Miles Davis: Miles on Target

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Miles Davis
By Irving Penn
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Miles Davis' hand
By Irving Penn

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In anticipation of the May release of The Last Word: The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings of Miles Davis here’s the making of the Prince of Darkness’ most
controversial album of the 1980s.

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’ first album for Warner Bros., Tutu. Many people will remember their first encounter with Irving Penn’s extraordinary cover photograph of Miles’ 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, much 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, the album 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 Tutu’s first sessions at Capitol Recordings Studios in Los Angeles in February 1986. “It was probably the hippest time to be there,” Holzman explains. “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 adds. “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 nonsolo 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 10 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 comments. “I was really excited about that. I was trying to find a way to combine what I knew to be Miles’ 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.”

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.”1 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.

The Path to Tutu

In May and June 1985 Miles signed contracts with Warner Bros., the record company, and Warner/Chappell Music, the music publishers. This ended a fruitful 30-year relationship with Columbia records. Whatever Miles’ 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’ 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’ 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.

What emerges from the studio recordings released for the first time on 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 Sept. 1985, is a case in point. While at heart a continuation of the “chromatic funk” direction instigated on Star People, “Maze” expanded on the concept by incorporating contemporary pop and rhythm and blues influences. According to Adam Holzman, keyboardist with Miles’ band from Oct. 1985 to Oct. 1989 and co-producer of The Last Word, the track was in part inspired by the music of 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.

Why Miles did not continue on the path set with “Maze” is unclear. But it seems likely that it was 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’ 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 Glenn Burris, keyboardists Neil Larsen and Wayne Linsey and drummer Vince Wilburn, participated in what has become known as the “Rubber Band sessions,” taking place in Los Angeles from Oct. 1985 to Jan. 1986. The material was never officially released, although Miles’ soloing from two of its best 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 Oct. 17, with the help of Mike Stern, who Miles had flown in from New York for the occasion. “The groove really pops,” Holzman asserts. “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 Oct. 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 to Holzman, “Miles played great on about half of the tracks, but didn’t play on some others.”

In Jan. 1986, Miles had a musical idea of his own, and called Holzman over to his Malibu home. “He played me some melodies,” Holzman recalls. “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’ original idea. I dropped them in where 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 says, “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.

LiPuma’s Guiding Hand

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’ live band 1981-82.

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 recalls, ”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 demoed them in my New York studio using synthesizers and drum machines, as well as bass guitar and bass clarinet.”

“[Electronic] music technology was in its very early days,” says synth programmer Jason Miles, “and we were doing some real voodoo with it.”

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 multitrack master tapes, alone, without any additional musicians. “I thought that the demos that Marcus brought in were just great,” LiPuma explains about his decision not to use musicians from Miles’ 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 maneuvers. It was innovative. Prior to that drum machines just laid down a groove.”

Adam Holzman, who had been invited by Miller to help with synthesizer programming during the L.A. sessions, played a synthesizer solo on “Splatch,” and percussionists Steve Reid and Paulinho da Costa overdubbed some parts, but most of the backing tracks were performed and programmed by Miller. George Duke was also responsible for all instruments on the demo of “Backyard Ritual,” using synthesizers and drum machines. He was as surprised as Miller that most of his original demo survived. “They only took my synthesizer guide trumpet off, and had Miles play over it,” Duke recalls.

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. Back in New York again, 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, hip-hoplike rhythm, was deliberately designed by Miller to be “a bridge with the Prince track”—the title was a reference to both Miles’ 1950s song “Half Nelson” and Prince’s last name, Nelson. Inspired by the success of Miles’ 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 should be 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 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’ 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, large parts of the album still hold up in the 21st century. Of course, Tutu was not as musically influential as Miles’ 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’ last five years.

It set new standards for 1980s instrumental music, both in jazz and in rock, and despite the dated sounds of some of the drum programming and sampling, large parts of the album still hold up in the 21st century.

The Legacy and Controversy of Tutu

Tutu had a powerful impact immediately after its release in Sept. 1986. It became one of the era-defining jazz albums of the ’80s, and won Miles a Grammy for “Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Soloist.” Like his other watershed album, Bitches Brew, released 16 years earlier, it also 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” by writer/musician Mike Zwerin, despised as “glossy, coffee-table music” by others 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’ orchestral work with Gil Evans, in which the latter also provided a backdrop for Miles to shine over as a soloist. And as with the collaborations with Gil Evans, Miles’ spirit permeated the whole of Tutu. “I did everything with Miles in mind,” Miller says, “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’ talents as a band leader and arranger found their main expression on the live stage. Live he frequently used the rich melodies and tapestries of Tutu as a blueprint, but in addition he also 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 ’80s,” Adam Holzman remarks. “Without claiming to know what was on his mind, he might have been wrapping things up.”

On Sept. 28, 1991, Miles Davis died. Eleven 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 ’80s flavor, much 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.

“You have to remember that when I did Tutu with him, Miles was 60 years old,” Miller points out. “Tell me somebody else who is that age and is doing something current and relevant. It’s a testament to his greatness that people still expected him to be in the forefront at 60 years old. And he delivered. We did a record that defined a period, and I’m proud of that.”

And so, however one judges Tutu, Kei Akagi, keyboard player extraordinaire, member of Miles’ live band from 1989 to 1990 and currently professor of music at the University of California, noted something remarkable. Fifteen years after its release, the younger generation considers Tutu a central part of the jazz canon. “As an educator I notice that especially young people accept Tutu as much part of the jazz tradition as anything that Charlie Parker did,” says Akagi. “They don’t think twice about it. It is part of the jazz vocabulary now.”

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 lightning, ‘Should I wait for you?’” J

About the Author

Paul Tingen is an U.K. and California-based writer and musician. For more information about his work see his Web site, www.tingen.co.uk. He is the author of the widely acclaimed biography of Miles’ electric years, Miles Beyond, The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991. See www.miles-beyond.com, and the May 2001 issue of JazzTimes for more on this book.

Footnote

1 Susan Mullin Vogel, Aesthetics of African Art: The Carlo Monzino Collection, New York, Center for African Art, 1986, 21. Tutu in Yoruba Aesthetics. Quoted by George P. Landow, professor of English and Art History, Brown University, in “Tutu in Yoruba Aesthetics,” available at http://landow.stg.brown.edu/post/africa/tutu.html. Quoted in Paul Tingen’s Miles Beyond, The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991. New York: Billboard Books. Page 170.

Tutu: Track by Track

“Tutu”

The blueprint for the music of Miles’ Warner years is still a stunningly powerful piece of work, right from the opening orchestral stab. Marcus Miller explains that the colossal, dark, brooding bass line was inspired by Miles’ “Prince of Darkness” image, the chords underneath the melody by the chords Herbie Hancock used with the second great quintet, and the synthesizer trombones by the sound of Birth of the Cool. As with most of the album, Miles darts in and out of the arrangements with his muted horn, adding depth and feeling to the music.

“When writing ‘Tutu’ I had images of South Africa in my mind,” Miller says. “They were still struggling with apartheid at the time. A lot of it was also influenced by the question, ‘How can I make these synthesizers sound like Miles when he walks, or when he is staring at you?’ Miles had different aspects of his personality that were accented in different eras: like in the 1950s his cool side and in the ’70s his outrageous side. ‘Tutu’s’ cool, dark atmosphere was perfect for the 1980s.”

“Tomaas”

“Tomaas” is funkier than “Tutu” but expresses a comparable energy and has a similarly evocative melody. It has some wonderful interplay between Miles and Miller on bass clarinet. According to Marcus Miller, “‘Tomaas’ is what Miles used to call Tommy [LiPuma] at the time. The track has a co-writing credit with Miles, because he gave me a tape with a melody that he played on a keyboard. I used that as a starting point.”

“Portia”

The only genuine ballad on Tutu, with jazzy chords that once more echo Herbie Hancock. Marcus Miller plays a soprano saxophone solo and duets with Miles. “The name is just a beautiful woman’s name that I liked and that I thought fit the song,” Miller explains. “It does not refer to anyone in particular.”

“Splatch”

This track has a very 1980s sound dominated by a jungle of samples and drum machine sounds, complemented by Steve Reid and Paulinho da Costa on live percussion. Adam Holzman plays a synthesizer solo. Miller: “Splatch is just a word I used to say at the time.”

“Backyard Ritual”

George Duke’s track inspired Marcus Miller to write “Tutu” and to use drum machines and synthesizers. It is notable for Duke’s Synclavier effects at the beginning and end of the song, and the lyrical sampled saxophone solo Duke plays around the three-minute mark. “The title has to do with Miles being kind of on the other side,” Duke elaborates. “Some people called it sinister, although to me he was just being kind of real. I wanted to give him an R&B bass and also some chord structures and melodies that would allow him to do his thing.”

“Perfect Way”

Miles and Miller’s version of Scritti Politti’s 1985 hit gives the original effeminate, polished version a very different slant because of Miles’ intense soloing and the heavy-duty rhythm section. The song became one of the most played tracks in Miles’ live bands. Synthesizer programmer Jason Miles remarked, “It was kind of wild that Tommy [LiPuma] had given Miles a ton of records to listen to and that Miles came up with this track, which was the perfect cover tune, the perfect way.”

“Don’t Lose Your Mind”

Because of its reggae rhythm, Miles’ lyrical contributions on open horn, and Michael Urbaniak’s electric violin, this has a different character than the other tracks. “The song was so out there, it was like, don’t lose your mind when you listen to this tune,” Miller explains. “I was really trying to open it up in terms of creating rhythms and harmonies and a form that you had not heard on the album before. The song goes through a bunch of different sections, and Miles plays some interesting stuff. It takes you on a longer trip than some of the other tunes. Miles once said that he didn’t like the sound of the violin, but Michael had found a way of morphing his electric violin with his voice. It didn’t sound like a violin, but like something freaky. Miles dug that.”

“Full Nelson”

With its glorious melody and wonderful, staccato funk rhythm, this is a perfect closing track. “I wrote this to be a bridge between what I’d been doing and Prince’s song,” Miller explains. “But when Prince’s did not end up on the album, ‘Full Nelson’ transitioned into nothing.”

Originally published in March 2002

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