Be aware that Miles Ahead is not an attempt to comprehensively summarize the career of the late Miles Davis. It’s just a soundtrack to a film directed by Don Cheadle, who also plays the main subject. Not to be confused with the 1957 record of the same name (obviously), this Miles Ahead is the equivalent of dipping one of your toes into one of the pools in a 20-acre water park. Cheadle and his co-producer, modern jazz icon Robert Glasper, know full well that they can’t cover all major points of Davis’s colorful career on one piece of plastic. That’s especially the case when this film’s main focus is on the late trumpet player’s restless latter-day career. They do what they can but also take a great deal of liberties along the way.
About three-quarters of the Miles Ahead soundtrack belongs to Davis himself. Of the 11 tracks selected from the great Miles Davis back catalog, eight of them are edits or excerpts of longer tracks. Room needs to be made for a handful of Glasper’s originals and Cheadle’s bites of “dialogue”. I put that word in quotation marks because of the eight tracks that feature Don Cheadle speaking Davis’s words in his intimidating rasp, only two of them feature the voices of another character. These brief tracks may or may not be harbingers of whatever music follows. For example, in track five, Cheadle (as Davis) asks radio DJ Phil Schaap to play “Solea” from Sketches of Spain. An excerpt of “Solea” promptly follows on track six.
But what do we make of track 18 where Cheadle rhetorically asks someone “Ya’ll listening to them? That’s how this shit’s supposed to sound”, only to find the Glasper original “Junior’s Jam” on track 19? The self-administering pats on the back don’t end there. “What’s Wrong With That?”, a tune featured in the final scenes of the film, features Glasper, drummer Antonio Sanchez, bassist Esperenza Spaulding, and guitarist Gary Clark, Jr. If it weren’t for the participation of Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter on the track, it would come with an uncomfortable whiff of “Dude, if Miles were alive, he’d totally want to jam with us!” The end credit composition “Gone 2015” wanders close to this territory with a rap performance by Pharoahe Monch. “I wonder all the time,” Cheadle writes in the liner notes, “were Miles still here, who he would be collaborating with today. Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington, D’Angelo, Jack White…#SocialMusic.” I’m reminded of that old adage about assumptions.
One thing I would like to give Cheadle credit for is, when selected original Miles Davis recordings for the soundtrack, he didn’t gently tip-toe around his controversial electric period. There’s the Jack Johnson outtake “Duran”, “Go Head John” which migrated from the aforementioned record to Big Fun, “Black Satin” from On the Corner, “Prelude II” from the double live album Agharta, and “Back Seat Betty” from The Man With the Horn. Yeah, I know, no Bitches Brew or In a Silent Way, but it’s nice to see Davis’s lesser-known fusion records receiving preferential treatment this time around. Of the three tracks that didn’t get sliced up, two are likely to be considered more sacred by jazz geeks than any track previously mentioned. “So What” appears in all of its nine-minute glory while an uncut “Miles Ahead” gets the first slot on the CD. The third tune in question is “Frelon Brun”, the leadoff track from Filles de Kilimanjaro. This was a record that captured Davis second classic quintet in the midst of heavy transition. In less than one year, Hancock and Ron Carter were to move on to other projects.
It’s hard to make a soundtrack that’s terrible when the subject of your film is Miles Davis. When it comes to selecting from Davis’s original recordings, Don Cheadle admirably takes the road less traveled. In fact, the quality and uniqueness of his selections makes me wonder if he and Robert Glasper needed to write and record any new music at all. But as drummer Jack DeJohnette assured me back in 2011, “…Miles was always in the present.” Or as Cheadle recites in track five, “time capsule’s for old shit.”