The career of Miles Davis was a series of directional shifts, each of which made an indelible mark on the history of jazz. The mercurial trumpeter was always looking ahead to do something new, something different. Whether it was also something better has been debated by critics, fans, and musicians for years. Each new move was finely parsed for clues as to what Miles was thinking and where he was going. The story, possibly apocryphal, goes that when a fan told him that he loved the trumpeter’s past work but was having trouble with his current stuff, Miles told him, “Why should I wait for you?”
All of these changes in musical direction were quite public and manifested in his bands, his recordings, his performances, even his look and persona. When he collaborated with someone new, whether it be Gil Evans or Wayne Shorter or Marcus Miller, we not only heard about it, we heard it. This made what we didn’t hear—like possible collaborations with Jimi Hendrix and Prince that never saw the light of day—all the more intriguing. So when Rubberband, an unfinished and unreleased Davis recording from 1985, surfaced recently … well, jazz people suddenly had something new to talk about regarding Miles, albeit something 34 years old.
The story of Rubberband goes farther back than 1985, though. During Miles’ famous hiatus in the ’70s, he liked to call his sister Dorothy in Chicago and listen in via phone to the rehearsals of the funk band AL7 featuring her son, the drummer Vince Wilburn, Jr., along with bassist Felton Crews, keyboardist Robert Irving III, and guitarist Randy Hall. When Miles returned to the studio for his comeback album The Man With the Horn in 1981, he chose to use those four Chicago youngbloods, with Hall adding arrangements and vocals to the recording. (Bringing the invigorating force of youth into his groups had always been a conscious strategy for Davis, who’d famously hired a 17-year-old drummer named Tony Williams in 1962 for his groundbreaking new quintet.)
Miles would go on to record a succession of contemporary electric albums for Columbia Records, including We Want Miles, Star People, and Decoy, all of which sold well and drew responses from critics that were uneven at best, much like many of his other recordings. Most importantly, he returned to performing live and headlined festivals and concert halls all over the world.
In 1985 Miles decided to leave Columbia, the label that had effectively established him as a jazz star over three decades. By signing with Warner Bros. and working with hitmaking producer Tommy LiPuma, Davis was looking to make another transition—not only to change his musical direction but also to reach a new audience. It was the height of the ’80s and the airwaves (radio and TV) were filled with the sounds of synth bass, programmed drums, and electronic keyboards. Miles decided to pair one young man with whom he’d already worked (Hall) with another who’d had some commercial success with different artists: Zane Giles, crafter of hits for Janet Jackson and Con Funk Shun.
Further emphasizing the ’80s connection, they recorded at Ray Parker Jr.’s Ameraycan Studios in Los Angeles. The recordings were engineered by Reggie Dozier, brother of Lamont Dozier of the famous Motown songwriting trio Holland-Dozier-Holland.
Joining Miles in the studio were keyboardists Adam Holzman, Neil Larsen, and Wayne Linsey; percussionist Steve Reid; saxophonist Glen Burris; bassist Cornelius Mims; and Wilburn on drums. Between October 1985 and January 1986, they recorded more than a dozen tunes, not all of which were finished. The recording was to include vocal cameos from Al Jarreau and Chaka Khan, but neither made it to the recording studio to put down their parts. That wasn’t because the two were no-shows; Warners shelved the album before it got to the vocal-tracking stage, deciding instead to record and release an album produced by Miles’ bassist and friend Marcus Miller, who had written some fresh new material for his mentor.
“Tommy LiPuma called me and said Warner Bros. had just signed Miles,” Miller wrote in an email to JazzTimes. “He said Miles wanted to do something ‘different.’ He sent me a demo that George Duke had done, which he and Miles both thought was a good example of where Miles wanted to go. That was the demo for ‘Backyard Ritual.’ I worked on three tunes and played demos of them for Tommy. We ended up recording those tunes. About a week after recording them, Tommy called and said he and Miles had decided they wanted me to write more tunes to finish the album.”
That album, Tutu, was both a creative and commercial success, and its music became the template for Davis’ future recordings and performances. Looking back in 2010, Miller wrote that that music reflected not only the man but the era he was living in: “Apartheid was still in place in South Africa, cats were wearing jackets with shoulder pads, and the sound of the drum machine dominated music. I took a look at that particular landscape and created a sound that I thought blended the feeling of that time with the sound of Miles.”
Although Rubberband is decidedly ’80s in its production, so was Tutu, but with a different—more New York, less L.A.—feel. “We used synthesizers, samplers, drum machines and blended them with real musicians,” Miller explained in 2010. “Although many of the instruments were electronic, it was important to me to make the music feel good, to make it swing. And it was also important that, although I played most of the instruments on the album, the sound of Miles’ horn was the centerpiece. I tried to find melodies that were worthy of his glorious sound. The result, in my opinion, is a pretty good representation of what the ’80s had to offer. To me, it captures Miles, negotiating his way through a world that had become half-man, half machine and finding a way to bend that world to his will.”
Miller wasn’t involved in the decision to have Tutu replace Rubberband. In fact, he didn’t know the earlier recording existed until more than a year later. “They never mentioned Rubberband to me during that time,” he explained. “About a year after the release of Tutu, I heard Miles and the band playing the song ‘Rubberband’ at one of his shows. I eventually heard about the Rubberband sessions [in a radio interview] and how disappointed the producers were that it didn’t get released. I’m not sure who made the call not to release it. It sounded like Miles and Tommy were making the decisions but I can’t really say. But I’m real happy that it’s out and people will get a chance to hear it.”
LiPuma died in 2017, so we can’t know his thinking for certain, but we can probably assume that to him the success of Tutu and its followup Amandla meant Davis was now following a different trajectory, one that would be hard to turn back from. The time for Rubberband had seemingly passed. “Everybody was digging Tutu,” Wilburn says. “You couldn’t put anything against that.”
The material from Rubberband didn’t entirely disappear. Miles’ Doo-Bop album, released posthumously in 1992, features some of his playing from the Rubberband sessions, and, as Miller noted, the shelved album’s title cut was part of the live band’s repertoire for the next few years. Looking back on the shows of that time, Wilburn recalls that the group was doing all sorts of ’80s tunes. “We were playing Scritti Politti’s ‘Perfect Way’ and Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’ and Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’ and Mr. Mister’s ‘Broken Wings,’” he says, laughing. Miles really did go all in on ’80s pop, but the album that (arguably) most captured his affinity for that music remained in the Warner vaults, both unfinished and unheard for the next 30-plus years.
When Rhino, the reissue subsidiary of Warner Bros., came across the recordings in 2017, they contacted the Miles Davis estate, whose permission would be essential for any commercial release. Fortuitously, the estate is managed by Miles’ son Erin Davis, daughter Cheryl Ann Davis, and Wilburn, bringing things full circle. Wilburn told Rhino to send him the tapes—or, to be more accurate, the files: “I called Erin and said, ‘Man, this sounds really ’80s, we gotta bring it up to current or at least some semblance to current sounds.’” Wilburn proceeded to contact Hall and Giles, who were happy to revisit what they’d produced 32 years before.
The three added various touches to the tracks and also brought in vocalists Ledisi and Lalah Hathaway to cut the tunes that Khan was to have done. After contacting various A-list male vocalists for “I Love What We Make Together,” the song originally planned for Jarreau (who died in 2017), Hall ended up handling the vocals on the track himself. Despite those modern additions, the album is very much a reflection of its original time of creation; the padded shoulders and drum machines abide still. Nonetheless, we hear Miles play songs and solos we’ve never heard before, and that’s well worth the price of admission.
For his part, Wilburn is looking forward to bringing new life to the material with his Miles Electric Band, featuring Chicago buds Irving and Darryl Jones (Miles alumnus and current Rolling Stones bassist), as well as a revolving cast of several of the best trumpeters of our time, including Christian Scott, Sean Jones, Etienne Charles, Jeremy Pelt, Nicholas Payton, and Wallace Roney. Expect them to continue playing the plugged-in music of Miles at venues and festivals around the globe. After all, who—other than maybe Stanley Crouch—wouldn’t want to hear that?