Category Archives: Miles Davis

For Mike Stern’s 61st Birthday, a 2003 Downbeat Feature

Today is the 61st birthday of master guitarist-composer Mike Stern, and to note the occasion I’m posting the print edit of a feature for DownBeat  that it was my privilege to write in 2003. I’m also linking to a conversation we had in 2009 for the www.jazz.com website.

Mike Stern:

Guitarist Mike Stern usually spends Monday and Wednesday nights playing at 55 Christopher, a dimly lit bar on the ground floor of a brownstone in Greenwich Village. Discolored white sound tiles coat the low ceiling, which hovers above some 20 tables placed between a long bar and a yellowish west wall festooned with photos and LP covers. The bandstand is an 8 x 10 rectangle in the back corner with a fourth wall that doubles as an aisle along which customers can wriggle backstage to the cramped restrooms, which had seen better days 20 years ago, when Stern, who was then Miles Davis guitarist of choice, began his residence.
Stern doesn’t need this twice-a-week gig when he’s off the road. But 55 Christopher serves his purposes well.  “I’ve always got to find a place where I can play regularly,” says Stern, who staked a similar claim in the early ‘80s at a famously bacchanalian Soho bar called 55 Grand. “Otherwise I’d  be playing in my room. It gives me joy, and over time I learn a lot. I’m  grateful to have a regular gig where I can try different things. It stretches you.”
“It’s the longest-running jazz show in New York, and on a recent installment, the second set of a frigid January night, Stern stood before a jam-packed house. He held his guitar hip level and wore black pullover, black jeans and black sneakers. Eyes shut, bending his neck at a slight angle and swaying to the beat, he strummed a rubato melody, slowly resolving into the familiar refrain of Cole Porter’s “I Love You” over drummer John Riley’s crisp brushwork. Then Stern developed an extended solo, phrasing interactively with the drummer, carving out chorus after chorus with immaculate execution, sustaining thematic logic, linear invention and melodic focus at a staggering pace, inexorably ratcheting up the tension.
Like a world-class relay runner, tenorist Chris Potter took the baton full stride, and launched a tonally extravagant statement filled with intervallic zigzags and surprising resolutions in the manner of 1965-vintage Sonny Rollins. Guitar and tenor sustained fresh dialogue on further tradeoffs. Francois Moutin was in complete command of his instrument, carving out surging melodic bass lines while clearly stating pulse and roots. It was world-class collective improvising by a unit that had never played together until that evening.
Curiously, Stern has rarely showcased this freewheeling aspect of his tonal personality on his 12 leader records since 1986. “A lot of people have told me they  like to hear a live record, and I’d love to do one,” says Stern, 51, citing the room’s acoustic idiosyncracies as one reason why such a project remains elusive. “At the end of the day, you want to document what you do. But whenever I get around to recording, I have new tunes I want to play.”
Stern offers 11 brand-new ones on These Times, his debut release for German label ESC. As on Voices, his 2001 finale for Atlantic, he explores songs with words and songs with sounds, blending the distinctive vocal timbres of Richard Bona and Elizabeth Kontomanou into the guitar-keyboard-sax voicings that are his trademark. He propels it all with forceful beats by Bona and Will Lee on bass, drummers Vinnie Colaiuta and Dennis Chambers, and percussionist Arto Tuncboyacian. Kenny Garrett and Bob Franceschini split the sax chores. Alternating gnarly burnouts and lyric ballads, Stern and producer Jim Beard is customary keyboardist weak the themes by which Stern has established his compositional identity and tonal personality to an international audience since 1981, the year he joined Davis and recorded an extended solo on  at Time, the opening track on Man With A Horn.
“One thing about Miles that always impressed me is that he always played music he wanted to play,” Stern says. “While I was with Miles, he was offered a fortune to play with Ron Carter and Tony Williams in Japan. But he was just interested in what he was doing, and didn  want to be swayed. At the same time, he always had this balance of wanting to reach people. That’s in all his music. Somebody who doesn’t  really know jazz can still get Miles Davis. And balance is always important to me, however I come up with it.”
Those imperatives and an encounter with Bona at a European festival inspired Stern’s  recent immersion in the voice. “He had the day free, so I grabbed Richard and brought him to my hotel room, where I had a little amplifier, and we were playing some standards,” Stern recalls. “He knew my stuff, and he started singing a couple of my ballads, which I thought was great. One way I write is to sing the melody and write it down, so I have tunes that lend themselves to singing. Anyway, when I was thinking about doing Voices, I asked him about it, and he told me that he knew the idea would work and that he’d sing a few tunes. So I leapt into this new thing.”
“Getting the gig with Miles was the pinnacle of jazz success for a young musician at that time,” says John Scofield, Stern’s friend since the late ‘70s and his guitar partner with Miles in 1982-83.  “Your status went up. That’s all there was to it.”
“Miles made it clear that he didn’t  want me to do what he did,” says Stern, who diligently followed the trumpet legend’s  instructions to “turn it up or turn it off.” “He would leave all the space, and he wanted more aggression and energy from me. He’d move his hands to signal Al Foster to open up behind me. It was almost like he was working with shapes. A lot of the music was easy vamps, and they’d go on for a while, so you had to milk it for whatever you could. He also wanted a lean sound, which you can get with just guitar and no keyboards even if you play a lot of notes. I have him in my ear to this day, that beautiful vocal sound and his phrasing.

Stern likes his drummers hard-hitting and in-the-pocket, and observers, noting his high-visibility associations with Miles, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Billy Cobham, Jaco Pastorius and Steps Ahead, often refer to his music as fusion. The term puzzles Stern, a hardcore Jim Hall-Wes Montgomery acolyte who continues to transcribe the solos of John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner to slake his thirst for new vocabulary. In 2002, he recorded Four Generations Of Miles (Chesky) with fellow Milesians Ron Carter, Jimmy Cobb and George Coleman.
“Blood, Sweat & Tears was one of the first jazz-rock bands, and Billy Cobham played what people have called fusion,” Stern says. “But I always wanted to hear some more swinging. When I first played guitar in the 60s, I listened to lots of blues, and then Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and cats like that—and then got into jazz. Motown was always on the radio. And I always loved Joni Mitchell’s  Blue. So I didn’t leave one part of me behind, but incorporated all of it. Sometimes the sound and sensibility of rock or blues gives me more color and a wider range of expression, a singing quality, more legato and horn-like than percussive.”
As he did in the days when fusion was creative and organic, Stern takes pains to sustain his edge. “I try to be aware of content and find new stuff all the time,” he says. “I try to get players who are going to kick my ass. You react to the people around you, so if the drummer is playing energy, you’re likely to try to match it. The hardest thing is when I’m trying to play some funk with a jazz drummer, and you can tell it isn’t going on. It happens the other way, too. Only a handful have that balance, to play in the middle of the beat but keep that creative jazz sensibility. Sometimes they throw you in a huge hall in a festival, and you want someone who can slam it down.
“But when I write, I look to have the whole picture—both the lyrical and the more slamming stuff. I want the arrangements to have a quality of spontaneity, so there’s conversation between drums, bassist, soloist and keyboard, but I also want enough production to support the tune, even the less complicated ones, so there isn’t  any, ‘yeah, the solo is cool, but the tune ain’t  happening.’ The singable stuff is simpler, but sometimes the hardest to write, because you can  hide behind college chords. On those, I don’t want to write a bunch of weird harmony that’s vague but intellectually impressive. I want to limit myself.”
Simplicity of expression is a complex proposition for Stern. “One of the challenges on the guitar is to try to get a legato, horn-like phrasing,” says Scofield, who alternated with Bill Frisell as Stern’s guitar foil on the 1999 album Play. “Frisell, Pat Metheny and I do it by not picking every note. But if you do pick every note, you can get a precise attack. The problem with that style is that it can sound real mechanical; some guitar players try to do it, and it’s sloppy and weird. Mike can produce a beautiful legato sound but be absolutely accurate on his lines. I don  think I’ve met anybody who does that the way Mike can, and he could do it when I first met him.
“Whatever I have together didn’t  fall from the sky like rain,” Stern says. “It takes a lot of work. I still try to push myself to develop the potential I have. To sound fresh every night I have to discover new stuff, push the envelope. So I’m studying all the time.”
Frisell can speak to Stern’s  obsessive practice habits.  “I met Mike right after he got off the road with Blood, Sweat & Tears, and we immediately started playing at his apartment for hours and hours,” Frisell says. “You can practice all you want and not sound like an individual. But Mike was—and still is—thorough. He would work on every possible thing he could think of. We did ear-training exercises, trying to hear different harmonic structures against a certain note and testing each other. He did it to the point where I couldn’t  believe what he was hearing. All the elements you hear in his playing now were there in his apartment in the 70s.”
“Perfectionism is a character asset,” Stern says. “But it works against you if it paralyzes you. Once I was struggling with some pieces, and my composition teacher, Edgar Grana, told me that one rule is not to judge the tune, but finish it and play it with other people. That  the way you grow. If you throw it out halfway through, you won’t  know what you have. I remember Pat Metheny telling me, “You’ve got what you need, you sound terrific. All you’ve got to do is go out and play.” He recommended me for Blood, Sweat & Tears, and I thought I’d go do the audition and get turned down. But they called me back for the gig.
“My focus then was on playing more like Jim Hall—to play slow and hear whatever I was doing, and not let my fingers get ahead of me. I wasn’t concentrating on technique at all; I figured I’d be able to play tempos later on if I had to. But Blood, Sweat & Tears used to play Spain as an instrumental, and I couldn’t  make the tempo. So here was this real-world situation where I had to deal! Jaco was in the band then. He was a direct guy. He told me, ‘That slow and steady stuff is great, but now you’ve got to start practicing to get your chops happening more.’ Jaco and I were maniacs together. Later, when I lived over 55 Grand, he’d  crash with me upstairs. Then we’d  play downstairs non-stop.”

During the early 80s, Scofield says, 55 Grand “became the musician club in New York.” Lured by a louche, no-holds-barred atmosphere, A-list musicians from all varieties of jazz converged to play and be merry into the wee hours. “It wasn’t  like a fusion club and it wasn’t  a free music club,” Scofield recalls. “It was diverse, but it wasn’t  slick. Everybody played there. The owner didn’t charge much money to get in, and we could play whatever we wanted all night long.”
“I always think jazz is going in about five different directions,” says Stern, who now drinks coffee to sustain late nights at 55 Christopher rather than the cognac and cocaine combo that fueled his 55 Grand marathons. “In jazz there’s tons of music that’s timeless—when you rediscover it, it’s fresh again. Then there’s stuff that combines this-and-that, a fusion of different influences with a jazz sensibility at the core. A lot of that was happening at 55 Grand. It was a very cool hang, but self-destructive.”]
In 1984, Miles Davis told Stern, who was showing up to gigs visibly inebriated, “You have to cool out.” “I wasn’t  ready to do it,” Stern recalls. He joined forces with Pastorius, withdrew after a year to enter rehab, sobered up, moved to a quiet East Side neighborhood and rejoined Davis.
“The second time with Miles, he had two keyboard players, and was moving to the stuff he did with Marcus on Tutu, more pop-oriented and arranged,” Stern says. ”I could leave more space, and it felt more natural to do in that environment. He actually had me play some acoustic, nylon-string guitar. But the first band was open. When he told me we were going on the road after I played Fat Time, I said, ‘Great, that will be fun. Who’s playing keyboards?’ ‘Nobody. Just you.’ I was nervous. ‘Don’t  worry. I hear it. You just play.’ No one really knew what he wanted to do.
“You always had to be on your toes; sometimes we  get used to an arrangement, and he would change it on us at the last minute. He liked it when I  lay a chord underneath one of his notes, so I needed to listen closely to know what pitch he was playing. I didn’t get it right away. I thought some of this was going to fall flat on its face—and some of it wasn’t so happening. But some of it was amazing. That’s  what he was looking for.”

“Some people say, ‘I don’t care what anyone thinks.’” Stern remarks. “But that’s a bit strange for me. Music is supposed to be communicative.”
During an end-of-January week at Iridium in support of These Times, Stern balanced the populist imperatives that inform his writing with the workshopping attitude of musical adventure that inspires his 55 Christopher sessions. A heavyweight unit of Bona, Franceschini and drummer Dave Weckl helped Stern navigate five challenging compositions, replete with shifting tempos, gorgeous melodies, provocative hooks, and just enough harmonic protein to fuel the solos. Weckl modulated seamlessly from straight-eighth to spangalang; Bona, accompanying himself delicately on electric bass, sang two songs in a pure falsetto tenor, Stern matching his tone with lyric grace. During the burnouts, Bona carved out Afro-Pastorius flavored countermelodies that transcended the notion of a bassline. To use a cliche, the music was beyond category. Jazz, rock, blues and world feels coexisted and flourished, freed from their compartments, knit together by the smiling leader.
The tone of the proceedings recalled a comment from Frisell.  “I first became aware of Charlie Parker and bebop and the music of the ‘40s and ‘50s at just the moment when things were getting electric,” Frisell said. “So for me, that music was a natural continuum of using what was around to move ahead to the next step. Nobody knew what Fusion was; it didn’t seem that different from other moments that would happen along the way. Then after a few years, it seemed that fusion became codified. Patterns emerged, and people started fitting things into them. It became a style that you fit something into, just like jazz did. For me, jazz is a process of trying to make something happen.”

That was the way Miles Davis did things, and Stern seems to channel his restless spirit as organically as any of his fellow Miles alumni. “Whenever I hung out with Miles, he’d have the radio blasting to whatever was current at the time,” Stern says. “He was into all kinds of music. The more I step back, the older I get, I respect him even more. He was always moving.”

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Filed under Article, DownBeat, guitar, Mike Stern, Miles Davis

Miles’ 85th

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

* * * *

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.

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