Inside Miles Davis’ Misunderstood Decade
Miles Davis is considered to be one of jazz’s greatest trumpeters of all time, but for five years, he claimed, he didn’t pick up his horn once.
From 1975 to 1980, Davis lived in a squalid, cockroach-infested townhouse on West 77th Street. According to his 1989 autobiography, Miles, he drank an ocean of Heineken and cognac, shot speedballs into his leg and bedded an endless parade of loose women. He rarely slept or went outdoors. His behavior exacerbated his health problems: throat polyps, a bad gallbladder, a deteriorated hip. When fellow jazz legends like Herbie Hancock, Dizzy Gillespie and Jack DeJohnette stopped by to check on his welfare, he sometimes didn’t even let them in the door.
For a while, it didn’t matter financially that he was idle; Davis was flush. He had brokered a deal with his old home of Columbia Records to keep him on the label, all while releasing compilations of old recordings like 1976’s Water Babies, 1977’s Dark Magus and 1979’s Circle in the Round. But he was living like an invalid, engulfed in a personal tailspin that threatened his life.
“I was hallucinating all the time that [I] was four people,” he wrote of this period. “Because being a Gemini I’m already two. Two people without the coke and two more with the coke.”
Luckily, a guardian angel came through in 1978: Cicely Tyson, a fashion model and actress he had dated in the 1960s. She ran the riffraff out of Davis’ house, fed him health food and helped him cut back on cigarettes and booze. He was rusty, having lost his embouchure, but slowly, the urge to make music reentered his mind.
For the final decade of his life, he made good-to-great albums like 1983’s Star People, 1984’s Decoy and 1985’s You’re Under Arrest. Some contained heavy-duty jazz rock; others, a commercial, pop-oriented sound that was, for better or worse, of its time.
Now, a missing piece of Davis’s 1980s puzzle will finally hit fans’ ears. On September 6, Rubberband, a previously unreleased Davis album recorded from 1985 to 1986, will finally be released.
Completed by original producers Randy Hall and Zane Giles, the album splits the difference between Davis’s fusion work and more commercial material — and teases a potential soul and funk direction that Davis ended up abandoning in favor of 1986’s instrumental, mostly electronic album Tutu.
To Vince Wilburn, Jr., Davis’s drummer and nephew, Rubberband is a fusion of the past and the present; he helped bring the long-unfinished album to completion. “We tried to capture whatever we could of the essence of those 1980s sessions, but with a little sprinkle of 2019 vibe,” he tells TIDAL.
Davis envisioned this album featuring singers like Chaka Khan, Randy Hall and the late Al Jarreau; to address this, the producers matched old music with new recordings. They got Hall back in the studio, as well as contemporary singers Ledisi (“Rubberband of Life”) and Lalah Hathaway (“So Emotional”).
Beyond the 2019 vocal additions, fans of Davis’s late-period fusion might find a lot to love about its 1980s-recorded instrumental tracks, like “This Is It” and “Echoes in Time/The Wrinkle.” “Maze,” in particular, features stellar performances from guitarist Mike Stern and saxophonist Bob Berg.
Davis’s 1980s run of albums, beginning with 1981’s The Man with the Horn, pivoting from Columbia to Warner Bros. on Tutu and ending with 1989’s Aura, has always drawn mixed reactions. The sound is synth-heavy, sometimes oppressively so. His horn often gets drowned out by a jumble of MIDI sound effects. Sure, he reaped commercial rewards, like a Grammy nomination for 1984’s Decoy (in Miles, he falsely claimed it “won Best Album”). But mostly, this is seen as a nadir for Davis.
This music doesn’t reach the vaunted heights of classics like Kind of Blue or Bitches Brew, but it also doesn’t deserve outright dismissal. Sure, some cuts are bland, listless or stuck in first gear, but the weak spots are outweighed by gems.
Star People contains intrepid instrumentals that can go toe-to-toe with his best. You’re Under Arrest found him covering Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper hits straight, choosing to respectfully channel the originals’ stellar melodies. And the underrated Aura contains some of his most bewitching ambient tracks and fried fusion jams.
With Rubberband landing on September 6, now’s as good a time as ever to separate the wheat from the chaff in this most misunderstood era of Davis. Here are five cuts that make Miles Davis’s 1980s period worth seeking out.
“Back Seat Betty” (from The Man with the Horn, 1981)
Davis was poised for his big comeback with The Man with the Horn, but he felt tentative and self-conscious. “My chops weren’t up because I hadn’t played for so long, so I started using the wah-wah,” he says in Miles. “[Then] one day somebody hid my wah-wah.”
Davis’s temper flared up during the sessions; on the first day, he barked at percussionist Sammy Figueroa (“Motherfucker, you’d better play!”) for daring to tune his drums. On another occasion, guitarist Barry Finnerty kept playing something disagreeable to Davis and got a bottle of Heineken poured on his head.
Despite all this drama, the seldom-praised The Man with the Horn holds up better than antiseptic later albums like Tutu; “Back Seat Betty,” written in tribute to his soul singer ex-wife Betty Davis (née Mabry), bears down on the listener with a groaning doom metal riff by Finnerty before opening up into spacious, echoey corridors.
“Star People” (from Star People, 1983)
A hybrid of studio and live recordings, Star People marked the first appearance of John Scofield on a Davis record. A versatile 29-year-old guitarist who had played with Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan and Charles Mingus, his sophisticated approach caught Davis’ ear.
“I liked the subtleties of [John’s] playing,” Davis wrote in Miles. “I felt comfortable playing the blues with him.”
The blues influence inspired Star People’s wonderful 18-minute title track, a mix of Tangerine Dream-style drone, classy trills from Scofield and emotive soloing from Davis.
“Human Nature” (from You’re Under Arrest, 1985)
Bebop is partly predicated on taking an old standard, stripping the tune down to its barest chord structure, and using it as a launchpad for improvisation. Davis certainly led the way for this, but by the 1980s, his idea of what a standard could be was rapidly expanding — enough to include a two-year-old hit by Michael Jackson.
“You don’t have to do like Wynton Marsalis and do ‘Stardust’ and all that shit,” he told NME in 1985. “Why can’t ‘Human Nature’ be a standard? It fits. A standard fits like a thoroughbred.”
This version of Jackson’s tune is sprightly and straightforward; Davis has no interest in thumbing his nose at the hook, or scrambling its components.
“He was always into current music of any time in his career,” says Vince Wilburn Jr., who drummed on the song. “It just so happened that he liked pop songs with great melodies, and he put his own stamp on it.” For once, improv takes a backseat; “Human Nature” is simply a great song, tastefully done.
“Backyard Ritual” (from Tutu, 1986)
In 1985, Davis made a surprising move to Warner Bros. from Columbia, the label he’d been on since 1956. “The excitement about Miles had died out,” his manager at the time, Skip Williams, told the New York Times. “They were getting so comfortable, thinking, ‘He’ll always be here.’ He felt a little disenchanted.”
Warner Bros. offered a hefty seven-figure sum that also swiped away his publishing rights. His first move was to record Tutu, named after Nobel Peace Prize laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu.
From the beginning, Davis was in a tug of war with producer Tommy LiPuma. “I like raw shit, live, raunchy, get down, get back in the alley shit,” he wrote in Miles. “That isn’t really what he likes or understands.”
Despite the obvious talent onboard, too many chefs in the kitchen — Davis, LiPuma, bassist, multi-instrumentalist and composer Marcus Miller — killed Tutu’s vibe. (Even Prince figured in.) It still sounds sluggish, inert, frozen in 1986. When Davis manages a few notes from his perma-muted horn, the overzealous synths and slap bass seem to swat them out of the air.
That said, Tutu certainly has its defenders, and “Backyard Ritual,” composed and arranged by keyboardist George Duke, really works; it has the most indelible groove on the whole program, and the chilly, electronic production actually does it favors.
“Yellow” (from Aura, 1989)
A 10-part tone poem themed after the colors of the rainbow, Aura was the straw that broke the camel’s back with Columbia when it was recorded in 1985. Given the potency of this music, the label’s indifference — and the four years that the album spent on the shelf — is shocking. “I think it’s a masterpiece,” Davis wrote in Miles. “I really do.”
Aura is an immersive album of jaw-dropping vistas, built equally on American big band and the craggy architecture of European classical. Highlights can be found anywhere, but “Yellow,” an intoxicating, cathedral-sized ambient work, is its crown jewel; it seems to invent Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Kyle Bobby Dunn in equal measure.
Much of the album’s beauty is due to its Danish composer, Palle Mikkelborg, his chief collaborator. “When you hang around him over there, you might hear almost anything,” Davis wrote near the end of Miles. Whatever signals he picked up led to unearthly music, and “Yellow” and the rest of Aura refract every hue of a turbulent, beautiful mind.
(Photo by Pool BENAINOUS/RENAULT/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
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