When the word went out across the music community that Miles Davis was coming out of retirement—this was 1981—the effect was electric. When? Who is he going to play with? What do you think he’s up to these days? How will Miles change music this time?
He debuted at a club in Boston and then at Alice Tully Hall in New York. We all had to be there, and we were firmly excited about it at the time. But soon enough music fans started to whisper to each other: Miles’ band is not so great. Miles sometimes sounds good, but his range is limited. And the albums he was recording—they were not happening. Tutu was promising, a kind of synthesizer suite for a great soloist, but when the band played live ...
Here is a document of Miles band in 1987 from a concert in Munich Germany. At this point, the band no longer featured a great drummer like Al Foster (from 1981) or a versatile guitarist like John Scofield (1982-85) Kenny Garrett had remained on saxophone and flute, and the bassist Darryl Jones was as a good a funk player as you might find. But mostly the band featured here is a mushy and pre-programmed mess of synthesized pop The guitarist, Joseph “Foley” McCreary, was dull. Ricky Wellman’s drums were simply in the wrong band. Adam Holzman and Robert Irving on keys may have been victims of the technology of the day, but it’s not pretty. Whatever life Garrett (whose longer alto solos are the best music here), the percussionist Mino Cinelu, and Jones can muster was not enough.
When Miles started experimenting with electric instruments and rock rhythms in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, fuddy-duddies said, “It’s not jazz”. But it was. It was still a brilliantly malleable music that just “swung” a different way. It breathed, it grooved, it reflected brilliant communication within the band and ultimately to and with the audience. But the 1987 band wasn’t a “jazz” band in any sense. Even Miles’ cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”, which worked so well on record because of Davis’ ingenious edit of the main melody, simply sounds like a cheesy recreation here—all bogus string pads played on keyboards that have no humanity in them.
When the band chooses to be truly funky, there is an element of integrity and joy to the music. On “New Blues”, which funks against a very fast 12/8 feel, the band feels elastic and real. “Tutu” has a fantastic bass line, but the live synthesizers are death to its groove. Better is the fast funk of the opening track, where Miles gets his wish and his band sounds something like Prince.
And Miles in 1987 could still pull off an interesting (if somewhat cold) kind of jazz impressionism. “Portia”, the concert’s final song, is still dominated by horrible synth sounds, but the harmonies they outline are not pop harmonies, and so there is a pleasurable other-worldliness not too different from what Weather Report (that is to say, Joe Zawinul) achieved on a good tune.
Taken as a whole, however, the concert is very hard to love. Watching it on video these 22 years later, it’s hard not to notice the rapt attention of the audience and to think of your own rapt attention when you got to see the legend at that point in his career. He comes on stage is an embarrassing red coat and a silly, Rick James-ish hair weave. He wanders about the stage, crouched over as he sputters out his licks, usually with the Harmon mute in, sometimes open. Everyone watches and listens because, let’s be honest: we desperately wanted to see Miles Davis in concert, and we wanted to believe that it was going to great. And flashes—almost never a whole tune but maybe a minute or a phrase—were that good. But not enough.
You hear his cover of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” today and all you can think is .. what? The truth—and I know it hurts me to admit it—is that this is just crummy smooth jazz. The real “Human Nature” by MJ himself is great Quincey Jones pop music, but it isn’t exactly the best thing on Thriller. Miles’ “Human Nature”, is both too literal to the original and, finally, both insufficiently different and lacking the one thing that makes Jackson’s version work, which is a great lead performance. In 1987, let’s be very very clear, Miles Davis was a much lesser artist than Michael Jackson.
There are two special features on this DVD. A short film on Davis’ painting is mostly forgettable (as is his visual art), save the moment when he tries to convince a gallery owner that his paintings should be exhibited on the floor because that’s where he paints them. “I do everything ont he floor”, he tells her. “I fuck on the floor, I paint on the floor”. Charming.
The interview with Davis is probably the most interesting thing on the DVD. Speaking to German host, he starts repeating some of his usual answers and then veers off into odd territory. In discussing the untruths about him published in books, Miles says, “The reason that I didn’t pay any mind to that kind of thing ... it was because they thought I was an accident. The white people in America are funny. They thought I woke up one morning with the blues and started playing the trumpet. But it don’t go like that, and you can’t explain that to them. So now they understand. I’m not an accident. Neither is Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, the people I work with.”
The interviewer pays no attention to what Davis is saying, sadly, forging ahead with his pre-planned questions. At one point, Davis is talking about the pressures of playing, and he says, “To wake up every day with a smile on my face, I have to perform perfect to myself and others around. It’s me and eight other people, plus my self-consciousness. Him and I, too self-conscious.” Wow. Miles Davis full of doubt. Incredible.
Miles is drawing with markers as he talks. He’s wearing sunglasses, leather pants, a black and white blouse. Suddenly the notion that he is incredibly insecure and trying to bury that in his personal makes great sense.
In talking about the music, he refers to James Brown, Prince, and Sly Stone as guiding his conception. He talks about collaborating with Prince in the coming year. He also talks about collaborating with some singers, Chaka Khan and Al Jarreau or Prince. But he says, “Man, if you have an idea and you don’t act on it and three months go by, that idea is stale.”
He also mentions that Larry Blackmun from Cameo wrote him something that is good. And that Herbie Hancock is writing something too, as well Marcus Miller. There’s something sad about hearing Miles talk about collaborating with Prince and Herbie on the one hand and Al Jarreau and Larry Blackmun on the other. Miles Davis couldn’t tell the difference?
Miles defends it all by pointing to the fact that, in his past, record companies didn’t like Coltrane or Art Blakey. Miles dismisses “critics” and “white people”, and who are you going to trust, the genius Miles Davis or some critics?
But in 2009 we know: Cameo was not Coltrane, much as we like “Word Up”. The truth is, Miles in 1987 was not what he had been. It’s sad to admit it if you love Miles as much as most of us do, but it’s true. He’d be gone just four years later, and things were not great in ‘87. That’s just the truth. That, alas, is what happened.