Enjoyable as it is, the soundtrack album for Don Cheadle’s quasi-biopic Miles Ahead prompts a query common to such releases: For whom, other than completists, is this intended? Not your typical fan, as there are no previously unheard Miles items and some selections are edited (which a few sensitive souls may not be able to abide, despite the bald fact that Teo Macero’s razor blade improved so much of Davis’ recorded output). Novices? Perhaps, but this isn’t exactly the best introduction to the master, although it spreads its net reasonably wide, from 1953’s quartet take of “Miles Ahead” to 1981’s “Back Seat Betty”; “So What” is of course included in its entirety. Given the film’s late-’70s setting, it only makes sense that the six-year period between Filles de Kilimanjaro and Agharta gets the most space. Thrilling stuff, yes-also not a full representation of his art over time.
My best guess: This album’s for anyone who simply wants a good audio souvenir of Cheadle’s fanciful but fun directorial debut. Cool snippets of dialogue from the movie and five non-Miles tracks, most of them featuring keyboardist Robert Glasper, bolster that opinion. Those tracks range from a convincing simulation of Davis’ mid-’70s sound (“Junior’s Jam,” graced with stellar trumpet work by Keyon Harrold) to two intriguing hints at what his music might have sounded like if he’d lived longer: the spirited all-star funk blowout “What’s Wrong With That?” and the more circumspect “Gone 2015,” built around Pharoahe Monch’s incisive rap. Still, it has to be acknowledged that the most gripping moments are vintage recordings, particularly two nasty cuts from the Jack Johnson sessions, “Duran” and “Go Ahead John.”
While working on Miles Ahead, Glasper was simultaneously engrossed in a related project, digging through Columbia’s vaults and finding various seeds in Miles’ multitrack tapes from which to grow new pieces. Everything’s Beautiful is the result of that process: 11 tracks, each fronted by a different artist-notables on the guest list include neo-soul diva Erykah Badu, British singer Laura Mvula and rapper Illa J-and based either on a Davis composition or on a selection of samples from the multitracks. The album is warm, well crafted, unified in tone and undeniably clever. It’s a kick, for example, to hear Stevie Wonder’s harmonica mirror Miles’ muted trumpet on the “Nefertiti” theme that underpins “Right on Brotha.” And “I’m Leaving You,” a dynamic, immediately appealing R&B number with vocals by Ledisi and guitar by John Scofield, has serious hit potential.
On the whole, though, Everything’s Beautiful overemphasizes mood at the expense of everything else. If you heard this music playing by chance at your local Starbucks, you’d probably marvel at its hipness. But get beyond its alluring surface and you’ll find it’s extremely light on two components that were crucial to Davis’ work: melody and challenge. Glasper and crew have their hearts in the right place, but their tribute to an artist who was about as major as they come feels pretty minor.