something, then you stand back and you look at it. You go back and maybe refine it. It stays there. And when it stays there, it’s something you continually look at. The way we did the music with Miles was more like a painting, where we’d sit there, we’d listen to the music, we’d roll the tape back and say, “Hey, try it this way.” We’d play it this way and sit back and look at it. So it wasn’t music in such a continuum as it normally exists, the way Miles had been making it before. It was more like doing paintings, where we tried different colors. If you listen to the way I put that “Tutu” stuff together, you can hear that I was experimenting with different sounds, and the music kind of sat there, and you can just look at it and roll it over in your mouth and taste it. So I think he was excited about that new way of making music.
TP: By the way, was that your basic process in constructing the music on the rest of Tutu and also Siesta and Amandla? Was that basically your process? Would you start from the bottom up?
MILLER: Each song, whatever the heart of the song is… In some songs it was the rhythm, in some songs it was the melody… Whatever the heart of the song, that’s usually what I started with. Sometimes I work from the bottom up, sometimes I work from the top down. It was always based on what the tune was. As we began to work on Amandla, it began to become a more live thing. In my imagination, I always imagined the Tutu and Siesta stuff as being a period in Miles’ life. I didn’t think it was something he would actually stay with for any considerable amount of time. So in my mind, I was trying to help him transition back to some kind of live situation, which is what got him to Amandla.
In other words, on Tutu I played on almost all the instruments. It was real painting. It wasn’t like a bunch of guys in the studio capturing a performance. We captured Miles’ performance, once I had kind of laid this tapestry down for him. That’s a different way of making music from having five or six guys in the studio kind of vibing off of one another. And I thought it was a very unique way for Miles to make music in that period. I don’t think he ever intended to do that for any long period of time. In other words, a couple of albums like that was cool. It was Miles trying something different, just like he did those things with Gil. But he always went back to his band, which was kind of the heart and soul of what he did.
TP: So when you said “live” you meant live performance.
MILLER: Yes, I meant live performance.
TP: You played a fair amount with him in the latter part of the ’80s, then Daryl Jones came in, and I’m not sure who was between you…
MILLER: Tom Barney was in there. There were a couple of guys.
TP: These studio recordings are quite pristine. There’s something very elegant and holistic and organic about them. They’re like beautiful images unto themselves. It can be a complex proposition translating that to a live situation, especially in concert halls, with amplification and those sorts of issues. I don’t know if you have anything to say about that…
MILLER: You mean in terms of trying to take the music we did on Tutu and perform it live?
TP: Yes, and evolve it and transform it, and did it come off live…
MILLER: I was never in the band with Miles when I was writing for him, so I was never really involved in that process. So I really witnessed it like everybody else did. My impression was that I think they did it correctly. They took elements from those records that helped identify the song. I put these huge orchestra staffs in front of Tutu, where you’ve kind of got to start with those. But then they opened it up and found windows where they could jump through and explore the music and open it up, and it became a living thing. I think that’s the way to handle the situation.
TP: You’ve talked quite a bit about how it was intimidating for you to be proactive with Miles, to tell him where he needed to go to realize your vision. Could you talk about the obverse, the input Miles gave you after you’d executed your end of the process?
MILLER: When we were doing Tutu, he’d come in and out as I was layering these parts. For instance, we were doing the song “Portia,” and he said, “Marcus, that’s beautiful. You know what? Write another section at the end. I want to hear an ensemble section at the end.” He’d leave, and I’d do it. When I came back, he said, “Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.” He said, “Keep writing stuff, man, because you’re in a fertile period. I remember when Wayne was in this period. Just keep writing.” And “I don’t want any acoustic piano on this; take the acoustic piano out.” I’d take that out. He said, “Man, this reminds me of this rhythm that we used to do with J.J. Johnson,” and he’d play me that rhythm on the trumpet. I’d go, “Man, let’s put that on there.” We’d roll the tape.
We were doing the album Amandla and we were doing “Mr. Pastorius.” There was always this tug of war with the band and Miles, because we were always trying to slip him back into that 4/4 rhythm, at least for a taste of it, just because he was the master of that, but he really kept wanting to move forward. So when I wrote this song, “Mr. Pastorius,” and it was a melody that he sounded beautiful playing on. Then after the melody was done, I went into a slight two-feel, a shuffle feel, not going all the way into the 4/4 feeling, but just enough to kind of give him a hint of that, and I thought maybe I could urge him into that a little bit. So he began to solo, with just me, I’m playing bass and he’s playing trumpet, just the two of us, and he holds up his four fingers to me like, “Play in four; what’s wrong with you?” I just jump into the four thing, and he played chorus after chorus after chorus in this “Mr. Pastorius” song. He probably played around six or seven choruses. It was beautiful, and it was so amazing because he had kind of resisted that for so long. Then I went back and orchestrated around what he had done, and added some other instruments based on what Miles did.
But that’s the kind of input Miles would have. Sometimes he would talk and give me ideas. Other times he would just come in and begin to do stuff, and I’d try to capture it on tape and maybe work some things around it.
TP: Your reference to “Mr. Pastorius” makes me think about two things. One is Miles’ sound during this period. Listening back to all of this at once, he was really in great form on the trumpet, better than I remember contemporaneously. He seemed to have command over all the sounds he wanted to get out, which wasn’t the case in 1981.
MILLER: It evolved over time. In’ 81 and even into Tutu, I don’t think he was as strong as he was by ’88-’89. By the time we did “Mr. Pastorius,” I think he was in great form. He wasn’t relying on the mute as much any more. In fact, “Mr. Pastorius” is all open horn, which is another thing I love about it. He really found himself again, which is pretty incredible for a guy in his late fifties and sixties to rediscover the trumpet and find his sound again. I think that’s amazing.
If you listen to Man With A Horn, his sound was at times kind of small. There are some songs, like “Aida,” where he kind of let loose, but I don’t think he could sustain it for a long time, because the trumpet is such a physical instrument. When we would play concerts, there were times when he really couldn’t sustain his notes. He got really sick when I was in the band around the time we played Saturday Night Live, and his tone was pretty shaky at the time. But then he began to get his health. He was married to Cicily [Tyson], who put him in touch with some doctors who really helped him. And by the time I began to write for him, he was coming into his own. I think if you listen to a song like “Mr. Pastorius” and compare to The Man With The Horn, you can hear the development of his playing.
TP: As a bassist of your age and generation, it’s self evident why you would call a tune “Mr. Pastorius.” But in listening to this, one thing that stayed at the back of my mind is that it sounded, in my imagination, the way Miles might have sounded if he’d been playing with Weather Report, if Weather Report had a certain type of sensibility toward constructing the music.
MILLER: That’s an important thing, though, the last thing you said.
TP: Was Zawinul’s approach to creating these great tapestries of music something that was important to you as a composer and arranger?
MILLER: In a general sense, absolutely. I know I wasn’t trying to recreate that with “Mr. Pastorius.” But precisely for the reasons you listed. The generation I came from, that was a powerful influence on me, and a lot of guys my age, the way Joe orchestrated things. Guys my age, we grew up with that sound, and I think a lot of people who were older and maybe some people who are younger can’t relate to that sound. It sounds kind of cold to them. But guys like Joe Zawinul and George Duke — and Herbie, too, to a certain extent — really humanized the synthesizer for me, and there were, in my mind, ways to use it that were really human and represented the sound and feeling of our times.
TP: Off the Miles track, I’d like to ask you about your circumstances, growing up in Queens as a teenager in the ’70s. You were born in ’59. So you grew up with Kenny Kirkland, Lenny White was a bit older than you, but he’s from around there… A bunch of people from around there made their mark. Can you address what was percolating in your group or clique or whatever in Queens that led you in this direction?
MILLER: You could do a whole thing just on Jamaica, Queens. We’re talking about Billy Cobham and Lenny White, Omar Hakim, Tom Browne, and we’re also talking about John Coltrane and James Brown living there at the same time. We’re talking about L.L. Cool-J and Run-DMC and A Tribe Called Quest. We’re talking about one of the most fertile musical areas in the world. Its proximity to Manhattan had a profound effect, but it had enough distance where there were homes with basements. It was a suburban area… Not suburban, but it was an area with homes, where young guys could get in there and really make some noise, unlike Manhattan. But we could go to Manhattan or we could go to clubs in Queens. We would do gigs with Weldon Irvine, who was one of the elder guys there in Jamaica, Queens, who was always creating opportunities for us to play. The first tune is a straight-ahead tune, the second tune’s a funk tune, the next tune is a samba. It was New York at its best. I mean, all the influences that came from all over the world landed right there in New York, and we were really the recipients as young musicians. So you end up with a breed of musicians who are very different than the guys who came from the Midwest or from Louisiana, you know what I mean, who really had a more centralized idea about what music should be. We were pretty open and pretty all-encompassing.
TP: You’re a year or two older than Wynton, so that’s true.
MILLER: Yeah. Wynton has a very clear idea of what he feels he has and a very clear idea about what he thinks music should be, and a lot of it is a product of where he came up. For me, coming up in New York, I played with African bands, I played with Reggae bands, I played with Salsa bands, I played with big bands — just about every type of music that came through New York, I had a good, healthy experience with. So that shapes you.
TP: Did Miles talk to you about those types of bands? Did he ever speak about Prince or Fela, etc.? Can you address his listening during your association?
MILLER: The thing that really impressed me about Miles and a lot of the great genius musicians like Wayne Shorter and Herbie is that they’re always listening and they’re always excited about new things. Miles was always like, “Man, listen to this.” He’d play me Prince all the time, or a band called Kassav that he was really into for awhile. He’d play me whatever came his way that he was excited about. Then when I played him stuff, I’d explain to him. . .I’d even play him Janet Jackson records and say, “Look, Miles, see how they’re using the drum machine there.” He’d giggle, because he got a kick out of it. But it was always a search for new, fresh stuff to infuse his music.
TP: So he was greedy.
MILLER: Yeah, he was hungry. Man, the guy was 60 years old, and he’s still hungry. He’s still searching. He’s still not afraid to change his music and to do things… Who else at that age is going to take those risks with their life, with their reputation, with their money, with all sorts of things? His fearlessness was just incredible.
TP: Are these records things that you go back to?
MILLER: I hear them every once in a while. But they’re in my head so clearly that I don’t have to…
TP: Is it possible for you to listen to them in a detached manner?
MILLER: Oh yeah.
TP: Looking at them in 2002, how do they stand up?
MILLER: To me, listening to a record like Tutu, I go, “that stuff is very obviously from the ’80s, but there’s some stuff that’s still cool.” At first I felt funny about that reaction. Then I remembered my reaction when I heard Charlie Parker. Not to say that Tutu is on the level of anything that Bird did. But the point I’m making is that my first reaction when I heard bebop, was, “Man, this stuff sounds like ‘Our Gang.'” [LAUGHS] But then I began to realize, “But there’s some stuff in here that’s cool,” and that stuff is what’s stayed with me for the rest of my life. I’ve talked to other people who hear Tutu and say, “Man, this record did this for me, this record did that for me,’ and I realize that, to some degree, the record is doing that for younger people.” People say the record changed their life. They say, “I heard that, and said, ‘that’s so cool,'” and they went out and bought everything with Miles’ name on it — which takes considerable funds, by the way. But they went out and bought all Miles’ discography and discovered him just through that record. There are people who say that record kind of defined that period of their life for them.
TP: So do you think it’s because you helped Miles define himself through the most advanced aspects of Pop language at that time? Or the cutting edge of Pop expression?
MILLER: I think we took a lot of elements from Pop music at that time, absolutely, and created an atmosphere where Miles sounded natural. The thing that I’m most proud about is that we took some things that you wouldn’t expect, and it sounds like it always existed. Miles sounds very comfortable in that environment. When I hear it, it takes me right back to 1985-86. And I think that’s what music has to do first. It has to represent the time it was created. Then you have to hope it has something great about it that will make it transcend its time and last, and that people can still listen to it.
TP: Do you have a favorite of the three albums?
MILLER: I think Tutu represents exactly everything that we were at that time. It represents our relationship, between Miles and myself. It represents the time. The fact that it was dedicated to Desmond Tutu represents where our heads were at. If we had to play one song, I think I’d play that. If I had to choose a favorite of the three, I wouldn’t. What I’d do is I’d probably take “Tutu” and make it the first song on the Amandla album, and then make sure there were a couple of those cues from Siesta in there also.
TP: What from Siesta do you like the best?
MILLER: I like the things Miles played with his open horn. Because on “Tutu” it was mainly mute, and I was really starting to miss that beautiful open sound he had. In Siesta we got to explore that a little bit. I really love that stuff.