Sony Music’s latest Miles Davis release, featuring music from the 1980s, is a welcome addition to the trumpeter’s musical canon, but George Cole argues that much more material from this era could and should be released.
It’s been a long time coming, but more than thirty years after the death of Miles Davis, and some forty years since much of the music was recorded, Sony Music has finally released a substantial quantity of new material from Miles Davis’s 1980 era. The three-disc The Bootleg Series Vol 7: That’s What Happened 1982-1985 includes outtakes, alternate versions and live recordings. Many fans of Miles’s 1980s music (and contrary to what some music critics think, there are many) will be pleased to hear these unearthed recordings.
I’ve reviewed the set elsewhere on this site, but in this feature, I want to put the case for record companies (and especially Sony Music) to release even more material from Miles’s final decade. The first time Miles Davis added electric instrumentation to his music, he had to confront the C-word – controversial. For some jazz fans, musicians and critics, jazz and electricity do not mix. What’s more, some of them also insist that jazz should remain a ‘pure’ musical genre and that fusing jazz with rock, funk or hip-hop is a musical heresy – Miles did all of these things in the last ten years of his life.
Miles embraced another C-word – change. His music was constantly evolving; he was constantly exploring and constantly pushing at the barriers of jazz. He was also about playing the music of the time, as he noted in his autobiography: ‘Music is always changing. It changes because of the times and the technology that’s available…The worst musicians don’t hear the music today, so they can’t play it…The old musicians stay where they are and become like museum pieces under glass, safe, easy to understand, playing that tired old shit again and again…If anybody wants to keep on creating they have to be about change.’ This attitude made him both popular and unpopular.
Miles’s approach to music and the need for change explains why he embraced the musical culture of the 1980s. The 1980s are often derided when it comes to music – critics cite the now dated sound of drum machines, synthesised sounds and electronic percussion, but it’s often overlooked that it was also an incredible time in the history of music. First, there were the giant leaps in music technology – synthesisers, sampling and sequencing, and the arrival of new musical genres like electro, techno pop and hip-hop, all of which continue to shape the music of today. Mainstream digital media arrived in the form of the CD, and video exploded thanks to MTV. The era was dominated by superstars like Prince, Madonna and Michael Jackson.
It’s often noted that Miles wanted to be popular – and why not? As Miles stated, he wanted to reach as wide an audience as possible, especially the young. He never thought that the fewer people who liked your music, the better it was. He called his music of the 1980s social music. Detractors of this era like to portray Miles as a man who was more interested in celebrity culture than his music. Did Miles enjoy being a celebrity in his later life – he did, and again, why not? As saxophonist Dave Liebman – who played with Miles in the 1970s – observed, ‘I always felt that he deserved to have those good ten years and be in the limelight and have all that fame and notoriety.’
During the 1980s, Miles gave countless interviews; appeared on talk shows, popped up in adverts, made music videos, guested on numerous albums (including pop artists like Toto and Scritti Politti). He played on a half a dozen film soundtracks and carved out an acting career, appearing on the TV show Miami Vice and starring in the film Dingo. His artwork appeared on several of his albums, and his paintings were exhibited and often sold for thousands of dollars.
But Miles also had a social conscience, and as a black man living in White America, he never forgot what that meant– no matter how rich, powerful, talented or famous you were, you weren’t immune from racism. Miles was one of the participants in Artists Against Apartheid, a project initiated by the musician Little Steven (Steve Van Zandt) as a protest against the racist South African apartheid system. Little Steven assembled a cast of 44 artists (including Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Ringo Starr and Gil Scott-Heron) to record the album Sun City, released in 1985.
In July 1986, Miles’s band played at a concert for the human rights organisation Amnesty International, at the Giant’s Stadium in New Jersey (Carlos Santana sat-in on the gig). His 1985 album You’re Under Arrest addressed issues such as racism, police brutality and nuclear war. His 1986 album Tutu was named in honour of Bishop Desmond Tutu, the titan anti-apartheid and human rights activist. Miles’s 1989 album was called Amandla (Zulu for ‘power’ and often used as a rallying cry in the days of apartheid). The album cover, drawn by Miles and his artist partner Jo Gelbard, featured a portrait of Miles superimposed over an image of the African continent.
Music always came first for Miles. Some critics of Miles’s 1980 music have dismissed it with predictable clichés – his older music was better; it wasn’t ground-breaking; he couldn’t play anymore; he wasn’t playing jazz, it was just noise. One biographer memorably dismissed it as: ‘Kids’ music, dominated by three-chord riff tunes.’ But can recordings such as ‘My Man’s Gone Now,’ ‘It Gets Better,’ ‘Decoy,’ ‘That’s Right,’ ‘You’re Under Arrest,’ ‘Tutu’, ‘Portia,’ ‘Green’ and ‘Mr Pastorius’ be described as three-chord riff tunes? And what about the elegance of Miles’s playing on albums such as Aura and Siesta?
Ron Lorman – Miles’s front-of-house sound mixer and studio engineer for much of the 1980s – recalls how Miles would always ask for the soundboard tape at the end of every gig, listen to it, and then call up musicians in the middle of the night to tell them how to improve their performance. Music mattered to Miles to the point that if he was looking for a different sound or a different direction, he would dismiss you from the band, no matter how good you were playing.
When Miles brought a young, unknown and untried musician into his band in early 1987, some people scratched their heads. Joseph ‘Foley’ McCreary played bass, but more like a guitar. Some people couldn’t understand it: Miles had had amazing guitarists like John Scofield, Mike Stern and Robben Ford in his earlier bands, so why this kid? The reason was simple: Foley had a sound and an attitude that Miles wanted. So much so that Foley was still in the band four years later – right up until Miles’s death in September 1991.
There is also a rather insulting and patronising attitude that many fans of Miles’s 1980s era weren’t that interested in the music – it was more about turning up at a venue to pay homage to one of jazz’s last living legends. The assertion goes that people weren’t attending concerts – they were going to events. I have no doubt that, just as some people today attend a Rolling Stones concert or a Paul McCartney concert in order to be in the same room as a legend, some people simply wanted to see Miles. But I would wager that the vast majority of people who paid good money for a ticket and expended a lot of time and energy in travelling to the venue (and sometimes paying for overnight accommodation), were there for the music rather than to simply gawp at a musical giant.
What is incredible about Miles’s final decade is how productive he was, despite suffering from a number of ailments that included diabetes, arthritis (he had an artificial hip) and sickle-cell anaemia. He suffered a mild stroke in early 1982, and years of drink, drugs and smoking took their toll on a man who was fast approaching his seventh decade when he re-emerged in the 1980s. Yet despite the pain and the sickness and the sheer effort needed to move his body, Miles never stopped trying to move forward musically.
It cannot be said enough times: the 1980s were an important part of Miles’s musical legacy and a lot more music from this era – especially his live performances – should be released. It’s interesting to contrast the approach taken by the two record companies Miles was with during his last decade. Miles joined Columbia Records in 1955 and stayed with them until summer 1985, when he signed with Warner Bros.. He remained at Warner Bros. up until his death.
Miles only recorded a small number of albums when he was a Warner Bros. artist. Just two studio albums – Tutu and Amandla – were completed and released during his lifetime. Two more studios albums – Doo-Bop and Rubberband – were incomplete at the time of Miles’s death, and after some post-production work, were released posthumously. There were also soundtrack albums like Siesta and Dingo. Since Miles’s death, Warner Bros has also issued several live albums: Live Around The World, Miles Davis and Quincy Jones Live at Montreux, and Merci Miles! Live at Vienne. Warner Bros. also released a DVD-Audio version of Tutu, and a video, Miles in Paris, from a 1989 concert.
The UK division of Warner Bros. has also released compilation albums with previously unreleased material; a special edition of Tutu, and remastered versions of all his albums with new liner notes. In 2015, The Last Word was released, a superb 8-disc boxed set (initially priced at just £25!) that included studio albums, live albums, soundtrack albums and a 1986 concert performance from Nice.
Warner Bros. France has released a 5-disc boxed set, Miles Davis 1986-1991: The Warner Years, containing music from all of his Warner Bros. albums plus unreleased tracks and guest appearances. Warner Bros. Japan has issued audiophile versions (known as SHM-CDs and SHM-SACDs) of a handful of titles, including Tutu, Amandla and Doo-Bop.
Until recently, Sony Music (which bought Columbia Records/CBS in 1988 and renamed it three years later) has shown a great reluctance to release new material from the 1980s. In fairness to Sony, it has a vast catalogue of Miles material in its archives and has released a lot of new music from earlier periods.
Between 2000 and 2007, Sony Music released seven deluxe Miles Davis boxed sets, all beautifully packaged, with a metal spine and booklets stuffed with copious liner notes, discographies and photographs. The titles included recordings Miles made with Gil Evans, and with John Coltrane, the recordings of his second great quintet that included Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, and albums such as Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson, On The Corner and Seven Steps To Heaven.
There were also boxed set releases for In A Silent Way, The Cellar Door Sessions (from 1970) and The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel, featuring the second great quintet in 1965. Sony Music also issued deluxe boxed sets celebrating the 50th anniversary of Kind of Blue and the 40th anniversary of Bitches Brew, and for collectors with deep pockets, a limited edition Trumpet Case containing all seven Deluxe boxed set releases, plus the In A Silent Way boxed set. In 2009, the Complete Columbia Album Collection was released, an enormous boxed set containing Miles’s releases from 1955 to 1985 – 52 albums on 70 CDs and one DVD.
But by the time Sony Music came to releasing the last deluxe boxed set in 2007 – The Complete On The Corner Sessions – there were already signs that the company was winding down its Miles Davis special releases. Many of the boxed sets releases were curated by the musician/producer Bob Belden, who also wrote most of the liner notes.
I had several conversations with Bob Belden before his untimely death at the age of 58 in 2015, and he told me how he had wanted to split the On The Corner boxed set into two parts, with one part focusing on the period around 1972, and the second part covering the 1973-75 band that included Pete Cosey on guitar. But Sony Music insisted on a single boxed set covering both periods.
The Complete On The Corner boxed set had superb packaging, with a gold-coloured metal case embossed with the cartoon characters from the album’s original cover, but scratch beneath the surface and you noticed some differences between it and previous deluxe boxed sets. Earlier versions of the booklet included an album backgrounder, track-by-track descriptions and essays by former band members, but these were now missing. Even now, many fans of the 1973-75 era hope that more music will be released from this period.
Belden also said that plans for a 1980s boxed set had been considered and then scrapped, and that Sony Music had also thought about releasing special versions of Miles’s 1980s albums, with bonus tracks, but this idea was also abandoned. Every now and then, rumours of a 1980s boxed set swirled around, and some years ago, a noted Miles scholar told me that he had been asked to submit ideas for such a boxed set. Then everything went quiet.
In 1996, Sony Music Japan began releasing a new series of CDs called Master Sound, which were claimed to offer better sound quality than standard CDs. The series included all of Miles’s 1980s Columbia Records albums – The Man With The Horn, We Want Miles, Star People, Decoy, You’re Under Arrest and Aura, all presented in miniature cardboard facsimiles of the original LP cover. Sony Music Japan has put out more audiophile releases of the 1980s albums under various audio formats including SACD (Super Audio CD) and Blu-Spec CDs.
But until now, anyone looking for new Miles 1980s material from Sony Music had to look very hard. In 1992, Sony Music Japan released Miles! Miles! Miles! a double CD album of a Miles concert in Tokyo on 4 October 1981, only available in Japan. A noteworthy point is that the version of ‘Jean-Pierre’ that appears on the We Want Miles album is from this concert, edited and remixed. In Europe, a version of Miles! Miles! Miles! called Fat Time (and which squeezed all the music onto a single CD) appeared in some high-street record stores.
The version of We Want Miles on the Complete Columbia Album Collection includes three bonus tracks from Miles! Miles! Miles! – ‘Fat Time,’ ‘Aida’ and ‘Ursula.’ This version is not generally available. Ironically, only one of Miles’s 1980s albums has been repurposed by Sony Music and put out on general release: Aura. It’s ironic, because Miles complained that Columbia’s shoddy treatment of this album (it was recorded in 1985, but wasn’t released until 1989) was one of the reasons why he left the label.
Aura saw Miles working with Danish trumpeter/producer Palle Mikkelborg to create one of his finest works of the decade (Miles called it a ‘masterpiece’). An orchestral work composed by Mikkelborg in honour of Miles, and featuring the Danish Radio Big Band, Aura comprises ten movements encompassing everything from jazz to blues to funk to reggae, with John McLaughlin guesting on several tunes. The 1989 version of this album suffered from mastering errors and a dearth of information about the album (Mikkelborg was barely credited). A remastered version, released in 2000, included proper credits, photographs from the sessions and new liner notes from Mikkelborg. There was also a new 5-second brass intro on the tune, ‘Indigo.’
Hopes were raised that some new 1980s material might emerge when Sony Music launched the first of a series of Miles Davis releases under the Bootleg Series banner in 2011. These releases feature rare and previously unreleased music (although some has been put out on true bootlegs). The first title was Live in Europe 1967: The Bootleg Series Vol. 1, a 4-disc release, with 3 music CDs featuring concerts in Belgium, Denmark, France and Germany, and a DVD of TV recordings from Sweden. Bootleg Series releases 2 to 6 covered music from the 60s and 70s, including John Coltrane’s final tour with Miles in 1960, released in 2018.
The Bootleg Series Vol 7: That’s What Happened 1982-1985 offers music from three albums: Star People, Decoy and You’re Under Arrest, with two CDs of outtakes and one CD of a live concert from 1983. The contents and packaging (unlike other Miles bootleg releases, it’s a miniature boxed set release rather than a digipak) makes me wonder if it didn’t originally start out as a larger project, which was later trimmed back for commercial or creative reasons.
A boxed set composed of outtakes and live material is not aimed at the casual purchaser or someone looking to explore Miles’s 1980s music for the first time. The audiences for this set are likely to be fans who already own the albums, or those who aren’t fans but have all the previous Bootleg releases and want to complete the set. The latter group is likely to listen to the discs once and then put the boxed set on the shelf, next to the other Bootleg series releases.
Many fans of the 1980s era will be disappointed that music from The Man With The Horn, We Want Miles and Aura are missing from the release, not least, because there is a lot of material from these albums in the archives. The Man With The Horn was Miles’s comeback album, and included songs from a young group of musicians from Chicago, who mainly played funk and R&B – guitarist/singer Randy Hall, keyboardist Robert Irving III, bassist Felton Crews and drummer (and Miles’s nephew) Vince Wilburn Jr. They were joined by the young saxophonist Bill Evans in the studio.
The group recorded more than a dozen tunes in New York in 1980, although only two of them, ‘Shout’ and ‘The Man With The Horn,’ appeared on the album. Miles didn’t add his trumpet to most of the tunes, but at least one other song featuring his trumpet has emerged, ‘Mrs Slurpey.’ It’s also thought that Miles put his horn on another tune, a ballad called ‘I’m Blue.’
But even the tunes that Miles didn’t finish would be of interest. I’d love to hear a medley of some of this music including, ‘Space,’ a tune which inspired Miles to return to music again; ‘Burn’ a song Miles played live in concert in 1985, with the view to including it on his first Warner Bros. album, and ‘Tradition 106’ a bossa-nova piece written by Bill Evans and Robert Irving III. DJ Jimmy Simpson, brother of the singer Valerie Simpson, produced two 12-inch single remixes of ‘Shout,’ which could have been included, and there are single edits of ‘Shout’ and ‘The Man With The Horn.’
The Man With The Horn sessions also included New York musicians: drummer Al Foster, guitarists Mike Stern and Barry Finnerty, bassist Marcus Miller and percussionist Sammy Figueroa. The music produced in the studio was essentially a series of jams, which were edited by Teo Macero. Unreleased 15-minute and 17-minute mixes of ‘Back Seat Betty’ are out there (in low quality audio), and it would be interesting to hear a session reel from at least one of the sessions.
We Want Miles is a live album, with tracks taken from concerts at the Kix club in Boston, the Avery Fisher Hall, New York, and Nishi-Shinjukun, Tokyo. The concerts took place in summer and autumn 1981 and were the first time Miles had been out on the road for almost six years. The band consisted of Miles, Bill Evans, Mike Stern, Marcus Miller and Al Foster from The Man With The Horn sessions, and new percussionist Mino Cinelu. Teo Macero took a pick-and-mix approach to the album, selecting three tracks from Kix (‘My Man’s Gone Now,’ ‘Fast Track,’ and ‘Kix.’); one from Avery Fisher Hall (‘Back Seat Betty’) and two from Tokyo (‘Jean-Pierre’ long and short versions).
Miles played eight sets at Kix between 26-29 June, and all were recorded by Columbia Records, along with the band rehearsals. Columbia sent Teo Macero along to supervise the recordings. This was because in the late 70s, Miles had made several aborted attempts to return to music, and this time, Columbia was taking no chances – everything was recorded. It would be nice to see a boxed set of the Kix gigs released, just as all four nights of Miles’s Cellar Door gigs (played between 16-19 December 1970) were released on a six-disc boxed set.
The concert at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall on 5 July 1981, was also recorded under Macero’s supervision. The event billed as Miles’s official comeback concert, but only an edited version of ‘Back Seat Betty’ was used on the album. It would be good to see the full concert released, or at the very least, the full-length performance of ‘Back Seat Betty,’ which lasts for almost 19 minutes (the version on We Want Miles lasts 8 minutes) was officially released. A low-quality audience recording reveals an exciting performance, with long solos by Stern and Evans not on the album version.
In the following October, Miles played seven concerts in Japan, and most of them were recorded by Columbia Records, again with Teo Macero in attendance. Apart from the 4 October gig (which was also televised), none of this music has been released. It’s easy to see why a special edition boxed set of We Want Miles would be a treasure trove for fans of this period.
When it comes to Aura, there probably isn’t much, if any, unreleased material from the studio sessions. But on 14 December 1984, Miles travelled to Denmark to receive the prestigious Sonning Award (Aura was written to celebrate the event) and it’s here where Aura was premiered. Miles played on one movement and had also brought along John Scofield. The two of them played ‘Jean-Pierre’ and ‘Time After Time’ as part of the encore. It would be nice to see the full concert released, or at the very least, the sections where Miles played.
There is a vast amount of live material available from the 1980s. Many of Miles’s concerts were recorded by radio and television stations around the world – especially in France, Germany, Italy, Scandinavia and Japan. UK broadcasters didn’t record many shows, but Capital Radio did broadcast part of Miles’s 1984 and 1985 summer shows at the Royal Festival Hall, and Channel 4 TV transmitted a concert from the Hammersmith Odeon on 21 April 1982. An official release of this show, in high quality audio and video, would be most welcome. Most TV and radio broadcasts were edited, for example, a show at the Wiesen Jazz Festival in Austria on 7 July 1984, saw Chic Corea sit-in on a couple of numbers, but only part of the concert was ever transmitted. Full-length concerts from these sources – in good quality audio – would be eagerly snatched up by fans.
All of Miles’s concerts were recorded by his front-of-house sound mixer. Most recordings were made with low-fi cassette tapes (although in the late 80s, many were recorded on DAT digital tape). But today’s digital audio tools can do wonders with low-quality audio sources, and artificial intelligence techniques can be used to ‘demix’ a mono or stereo tape source, to separate individual instruments.
Of course, all of this costs time and money. Someone has to sift through the tapes, select the tracks, sort out licensing and clearance rights, and then have the tracks edited, mixed and mastered. As more and more music is streamed, it’s questionable whether music companies will continue to support physical media, and in particular, CD and DVD boxed sets. But the revival of vinyl shows there is an appetite for physical media and that many people are prepared to pay a premium for it.
The new release of material from Miles’s final decade is to be welcomed, but let’s hope this isn’t the first and last time Sony Music delves into the archives and releases music from this period. Miles, his music and his fans deserve better.
Many thanks again to photographer Shigeru Uchiyama for kindly allowing us to use more of the many terrific photos he took of Miles and his bands during the 1980s. Shigeru has published two superb photo books on Miles, Miles Smiles and No Picture! His Instagram page – which has images of many of the jazz artists he has photographed over the years – is at: https://www.instagram.com/whisper.not/
There is also an interview with him here: https://www.thelastmiles.com/interviews-shigeru-uchiyama/
Reviewed by George Cole