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Miles Davis devotees are celebrating Sony’s most recent archaeological dig into its vast archive of Davis’ musical production between 1955 and 1985, when, for motives that are still unclear, he severed his relationship with the Warner Bros. label. Titled The Bootleg Series, Vol. 7: That’s What Happened, the 28-track, three-disc deep dive into its Miles Davis holdings documents how Miles made the sausage on his first-half-of-the-’80s Columbia studio albums and how bodaciously slamming his 1983 band could sound in live performance once he’d recaptured the chops that had dissipated during his second-half-of-the-’70s hiatus.
It’s curious that no similar document exists for Miles’ musical production in the studio during his 1985-1991 relationship with Warner Bros., when Tommy LiPuma retained Marcus Miller to compose and arrange the high-profile albums Tutu and Amandla and the under-the-radar masterwork Siesta. In 2002, 10 years after Miles died, Warner did release The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux 1973-1991, a minimally annotated 20-CD box set in which diehards can hear the entire proceedings of 11 concerts. But its intended companion piece, The Last Word, a six-CD box containing every track that Miles recorded in the studio for Warner’s, a slew of unreleased outtakes and two complete concerts, was abandoned midway in 2002 for various logistical reasons, many of them involving conflicts with the Miles Davis Estate.
That spring, before Warner’s pulled the plug, JAZZIZ assigned me to interview Marcus Miller about his crucial involvement in the aforementioned albums, on which he provided the always aesthetically restless Miles a new environment in which to frame his sound. The conversation was illuminating and on point. Mirroring the fate of The Last Word, the article was shelved. Here is an edited version of that interview.
When you were recruited to do the music for Tutu, was that your first encounter with Miles?
I played bass in Miles’ band on his first comeback albums, Man With A Horn and We Want Miles and all that kind of stuff. I left in ’83. When I heard that he’d moved to Warner Bros., I talked to Tommy LiPuma and said, “If I can come up with something, would you be interested?” He said, “Yeah.” That’s when I began to imagine things that could happen.
How much of what’s on Tutu existed in your head at the time you went in?
A lot of it was arranged in my head. The stuff that I didn’t imagine, obviously, was what Miles added to it. Paulinho DaCosta and Adam Holzman added some things musically, but mostly ... I have a demo that sounds pretty close, except it’s not as cool because Miles isn’t on it.
Can you talk about how Miles’ 1981-83 music evolved into the music he made on Warner Bros.?
A lot of the things we did with Miles in ’81, when he first came back, seemed to me along the same thread as what he was doing before he retired. Obviously, there were big differences — and there were big differences in the players. But the way he was putting the music together and the way the music evolved with Michael Henderson and Mtume and those guys — I think Miles was still on that track when he came back. Eventually he started listening to what was going on in the music world in the ’80s, and began to slowly incorporate that stuff and those musicians into his scene. When the ’81 band first got together, I think a lot of guys were looking to Miles for real specific instruction, and it took them probably a year or two to realize: “You know what? I’ve got to bring my thing to this, and then Miles will shape it. But I’ve got to bring the raw materials.”
One qualitative difference, perhaps the most notable one, between your studio projects with Warner Bros. and what Miles did before, is that most of the pre-1980s music was created within a context where Miles is dialoguing with a group of musicians.
Yeah, that’s true.
Does that make it a different experience from your perspective?
From my perspective, it’s very different. In 1985, when I looked back at the last 15 years of Miles’ music, it had been all done in a certain way, which is the way you just described, where it’s a dialogue between musicians — some great musicians. Fantastic music was done there. Tommy LiPuma told me, “Miles is looking to do something different; let me send you something George Duke did with Miles.” He sent me this song George did called “Backyard Ritual,” very obviously done with overdubs, with a lot of technology involved since George was a heavy synclavier guy at the time. This was exciting, because this was something new for Miles, and Miles is about new. There’s dialogue on those new records, but it’s not a dialogue between the individual musicians as much as it is a dialogue between the guy who composed and arranged it a lot of the time, who was me, and Miles — more like Miles had dialogues with Gil Evans when he did those records. Those Gil Evans records were less about dialogue between Miles and the other musicians than about a dialogue between Miles and Gil, where Gil had ideas and environments that he wanted to set up for Miles. They fit Miles well, and Miles thrived in those environments. So I tend to compare the stuff that I did more with those settings than with the music that came right before it.
It’s obvious that Miles never did anything without thinking a lot about it. Do you know what was going on in his mind at that time?
I think he knew that he’d been making music a certain way for a while, and he was excited by the prospect of doing something different, especially when he heard it back. It was a different process for him also. A lot of times he and I were in the studio by ourselves, just talking about music, and then rolling tape and playing. Miles was really into painting at the time, and when you paint, you draw something, then you stand back and you look at it. You go back and maybe refine it. It stays there. And when it stays there, it’s something you continually look at. The way we did the music with Miles was more like a painting, where we’d listen to the music, roll the tape back and say, “Hey, try it this way.” We’d play it this way and sit back and look at it. So it wasn’t music in the way Miles had been making it before. It was more like doing paintings, where we tried different colors. If you listen to the way I put that Tutu stuff together, you can hear that I was experimenting with different sounds, and the music kind of sat there, and you can just look at it and roll it over in your mouth and taste it. I think he was excited about that new way of making music.
Was that your basic process in constructing the music on the rest of Tutu and also Siesta and Amandla? Would you start from the bottom up?
The heart of each song, whether it was the rhythm or the melody, was usually what I started with. Sometimes I worked from the bottom up, sometimes I worked from the top down. It was always based on what the tune was. As we began to work on Amandla, it began to become a more live thing. I always imagined Tutu and Siesta as a period in Miles’ life. I didn’t think it was something he would actually stay with for any considerable amount of time. In my mind, I was trying to help him transition back to some kind of live performance situation, which is what got him to Amandla.
In other words, on Tutu I played on almost all the instruments. It was real painting. It wasn’t like a bunch of guys in the studio capturing a performance. We captured Miles’ performance, once I had laid this tapestry down for him. That’s a different way of making music from having five or six guys in the studio vibing off of one another. I thought it was a very unique way for Miles to make music in that period. I don’t think he ever intended to do that for any long period of time. In other words, a couple of albums like that was cool. It was Miles trying something different, just like he did those things with Gil. But he always went back to his band, which was the heart and soul of what he did.
You’ve spoken about how it was intimidating for you to be proactive with Miles, to tell him where he needed to go to realize your vision. Could you talk about the obverse, the input Miles gave you after you’d executed your end of the process?
When we were doing Tutu, he’d come in and out as I was layering these parts. For instance, we were doing the song “Portia,” and he said, “Marcus, that’s beautiful. Write another section at the end. I want to hear an ensemble section at the end.” He’d leave, and I’d do it. When I finished he said, “Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.” He said, “Keep writing stuff, because you’re in a fertile period. I remember when Wayne [Shorter] was in this period. Just keep writing.” Or, “I don’t want any acoustic piano on this; take the acoustic piano out.” I’d take that out. He said, “Man, this reminds me of this rhythm that we used to do with J.J. Johnson,” and he’d play me that rhythm on the trumpet. I’d go, “Man, let’s put that on there.” We’d roll the tape.
When were doing “Mr. Pastorius” on the album Amandla, there was always this tug of war between the band and Miles, because we were always trying to slip him back into that 4/4 rhythm, at least for a taste of it, just because he was the master of that — but he kept wanting to move forward. “Mr. Pastorius” was a melody that he sounded beautiful playing on. Then after the melody was done, I went into a slight two-feel, a shuffle feel, not going all the way into the 4/4 feeling, but just enough to give him a hint of that, and I thought maybe I could urge him into that a little bit. So he began to solo, just him on trumpet and I’m playing bass, and he holds up his four fingers to me like, “Play in four; what’s wrong with you?” I just jump into the four thing, and he played chorus after chorus after chorus, probably six or seven choruses. It was beautiful, and it was so amazing because he’d resisted that for so long. Then I went back and orchestrated around what he had done, and added some other instruments based on what Miles did.
But that’s the kind of input Miles would have. Sometimes he would talk and give me ideas. Other times he would just come in and begin to do stuff, and I’d try to capture it on tape and maybe work some things around it.
Your reference to “Mr. Pastorius” makes me think about Miles’ sound during this period. He was in great form on the trumpet. He seemed to have command over all the sounds he wanted to get out, which wasn’t the case in 1981.
It evolved over time. In ’81 and even into Tutu, I don’t think he was as strong as he was by ’88-’89. By the time we did “Mr. Pastorius,” I think he was in great form. He wasn’t relying on the mute as much any more. In fact, “Mr. Pastorius” is all open horn, which is another thing I love about it. He really found himself again, which is pretty incredible for a guy in his late 50s and early 60s to rediscover the trumpet and find his sound again.
If you listen to TheMan With the Horn, his sound was at times kind of small. There are some songs, like “Aida,” where he kind of let loose, but I don’t think he could sustain it for a long time, because the trumpet is such a physical instrument. When we played concerts, there were times when he couldn’t sustain his notes. He got really sick when I was in the band around the time we played Saturday Night Live, and his tone was pretty shaky. But then he began to get his health. He was married to Cicely [Tyson], who put him in touch with some doctors who helped him. And by the time I began to write for him, he was coming into his own. I think if you compare “Mr. Pastorius” to The Man With the Horn, you can hear the development of his playing.
As a bassist of your generation, it’s evident why you’d title a tune “Mr. Pastorius.” But when listening to this, it sounded, in my imagination, the way Miles might have sounded if he’d been playing with Weather Report, if Weather Report had a certain type of sensibility toward constructing the music.
That’s an important thing, though, the last thing you said.
Was Joe Zawinul’s approach to orchestration important to you as a composer and arranger?
In a general sense, absolutely. I know I wasn’t trying to recreate that with “Mr. Pastorius.” But precisely for the reasons you listed. The way Joe orchestrated things was a powerful influence on me, and a lot of guys my age. We grew up with that sound, and I think a lot of people who were older — and maybe some people who are younger — can’t relate to that sound. It sounds kind of cold to them. But guys like Joe Zawinul and George Duke — and Herbie [Hancock] too, to a certain extent — humanized the synthesizer for me, and there were, in my mind, ways to use it that represented the sound and feeling of our times.
Can you address his listening during your association?
The thing that really impressed me about Miles and a lot of the great genius musicians like Wayne Shorter and Herbie is that they’re always listening and they’re always excited about new things. Miles was always like, “Man, listen to this.” He’d play me Prince all the time, or a band called Kassav that he was really into for a while. He’d play me whatever came his way that he was excited about. Then when I played him stuff, I’d explain to him ... I’d even play him Janet Jackson records and say, “Look, Miles, see how they’re using the drum machine there.” He’d giggle, because he got a kick out of it. But it was always a search for new, fresh stuff to infuse his music. He was hungry. Man, the guy was 60 years old, and he’s still hungry. He’s still searching. He’s still not afraid to change his music. Who else at that age is going to take those risks with their life, with their reputation, with their money, with all sorts of things? His fearlessness was incredible.
Do you go back to these records?
I hear them every once in a while. But they’re in my head so clearly that I don’t have to.
Looking at them in 2002, how do they stand up?
To me, listening to a record like Tutu, I see that stuff as very obviously from the ’80s, but there’s some stuff that’s still cool. At first I felt funny about that reaction. Then I remembered my reaction when I heard Charlie Parker. Not to say that Tutu is on the level of anything that Bird did. But the point I’m making is that my first reaction when I heard bebop was, “Man, this stuff sounds like ‘Our Gang’” [laughs]. But then I began to realize, “But there’s some stuff in here that’s cool,” and that stuff is what’s stayed with me for the rest of my life. I’ve talked to other people who hear Tutu and say, “Man, this record did this for me, this record did that for me,” and I realize that, to some degree, the record is doing that for younger people. People say the record changed their life. They bought all of Miles’ discography and discovered him just through that record.
Do you think it’s because you helped Miles express himself through the most advanced aspects of pop language at that time?
We took a lot of elements from pop music at that time, absolutely, and created an atmosphere where Miles sounded natural. What I’m proudest about is that we took some things you wouldn’t expect, and it sounds like it always existed. Miles sounds very comfortable in that environment. When I hear it, it takes me right back to 1985-86. And I think that’s what music has to do first. It has to represent the time it was created. Then you have to hope it has something great about it that will make it transcend its time and last, and that people can still listen to it.
Do you have a favorite of the three albums?
I think Tutu represents exactly everything that we were at that time. It represents our relationship, between Miles and myself. It represents the time. The fact that it was dedicated to Desmond Tutu represents where our heads were at. If we had to play one song, I think I’d play that. If I had to choose a favorite of the three, I wouldn’t. I’d probably take “Tutu” and make it the first song on the Amandla album, and then make sure a couple of those cues from Siesta were in there also.
What from Siesta do you like the best?
I like the things Miles played with his open horn. Because on Tutu it was mainly mute, and I was really starting to miss that beautiful open sound he had. In Siesta, we got to explore that a little bit. I really love that stuff. - Ted Panken