In 1975, Miles Davis dropped out of the music scene. A combination of illness, exhaustion and creative burnout had forced the trumpeter to stop touring and virtually shun the recording studio. It would be five years before Miles recorded a new album, and six years, before audiences got to see him play live again.
Miles’s post-retirement period lasted almost exactly ten years, with the first half of the decade (1980- late1985) spent at Columbia Records, and the second half (1985-1991), with Warner Bros.
It’s interesting that when you talk about Miles’s final decade, some people describe him as “coasting,” “going through the motions,” or “basking in his glory,” but the evidence shows that Miles was highly productive during this period.
He recorded nine studio albums (the last one, Doo-Bop, was released posthumously), plus a live album. He appeared on a handful of movie soundtracks and made numerous guest recordings. He also toured extensively across the US, Europe and Asia-Pacific.
Miles recorded everything from jazz-rock to big-band; jazz-funk to pop, and jazz-swing to hip-hop. Quantity of course, is no guarantee of quality, but it is this writer’s contention that the body of work Miles created during his last years ranks amongst some of his best.
Miles’s comeback album, The Man With The Horn, was a mixed bag in more ways than one. It contained a mix of bands (three) and a mix of genres, including jazz-rock (“Fat Time” and “Back Seat Betty”), soul (“The Man With The Horn”), funk (“Aida”), disco (“Shout”) and jazz-swing (“Ursula”).
It’s clear that Miles was groping his way towards a new direction, one that was a world away from the scorching, Afro-jazz-rock music he created in 1975, with a band that included Pete Cosey on guitar, Michael Henderson on bass and Al Foster, drums.
Two of the tunes on Miles’s new album (the title track and “Shout”) had been written and recorded by a band of young Chicagoan musicians that included Miles’s nephew, drummer Vince Wilburn Jr; guitarist Randy Hall, keyboardist Robert Irving III and bassist Felton Crews. They were joined by a young, straight-out-of-college saxophonist, Bill Evans.
The remaining tunes were recorded with Evans and a group of top-flight New York musicians – Al Foster, guitarists Mike Stern and Barry Finnerty, bassist Marcus Miller and percussionist Sammy Figueroa.
Miles’s chops were rusty, but some creative editing and effects from producer Teo Macero smoothed out the rough edges, and on many tunes, Miles sounds strong and impressive.
The Man With The Horn also got mixed reviews, with the tunes by the young Chicagoans getting lots of the flak (the title track, a soul ballad, with Miles on wah-wah trumpet, included vocals by Randy Hall). But it’s only in retrospect that we see that these musicians set the template for Miles’s later years, where he would use young musicians to create the music, to which he would add his trumpet sound.
Miles also recorded pop tunes on two of his albums (You’re Under Arrest and Tutu), and played various pop tunes live.
In 1981, Miles went back on the road, an event that received worldwide coverage. His band comprised of most of those who had recorded “Fat Time” (Mike Stern, Bill Evans, Marcus Miller and Al Foster) plus percussionist Mino Cinelu.
Some of the band’s performances in Boston, New York and Tokyo were documented on the double album We Want Miles. Tracks such as “Back Seat Betty” and “Fast Track,” reveal the power and the energy of the band, and how Miles’s playing was getting stronger.
The album also included a reworking of “My Man’s Gone Now,” from Porgy and Bess, and introduced one of Miles’s best known tunes from the last period, “Jean-Pierre,” which would remain in his live repertoire for most of the decade.
Miles’s third album, Star People, released in spring 1983, marked many significant milestones: the last time Miles would work so extensively in the studio with his working band; the last time Teo Macero worked with Miles; the last time Gil Evans helped Miles in the studio, and the last time Miles’s band would be without a specialist keyboard player (Miles had handled most of the keyboards on stage and in the studio, with Bill Evans – a trained classical pianist – given the odd solo spot on stage).
It was the first (and at the time of writing, only) time that the two guitar line-up Miles had between November 1982 and June 1983 (featuring Mike Stern and John Scofield) was heard on an official album release. It was also the first time the public got to see Miles’s artwork, which adorned the cover.
Star People is a vast, sprawling album, almost an hour in length, at the limits of what could be stored on two sides of an LP record (The CD had not yet been launched in the US). The six tracks are a mix of slow blues and high-octane jazz-funk, with the bluesy title track clocking in at almost 19 minutes.
For some people, Star People marks the high-water mark of Miles’s late period and there are certainly many superb performances to enjoy on tracks such as “Speak,” (featuring Tom Barney on bass), “Come Get It” (featuring a ferocious bass line by Marcus Miller) and “It Gets Better,” (showcasing Scofield’s playing).
By the time Miles came to record his next album, Decoy (released in 1984), Miles had stopped working with his long-time collaborator) Teo Macero (they began working together in 1959). Miles never revealed why the split occurred – was Miles looking for a new musical direction?
Was Macero not keeping up with the latest electronics instruments and studio technologies (Miles was showing an increasing interest in drum machines and synthesisers)? Did Miles want more control and more credit? Did Miles want to work with younger collaborators? The truth is probably a mix of these, but whatever the reason, Macero’s creative contribution to Miles’s music should not be overlooked.
Decoy is a transitional album, marking the time when Miles began handling much of the creative process over to younger musicians. In this case, keyboardist Robert Irving III and drummer Vince Wilburn Jr, who both had production roles on the album. Irving also wrote several tunes, including the title track, which featured the hard-edged funk playing of Miles’s new bassist, Darryl Jones. Miles’s band was also changing, with Branford Marsalis replacing Bill Evans on sax in the studio (although Evans would remain in the band for a couple of months after Decoy was recorded in
September 1983, and Marsalis turned down the invitation to join Miles’s band). Irving also joined Miles’s band, becoming the first specialist keyboardist Miles had since Lonnie Liston Smith in 1973.
Miles had wanted to work with Gil Evans throughout the 1980s, but sadly, there would be no further collaborations after Star People. One plan was for Miles to record an album of pop tunes, with Evans arrangements, but it never came to fruition. But the idea germinated into Miles’s next album, You’re Under Arrest, released in 1985. This is probably Miles’s most accessible album of this period, and was one of his best-selling (it shifted more than 100,000 copies after the first few weeks of release). Co-produced by Irving, the album includes three pop tunes – Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature,” Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” and D-Train’s “Something’s On Your Mind.” All would become a staple part of Mile’s live repertoire, with the first two tunes remaining on set-lists right up until Miles’s final concerts.
The album also contained political tracks that covered issues such as racism, police harassment, pollution and nuclear war, and the cover shot (featuring Miles brandishing a machine gun) created a stir. You’re Under Arrest also introduced a new saxophonist, Bob Berg, whose beefy sound added punch to the music, and a new percussionist Steve Thornton, who would remain in the band for three years.
The album also reunited with guitarist John McLaughlin, who played on several tracks, and even Sting made a guest appearance, playing the part of a French policeman on the opening number, “One Phone Call.”.
But the sessions also saw the departure of Miles’s long-time friend and musical associate, Al Foster, who had grown tired of playing the constant heavy backbeat Miles now required from his drummer. Vince Wilburn Jr replaced him.
Not long after the completing the final sessions for You’re Under Arrest, Miles flew to Copenhagen, to work on another album, Aura. Conceived, composed, arranged and produced by Danish trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, Aura grew out of Miles winning the 1984 Sonning Music Award.
Comprised of seven movements (all named after a colour), Aura saw Miles playing with the Danish Radio Big Band, and musicians such as John McLaughlin, Vince Wilburn Jr, percussionist Marilyn Mazur and bassist Niels-Henning Ǿrsted Pedersen.
The music was an electric mix of jazz, reggae, ambient, funk and the blues, and worked beautifully. Miles was pleased and proud of the music, and Aura is one of his best albums from this period, featuring some of his best playing, and winning two Grammy awards.
It’s ironic, that Aura should be one of the reasons why Miles ended a 30-year association with Columbia Records in mid-1985, and sign with Warner Bros for a rumoured one million dollars. Columbia was reluctant to release Aura and probably hoped Miles would record a similar follow-up to the commercially successful You’re Under Arrest. Aura was a different animal all together and would not be released until 1989.
Miles was initially pleased with the deal his manager had cut with Warner Bros., but there was a sting in the tail – the contract Miles signed gave Warner Chappell Music half of his song publishing rights. As a result, Miles composed few tunes during his tenure at Warner Bros.
Supervising Miles’s at Warner Bros. was producer Tommy LiPuma, then head of the record label’s jazz division. Initially, Miles was given free reign, when it came to his new musical direction.
Miles took his working band (Mike Stern, Bob Berg, Robert Irving III, Steve Thornton, Marilyn Mazur, Vince Wilburn Jr, and bassist Angus Thomas) into the studio and recorded several tunes, including a funk track “Maze” and Mr Mister’s “Broken Wings,” but no further work was done with the band.
Miles contacted many people for material including, George Duke, Paul Buckmaster (who had worked with Miles during On The Corner), Steve Porcaro of Toto and Bill Laswell.
Prince had also expressed an interest in working with Miles and submitted a tune. Miles also did a series of album sessions with Randy Hall and Zane Giles for an album to be named Rubberband, but the LiPuma felt that the music’s gritty, street sound wasn’t the right direction for Miles.
LiPuma found the direction he wanted when George Duke sent him a demo of a song he had written for Miles, “Backyard Ritual.” Duke has built the music up using a synclavier, a combined synthesiser, sampler and multi-track recorder. The song included sampled trumpet and saxophone.
Later on, Duke was surprised to receive a call from Miles telling him that they had used his song, and apart from adding Miles’s trumpet, and some additional instrumentation, they were using the track as he had sent it.
Marcus Miller, then a Warner Bros artist, contacted LiPuma to see if he could submit some material for Miles’s new album. LiPuma sent Miller a copy of Duke’s demo, to give him an idea of the direction Miles was taken. Miller was surprised and delighted to see that Miles was getting into synthesisers, samplers and drum machines.
Working with programmer Jason Miles, Miller crafted three demos – “Tutu,” “Splatch” and “Portia,” playing all the instruments himself. When LiPuma heard the demos, he told Miller that the plan was for Miles to record his horn over the music – Miles’s band would not be involved in the recording sessions.
Miles and LiPuma were so pleased with the results, that they asked Miller to write more material. Three more tunes were produced: “Tomaas,” “Don’t Lose Your Mind,” and “Full Nelson.” The last tune was originally written as a link for a Prince tune destined for the album, “Can I Play With U?” but Prince pulled the tune. A cover of Scritti Politti’s “Perfect Way” was also recorded.
Tutu proved to be a controversial album. Marcus Miller played almost every instrument on Tutu (keyboardists George Duke, Bernard Wright and Adam Holzman, percussionists Steve Reid and Paulhino DaCosta and violinist Michal Urbaniak appear on some tracks), composed most of the music, did almost all the arrangements and co-produced most the album, leading some to suggest that this was a Marcus Miller album in all but name.
But as Miller pointed out, he would not have written the harmonies he did, if it wasn’t for Miles, and Miles had plenty of creative input (telling Miller, for example, to remove the piano from one tune, and add an ensemble part to another). Others argued that recording over pre-prepared electronic tracks wasn’t “jazz.” But Miles had recorded in a similar fashion when working with Gil Evans in the 1950s, albeit with acoustic instruments.
Tutu is an album of the 80s and while one or two tracks sound dated (especially “Splatch”), tracks such as, “Tutu,” “Portia,” and “Full Neslon” still sound fresh today, and the album is considered by some (including the present writer) as Miles’s last classic album.
Musician Mike Zwerwin described Tutu as “The best jazz record of the decade,” while keyboardist Kei Akagi (who was in Miles’s band from 1989-90) says, “This music has influenced a generation of younger musicians, who now treat Tutu, as having the same significance as So What.”
Marcus Miller recalls Miles thanking him for “bringing him back,” and there’s no doubt that Tutu raised Miles’s profile significantly, not just in the music world, but beyond. This period marked the time when Miles would appear in adverts and music videos; guest on various talk shows; perform with a raft of artists (including, Toto, Quincy Jones, Chaka Khan, Scritti Politti, Paulo Rustichelli, Cameo, Shirley Horn and the multi-artist campaign Artists United Against Apartheid). He began exhibiting his art work, published an autobiography and even acted in TV and film projects (including, Miami Vice, and playing the lead in the film Dingo).
However, one impact of Miles recording an album like Tutu, was that his music would become more tightly arranged on stage, and he wanted the live versions of the tunes from Tutu to sound similar to the album versions. It was a development that led to guitarist Robben Ford (who joined Miles’s band in April 1986) deciding to quit the band in August 1986. However, bassist Benny Rietveld (who played with Miles from 1988 to 1990) says while the music was more tightly arranged, there was room for improvisation, and the aural evidence shows that the live versions later became much looser.
Miles also played on a handful of soundtracks: Street Smart, The Hot Spot, Scrooged, Dingo and Siesta. Dingo and Siesta saw Miles sharing the billing on the album cover with Michel Legrand and Marcus Miller respectively, recognition of the collaborative nature of the projects. Siesta – another work involving Marcus Miller and Jason Miles – is an overlooked album (partly because the film bombed at the box office), but it contains some of Miles’s finest playing in this period.
Although the focus of this article has been on Miles’s recording output during his final ten years, it shouldn’t be forgotten that his live performances also form a significant body of work during this period. Indeed, it could be argued that much of Miles’s best work occurred on stage, and there is no doubt that the live versions of many recordings are superior, as Miles tried out new arrangements, extended tunes extensively, and gave himself and band members solo slots. In early 1987, Miles gained three new band members, who would become the core of his band for the last five years: saxophonist Kenny Garrett, lead bassist Joseph Foley McCreary and drummer Ricky Wellman.
When Miles came to record his third and final collaboration with Marcus Miller, Amandla (with Jason Miles again handling programming duties), Miles used the new band members on several numbers, and Miller also brought in a host of guest musicians, including, Joe Sample, Paulhino DaCosta, Omar Hakim, Jean-Paul Bourelly and Don Alias. Amandla is very much an album of its time, with the sleek, polished production values of many 1980s albums. It contains some superb tracks, including the title track, an epic-sounding number, and “Mr Pastorius,” which sees Miles playing open horn over jazz-swing rhythm (the track also features Al Foster on drums). But one has to concur with the verdict of Jean-Paul Bourelly, that the album lacks some grit.
During the last few years of his life, Miles focused more on touring than recording, but in early 1991 – his final year – he returned to the recording studio in March. At the Bauer studio in Ludwigsburg, Germany, he recorded several takes of three tracks given to him by Prince: “Penetration,” “Jailbait” and “A Girl And Her Puppy.” By now, Miles had also pared down his band to a sextet (Miles’s son Erin being the last percussionist he would have in a band), with Garrett, Foley and Wellman joined by Deron Johnson on keyboards and Richard Patterson on bass. In July, Miles played two memorable concerts within two days. The first, on July 8, took place at the Montreux Jazz Festival, where Miles revisited the music he had performed with Gil Evans – Birth Of The Cool; Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and Sketches of Spain The concert was a great surprise, as no one expected Miles ever to play this music again, least of all, Quincy Jones, who conducted the concert and had been trying for years to persuade Miles to do it for years. Miles was frail and clearly found the music challenging (Wallace Roney on trumpet and Kenny Garrett on sax, provided support), but the concert is a memorable occasion.
Two days later in Paris, Miles performed with his band and many musicians from his past bands including, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin and Jackie McLean. The repertoire was a mix of old and new music, from Prince’s “Penetration,” to Zawinul’s “In A Silent Way.” On 19 July, Miles performed his last British concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London.
In late July, Miles was recording in New York, what would turn out to be his last album. Miles had had a long and controversial career, and his final work, Doo-Bop, would be no exception, because it combined jazz with hip-hop. Working with rapper/producer Easy Mo Bee, Miles added his horn to half a dozen tracks, before resuming his US tour. The plan was to record more hip-hop tunes, and work on other music (including the Prince tracks), with the possibility of producing a double album. It was not to be. Miles played his final concert on 25 August 1991 at the Hollywood Bowl. Soon after, he entered hospital, where he died on 28 September.
Since Miles’s death 25 years ago, his last period is being viewed in a more favourable light. More music from this period has been released, including posthumous releases like Doo-Bop and Live Around The World. Boxed sets and compilations like The Complete Miles Davis At Montreux, Warner UK’s The Last Word and Warner France’s 1986-1991 The Warner Years, have kept Miles’s music in the public eye.
Marcus Miller’s Tutu Revisited project, saw a young generation of musicians join Miller to play a refreshed version of the classic album to large and appreciative audiences, many of whom weren’t born when Tutu was recorded. Many artists, from Cassandra Wilson (Tutu”) to classical violinist Viktoria Mullova (“Robot 415”) have covered Miles’s tunes from the 1980s. Recordings from this era have been sampled by rappers and hip-hop artists such as DJ Marky (“Mystery”), Queen Latifah (“Don’t Lose Your Mind”), Digital Underground (“Fat Time”) and South Central Cartel (“Tutu.”).
A critic once compared Miles’s final years to being like those of the artist Matisse, who close to the end of his life, was bed-bound, and channelled his creativity through a series of cut-outs. The implication was that both artists were producing lesser-quality work in their final years. But Matisse’s cut-outs are now highly regarded in the art world, and there are even exhibitions celebrating them. This writer believes the same thing will happen with Miles’s final period. Like Matisse, Miles was ill in his final years, but he never stopped searching for the next sound or trying to remain relevant to the music of the day. Not everything Miles produced in the 1980s was good, but then again, not everything can be dismissed as lightweight or sub-par. Miles left the world an incredible music legacy, one which will live on long after all of us alive today have gone. And the music he made in the last ten years of his life is very much a part of that legacy.