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An autobiography by Jason Miles provides an eyewitness account of his role in shaping the sound of Miles Davis’ Tutu. At the recommendation of drummer Lenny White, Marcus Miller hired synth master Jason Miles to work with his band Jamaica Boys in 1984. Miles supplied the electronic programming for the funky, contemporary outfit, bringing his expertise — as well as his state-of-the-art gear — to the mix. Impressed with Miles’ sensibilities, Miller in turn recommended him to Miles Davis, with whom he was working on forging a new style.
Although Jamaica Boys never really took off, the sounds Miller and Miles brought to Davis’ mid-to-late-’80s albums Tutu, Music From Siesta and Amandla turned the jazz world on its head. Jazz fans and critics were divided over the music, which embraced electronic programming, synthesized sounds and pop, rock and hip-hop idioms, but Davis was delighted with the results and dismissive of the moldy figs as he changed the sound of jazz once again.
Miles brought his singular talents to the music of Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross and Michael Jackson in the ’90s. However, he never relinquished his ties to the jazz world, working with David Sanborn and Grover Washington Jr., as well as with Michael Brecker, Bob Berg and Will Lee in his World Tour and Mr. X projects. He later helmed well-received tributes to Weather Report, Grover and of course, Miles Davis.
Having turned 71 this summer, Miles published an autobiography, The Extraordinary Journey of Jason Miles: A Musical Biography (Book Writing Cube), which details his role in shaping the music of the past several decades. Following is an edited excerpt of a chapter about Miles’ work on Tutu, which presents an insider’s view of making music in the studio with one of jazz’s most iconic and idiosyncratic figures. Marcus and I had been working together for about a year.
Around January 1986, Marcus called and told me that Tommy LiPuma had just called him, asking if he had any tunes for a new Miles Davis album. Yes, Marcus had tunes, but he wanted to demo them to make sure they sounded really vibey. He asked if I would bring down a couple of my synthesizers. Absolutely!
Here was my moment. It was one of the great dreams of my life.
I had a flashback to 1974 when I was sitting in the Bottom Line with my wife, Kathy, watching Miles play with a band that included Pete Cosey, Al Foster, Reggie Lucas, Sonny Fortune and Mtume. I remember asking myself how I would ever get to work with Miles. I knew that the way that things come your way is by word of mouth — history has proven this to be true so many times.
I worked hard for years to perfect my craft by taking piano lessons and studying arrangements with a terrific New York arranger. I learned albums as much as I listened to them. I learned and analyzed concerts as much as I listened to and enjoyed them. It was a concerted effort to stay on top of what I knew how to do best.
When I got the call from Marcus, I was ready. Marcus had worked with Miles for several years. It wasn’t about me being on the record at that point. It was simply about making demos with Marcus.
Marcus wanted all of my sounds and all of my equipment. My Emulator was critically important. I also brought my PPG and Matrix 12.
Marcus had a small room in his loft in Tribeca, a few blocks from the World Trade Center. We had a few tunes to demo. I had an Emulator II, and I was very much into sampling, so I had bunch of floppy disks.
The most popular sample I had was the orchestra hit. That was the big thing at the time. Trevor Horn (the Art of Noise) and Yes (“Owner of a Lonely Heart”) had made the orchestra hit popular. When I worked with Lenny White, he wanted orchestra hits all over the place. Personally, I felt that the orchestra hit became less effective when it was overused. It became less unique. I sampled lots of orchestra hits off of classical CDs. I put a lot of time into the process of sampling sound effects, and I sampled stuff off of television. I used to trade samples with people. Then there was Sketches of Spain, where I sampled some of Miles’ long tones. Of course, I never used these on recordings, but since they were part of my personal arsenal, I brought them along because they sounded outstanding.
We began to work, and I heard the “Tutu” bass line. That was happening and inspiring, so working off of that, I began to pull up different voice patches that I thought would complement nicely. We were not going for incredible, lush record sounds, but we were trying to get the point across by orchestrating different things.
As we were listening back, Marcus asked me if I had a trumpet.
“Yeah, check this out.”
Marcus said, “That sounds like Miles.”
“Well, it is Miles,” I said. “I took it off of Sketches of Spain.” We were laughing and wondering what Miles would think about that one. Since it was working, it stayed in. When Miles eventually heard it in the demo, he asked, “Who’s on trumpet?”
Marcus said, “It’s you.”
“Oh, I thought it was Nat Adderley!”
We also did a demo of “Portia” and “Splatch.” These tunes didn’t have names; they were just tracks. “Tutu” wasn’t titled either. It was just a tune that we were working on.
Marcus sent the demos out to Tommy. No one knew what would happen from there. We had some lunch, and I think he gave me $100 for coming in. It was totally cool. We were building our thing, and Marcus was getting into producing. It was starting to happen.
A few days later, Marcus called and told me that they dug the demos, but they didn’t want to fly me out to L.A. (it’s always about $$). Marcus wanted to build on what we had already. In addition, he wanted me to set him up with my sounds. They paid me for letting them use my stuff, and we would see how it went from there. It was cool with me. I wanted to see this happen for Marcus. No matter what, I would accommodate him in any way I could. He said that he would keep in touch.
While he was in L.A., I got calls from him asking me some technical stuff about the Emulator and getting things rolling. We spent some time going back and forth over the phone. He would call, and then 10 minutes later, he would call again. Then I wouldn’t hear from him for about a day.
I knew that Adam Holzman was in there, too, a synth guy from Miles’ band. Adam was working on a few other tracks that never made it to the record. Adam was incredible on the PPG, so I knew he had his PPG 2.2. or 2.3 out there. It was a very cool instrument, and it was becoming the sound of the record.
On Sunday, March 9, 1986, I got a call from Marcus. He was doing more stuff with Miles, and they wanted me to come into New York to work on it. Do you think I was happy? You bet I was. Fantastic!! In addition, Marcus was doing more demos, so I was included in that process again. The demos would eventually be called “Tomaas,” “Full Nelson” and “Don’t Lose Your Mind.” So, I was included in that process again. The demos turned out great.
We finished the demos at Marcus’ place, and he said, ‘OK, man, we’re in the studio on Wednesday.”
On Wednesday, March 12, I went into Clinton Studio and began working on Tutu with Marcus. The first tune was “Full Nelson.” We got into that whole groove. It was slow and took a couple of days. We wanted to be very deliberate.
Most importantly, on the 12th, Miles showed up. Marcus had said to me, “Here’s the bottom line. This whole thing is up to Miles. If he walks in the room and he’s not feeling you, then you’re gonna be here five minutes.”
Miles showed up, and I knew that this could be a critical moment. He was dressed to the nines and looked, well, regal. I said, “Miles, I just want to introduce myself. My name is Jason Miles.”
He looked at me and said, “I like your name.”
I told him, “I work with Marcus and do synth programming. These are all my keyboards. Marcus and I worked together on the demos. They are all my sounds.” I told him that my childhood friend,
Bob Berg, was in his band. I let him know that I would do my best to deliver if there was anything he needed from me.
Miles said, “Alright, man.”
It was all very low-key and without drama. At least it was for Miles. My heart was beating like a rabbit’s.
Tommy LiPuma was there. Marcus was there as well as some other people. Tommy took a colossal chance getting Miles off of Columbia Records and signing him to Warner Bros. It was a huge deal. Miles had been on Columbia for years and years, 36 to be exact.
We began working through stuff on “Full Nelson.” It was very meticulous work. All notes meant different things. It was all about notes, textures, vibes and atmosphere. We were all just getting to know each other in the room as I worked through this. I knew that I was being scrutinized, but I was confident in my ability. If I didn’t have my shit together, I wouldn’t have been there anyway.
After “Full Nelson,” we began to work on “Tomaas.” Marcus wanted Bernard Wright on the album because he wanted different people to play on the record. Bernard was a fantastic keyboardist, an absolute monster. Marcus had some ideas, so he had an acoustic piano set up in the room. He told Bernard to sit down and play while Marcus recorded it. Miles walked into the room, and Marcus introduced Bernard to Miles. Miles was very amiable.
Marcus played the acoustic piano that Bernard had just put down. Miles listened to it and said, “Get that shit off my record — now!”
He was talking about the acoustic piano — all of this while Bernard was there. I felt terrible for Bernard. We all did, because it wasn’t on him. He just took direction and played on the track. This particular idea just didn’t work. Bernard handled it with poise, although he had to be kind of freaked out. Inside, I think we were all kind of freaked out. Miles was a very direct personality and not always diplomatic. I guess that was part of his charm and the charisma that he had cultivated.
One day, I noticed that Miles was sketching in pencil on a yellow pad while we were working. Someone walked in and told Miles that his car was there to pick him up.
Miles said, “OK, I gotta go,” laid the paper on the producer’s desk, and started for the door.
“Miles,” I called after him, “you forgot your picture.”
“Oh, just throw it away,” he said. “Do you think maybe I could have it?”
He looked at me for a moment, then said, “Give it to me.”
Could this be another Miles moment? Is he going to tear it up and put it in the garbage? I prepared myself. I handed him the drawing. He grabbed a pen and wrote on it ‘Miles to Miles,’ then drew a trumpet underneath it.
He looked at it. “Miles and Miles … sounds like a law firm. We probably could make more money if we were that!” He smiled and handed it to me. Of course, I still have it and treasure it.
The most important thing was that the record was coming out great. We were focused through all the ups and downs and stuff that happened during the day. Miles came in and played, then Marcus sampled Miles in the AMS, maybe tuned him a little bit, then constructed it differently. This took immense focus and concentration — another way of making a record.
I was using my Dr. Click II. We were syncing stuff to tape, an innovative and new way of making albums. Eric Calvi, the engineer, was into syncing to SMPTE and wanted to do it his way. But my method was working fine, so that’s the way we continued to do it. As we worked through it, I began to actually get to know Tommy LiPuma. Of course, I had known of Tommy’s work but never knew him personally. He was the quintessential record company man/staff producer. His reputation was impeccable. His records were among my favorites, from Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks to George Benson’s Breezin’. Tommy was a legendary guy, so I was honored to be in the room with him.
I stayed at the Howard Johnson on Eighth Avenue, which was not far from the studio. We started work at noon and went until 3 a.m. every night. We put a lot of time into this record.
It was a lot of meticulous work on Marcus’ behalf — every note, all the different arrangements, and making sure all the orchestration was perfect around Miles. Marcus had reached the level of Gil Evans and Teo Macero. Now, he had to deliver on that space. And he did.
The sounds of “Tomaas” were very cool. Marcus opted to use bass clarinet samples, even though he was terrific on the bass carinet. He also played soprano sax and sounded very good.
At this time, I was beginning to hear the inevitable rumblings about what was going on with making this album. None of it came from me, Marcus or Tommy. What happened in the room stayed [in the room] while I worked on a project and even after. There were, and are, many jealous people in the business. I just tried to steer clear.
But I began hearing things like, “Marcus took over the record,” and “Marcus could have used the band and didn’t.” That was the farthest thing from the truth. The fact was that I had heard Marcus ask Miles about using the cats in his band on this. Miles clamped it right down. He said he was happy with what was going on and wasn’t interested in changing it. Miles didn’t want anyone else on the album, which was his decision, end of the story. The record was going well, and Miles didn’t want to change it. He had the last word.
Marcus had a tune called “Don’t Lose Your Mind,” a reggae-based, vibey thing. He wanted to have crazy things in it: crazy sounds, crazy samples. Part of my arsenal was a massive collection of samples at that time.
I had a VHS Hi-Fi deck. If I heard a sound I liked in a movie, I took it. It didn’t bother me. I had all kinds of textures. I was in the culture of sampling, though not exclusively. I spent hours and hours creating sounds, as well. No synth guy spent more time woodshedding that I did. The Emulator was a magic box. Anything could be sampled into it. Then you’d manipulate the envelope, change the filters and do all these cool things with it, and save it all on a floppy disc. Many sounds on Tutu were manipulated differently, but I would also trade sounds with people. This Stockhausen thing in front of “Don’t Lose Your Mind” was very cool. That was one of the ‘fun’ moments of the record.
Marcus was working and said he would be back in an hour, but he wanted me to hang out and not go anywhere. Then he came back and said, ‘Make that two hours … but don’t leave!” No problem. He was working on Miles’ horn in the tracks, moving some stuff around and, basically, tightening up the tracks. He’d pop in and go, “Half an hour, Jason Miles.” OK, it’s fantastic. Then, “Twenty minutes, Jason Miles.” I had no idea what was up, but there was some suspense building.
Finally, Marcus came in and said, ‘OK, Jason, Miles.” He turned the lights down in the room and said, “All right, man, I want some of the craziest stuff you’ve got. Crazy stuff! I weant stuff that’s going to be freaky at this moment.” I took out one sample, and he said, “Yeah, yeah, that’s happenin’!”
The whole song was constructed to add samples and exciting sound effects because Marcus wanted Miles to react to all the sounds around him when he started to play. He wanted to blindside him creatively. We were putting in car crashes, orchestra hits, and all of these crazy sounds. I creatively was Midi-ing ... adding synth textures while the lights were down.
We enhanced the drum machine with this huge kick drum in one section. We had a great time putting it together that night.
Sure enough, Miles came in, started playing, and bang! I believe Marcus was playing soprano sax. He sounded great, and Miles was digging it; he was totally up to it. It was another innovative and effective form of production.
As we were doing “Don’t Lose Your Mind,” Marcus decided that he would use Michael Urbaniak to add some violin. Omar Hakim played hand drums on some stuff. Bernard Wright played synthesizer on “Don’t Lose Your Mind,” some funky Matrix 12 element.
During this time, my relationship with Miles was unfolding slowly. He was, at times, stand-offish because he didn’t know me, but he liked what I brought to the table. He called me to the piano a few times and asked me to relay messages to Marcus regarding music. He slowly began to open up and feel comfortable.
One day, Miles walked into the studio wearing this fantastic sweater. I was knocked out by it.
I said, “Miles, I really dig that sweater, man! That is happening.”
“I’ll take you shopping with me one day.”
“Yeah, but you better bring your American Express card. You’re gonna need it!”
We moved forward to a cover tune, “Perfect Way” by ScrittiPolitti. The funny thing was that Tommy had told us that he had given Miles all of these albums. After listening to everything, Miles returned to Tommy and said that he wanted to do “Perfect Way.” Miles didn’t even know how to pronounce ScrittiPolitti! We knew David Gamson, who wrote the song. I was so thrilled to tell David that Miles was doing their tune. It would immortalize Scritti in a way.
We began to figure out how we were going to put this tune together. Marcus decided that we would move through the parts and give it our little spin. But basically, the song was what it was. We began working on it by doing the bass lines. We used the Prophet 5, DX-7 and a lot of Matrix 12. I was stacking the voices on the Matrix 12 and turning them into bass lines. The Matrix 12 was a great synthesizer. For a little point, I would add the DX-7. I also had my TX rack.
We were beginning to get pretty damned dog-tired at this point. We had cut “Full Nelson,” “Tomaas,” “Don’t Lose Your Mind” and “Perfect Way,” in addition to the L.A. sessions that I was a part of, though I was not physically there. Slowly but surely, this was beginning to come together as a cohesive masterpiece. We were near the end.
The record was sounding great. We knew it was cool, but being so entrenched with it, we didn’t realize it was a mind-numbing piece of work that people all over the world were going to flip out about. But the vibe was definitely there.
The buzz was that Tutu was exploding in Europe. It was a whole revelation over there. I have a gold album that Miles sent to me from album sales in France.
I hadn’t seen Miles for a while when I went to the release party in New York. Miles was making the rounds in the room. His wife, actress Cicely Tyson, was with him. Suddenly, he stopped, made a beeline over to me, and hugged me. He introduced me to Cicely. He whispered something to her; she shook her head and gave me a warm handshake.
I said to Miles, “Thank you.”
He said, “Yeah, it’s a baaad record.”
“Yeah, it’s really cool.”
I don’t know how many records Tutu sold in the U.S., but I do know that it put Miles back on the map. It was indeed a seminal moment in my life. People have come up to me and said, “You can be involved in a lot of records in your career, but you were involved in something that is timeless.”
Timeless … Yes. That is how I felt about Tutu.