Photograph of Miles © and courtesy Jo Gelbard
Everyone they say, has their favourite Miles Davis period, whether it’s the first great quintet featuring John Coltrane; the Kind of Blue era; the Gil Evans collaborations that include Porgy and Bess, and Sketches of Spain; the second great quintet that included Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams or the electric explorations that yielded albums such as Jack Johnson, Bitches Brew, In A Silent Way, On The Corner and Agharta. For some Miles fans, it’s his 1980s work which resonates with them, and that includes this writer.
The final phase of Miles Davis’s long and illustrious career began after a five-year lay-off, when Miles had barely played any music. His last period stretches from 1981 – the release of his first come-back album – to 1991, when Miles began working on his final studio album. He played his last concert barely a month before his death.
So what’s a good place to start listening to Miles’s final decade? Listed here are ten albums containing music from this period and which give a good insight into where Miles was during this period. Between 1981 to the summer of 1985, Miles was at Columbia Records (later Sony Music), a label he had joined in 1955. In mid-1985, Miles left Columbia Records for Warner Bros. where he remained until his death in September 1991.
We Want Miles (Columbia Records)
Miles’s comeback album was The Man with the Horn, released in 1981. Although it contains some good music, and many fine musicians, it is a patchy affair. A better place to start would be the live album We Want Miles, which documents Miles 1981 concert tour, with recordings taken from the US and Japan, and superbly edited by Miles’s producer Teo Macero.
The band consists of Miles on trumpet and electric piano; Mike Stern (guitar); Bill Evans (saxophone); Marcus Miller (bass); Al Foster (drums) and Mino Cinelu (percussion). All musicians, with the exception of Cinelu had played on the track ‘Fat Time’ on The Man with the Horn. Despite the band having little preparation, and Miles being sick for much of the tour, the resulting album is a triumph.
The album opens up with the thundering sound of Marcus Miller’s Fender bass heralding the start of one of Miles’s best-known tunes of the era, ‘Jean-Pierre,’ with its catchy child-like melody. Other standout tracks include a storming version of ‘Back Seat Betty,’ the effervescent ‘Fast Track’ (anyone who says Miles couldn’t play trumpet around this time, should listen to the explosive flurry of notes he plays around the 7:11-mark, following Stern’s blistering solo) and a superb revival of ‘My Man’s Gone Now,’ which alternates between a ballad and a jazz-swing workout.
Star People (Columbia Records)
An album with a line-up that includes Teo Macero, arranger Gil Evans and musicians Mike Stern, John Scofield (both guitar), Marcus Miller, Tom Barney (both bass), Bill Evans, Al Foster and Mino Cinelu. It was the last time Miles worked with Macero and Evans, and the last time he was so actively involved in the studio. Miles was now playing a synthesiser (albeit somewhat rudimentarily) as well as horn and electric piano.
The album includes two exciting live tracks ‘Come Get It’ (Marcus Miller plays one of the busiest bass lines of his career) and ‘Speak’ (which features both Scofield and Stern, the two of them in fiery form), as well as two blues numbers – the 19-minute title track and ‘It Gets Better,’ which both have Miles stretching out for long periods. There’s also jazz-funk in the form of ‘Star On Cicely.’ This album is not always an easy listen, but there are rich rewards to be had.
Decoy (Columbia Records)
An album that find Miles in transition, as he moves towards more electronic instrumentation and includes his first specialist keyboard player – Robert Irving III – for a decade. Miles has a cracking band on this album: John Scofield (guitar), Darryl Jones (bass), Al Foster (drums), Bill Evans and Branford Marsalis (saxophone) and Mino Cinelu (percussion). The title track is a thick slab of jazz-funk, propelled by Darryl Jones’s ferocious bass line and the silky phrases of Branford Marsalis’s soprano sax. Other standout tracks include the live jazz-funk workouts ‘What It Is’ and ‘That’s What Happened,’ and the 11-minute bluesy ‘That’s Right,’ which highlights Miles’s horn playing. There are a couple of less successful tracks, and the album is on the short-side (39 minutes) but there’s still plenty to enjoy.
You’re Under Arrest (Columbia Records)
Miles’s most commercial album of the 1980s includes covers of Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’ and Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time.’ But it’s not all about pop covers – two numbers: ‘One Phone Call/Street Scenes’ and ‘Then There Were None’ deal with racism, and war and pollution, respectively. Miles’s new sax player, Bob Berg is a great fit with the band and plays with great power and energy, especially on the high-octane title track. John Scofield plays guitar on most tracks, but John McLaughlin guests on two: the reggae-flavoured ‘Ms Morrisine’ and the storming jam ‘Katia.’ Sting from The Police has a cameo part on the track ‘One Phone Call,’ playing the part of a French policeman no less. Who said Miles didn’t have a sense of humour?
Aura (Columbia Records)
When Miles won the prestigious Danish Sonning Music Award, he took part in a celebratory concert in Copenhagen in December 1984. Barely a month later, he was back in Denmark recording this album with trumpeter/composer/arranger Palle Mikkelborg, who composed ten movements that represented Miles’s aura. The movements (all named after colours) encompass a wide range of musical genres – ambient, big band, orchestral, rock, jazz, reggae, blues and funk. Miles’s playing was close to its peak around this period and it shows on this album. He’s joined in the studio by the Danish Radio Big Band and John McLaughlin plays guitar on several tunes. When Aura was finally released four years later, it was critically acclaimed (and won two Grammy awards). Even Miles called it a masterpiece in his autobiography.
Tutu (Warner Bros.)
Miles’s first album for Warner Bros was like a huge jolt of electricity for both fans and critics – nobody had recorded a jazz album like this, using synthesisers, sequencing and sampling. Eschewing a live band for (mainly) electronic instrumentation, Tutu is the first of three collaborations with Marcus Miller (who plays bass, keyboards, bass clarinet and soprano sax) and synthesiser programming maestro Jason Miles.
Miller laid down tracks (sometimes with a guest musician or two) for Miles to play over and the resulting music was a game-changer – the combination of trumpet and electronic instrumentation would influence many other musicians. The dark, brooding, title track is a classic and covered by other jazz artists, including George Benson and Cassandra Wilson. Other highlights include ‘Tomaas’ with its James Brown-like rhythm guitar riff, the haunting ballad ‘Portia,’ on which Miles play both tenderly and exquisitely, the dub/reggae ‘Don’t Lose Your Mind,’ and, ‘Full Nelson,’ which combines Miles’s horn with the sound of Prince.
Siesta (Warner Bros.)
Probably because it’s the soundtrack album to a film that soon disappeared from the theatres, Siesta is often an overlooked work, which is a shame, because it contains some of Miles’s finest playing from this era. As Miles got older and his energy levels declined, and as the various ailments he suffered from (including diabetes, arthritis and sickle-cell anaemia) took their toll, he tended to play more with a Harmon mute rather than with open horn. But on this album, he plays a lot without the mute.
The music was composed by Marcus Miller (who had around a couple of weeks to compose and record the soundtrack!) and Jason Miles was on hand again with the programming. The album includes some fine guest musicians: John Scofield and Earl Klugh (both on classical guitar), James Walker (flutes) and Omar Hakim (drums).
Siesta is sometimes called Miles’s ‘Sketches of Spain of the 1980s,’ although it uses an electronic orchestra for a soundscape that evokes the sound of Andalusia. The title track features Miles’s soaring trumpet, while ‘Theme For Augustine’ has Miles playing with great tenderness. On the closer, ‘Loz Feliz’ features Miles playing stirring trumpet lines over a Gil Evans-like orchestral sound. No wonder the album was dedicated to Evans.
Amandla (Warner Bros.)
The third and final collaboration with Marcus Miller and Jason Miles is a continuation of the trend of combining Miles’s horn with electronic sounds, but on this album, there is more a band feel, because it features many guest musicians, including three members of Miles’s current band – saxophonist Kenny Garrett, lead bassist Foley and drummer Ricky Wellman. Garrett’s sound (predominately on alto sax) is all over this album.
The standout tracks include the opener ‘Catémbe’ driven by twin percussionists Don Alias and Mino Cinelu; ‘Hannibal’ which combines the joyous sound of steel drums with a mournful theme; ‘Jo-Jo’ with its swinging go-go beat, and the epic-like title track that includes Steve Khan on guitar and an acoustic piano solo by the late Joe Sample. ‘Mr Pastorius,’ is a moving tribute to the bassist who inspired countless musicians, and has Miles playing jazz-swing. Al Foster joins him on drums.
Live Around The World (Warner Bros.)
This album was released five years after Miles’s death, but features soundboard recordings, most of them made by Patrick Murray, Miles’s concert sound mixer. The performances are from 1988-1991. Many would argue that Miles’s best performances were live on stage during his last ten years, and this album features superb versions of ‘Human Nature’ and ‘Time After Time.’ There are also tunes like ‘In A Silent Way’ and ‘Intruder,’ which are not on any studio albums. There are expensive boxed sets featuring Miles’s live performances from the 1980s, but this is a very affordable and very good sampler from this era.
Perfect Way (Warner Bros.)
Columbia Records/Sony Music has so far shown no inclination to release a sampler album featuring Miles’s 1980s output, but Warner Bros. has released several of them. Perfect Way is a double CD release that offers a good selection of music from almost all of Miles’s Warner Bros releases (alas, there is no music from Siesta). In addition to music from Tutu and Amandla, there are also selections from the soundtrack albums Dingo and The Hot Spot, the jazz/hip-hop album Doo-Bop, as well as the Live at Montreux album with Quincy Jones. Added to this are the title track from the Rubberband album, and three live tracks from a concert in Nice, featuring Robben Ford on guitar. An excellent value-for-money compilation that is a good all-around introduction to Miles in the late 80s.
George Cole is the author of The Last Miles: The Music of Miles Davis 1980-1991
one of the essential and comprehensive books covering Miles’s last decade.
For more information visit thelastmiles.com