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Not for the first time, Miles Davis changed his music and changed the jazz world in the 1980s. Here are some of the albums that defined an era and divided listeners.
It’s been said there are three topics you should avoid in polite conversation: politics, money and religion. In jazz circles, we may well add a fourth: Miles Davis in the ’80s.
It’s no secret that Miles’ recorded output during the “Excellent Eighties” remains among his most divisive artistic periods, evoking reactions that range from reverence to revulsion. But just why jazz fans love discussing and dissecting the music of Miles’ final years is harder to pin down.
There’s the acoustic difference, of course. Miles — like so many commercially successful artists of the 1980s — had pivoted toward a poppier, more radio-friendly style, embracing drum machines, digital effects and synthesizers to an extent few jazz musicians had in the past. But it’s not as if Miles hadn’t been here before. He was always breaking new ground in terms of genre and instrumentation, and even after the 1970 release of Bitches Brew, there were those among the chattering jazz classes who were questioning his artistic direction.
Still, there seems to be a clear delineation between Miles’ music in the ’80s and the bulk of his early work. Clearly, personal history plays a role. By this point, the Prince of Darkness had emerged from his self-imposed exile from jazz, the period from 1975 to 1981 during which he retreated to his apartment on New York’s Upper West Side and didn’t touch a trumpet to his lips for six years. Rumors swirled about the nature of Miles’ reclusiveness. There was the usual scuttlebutt regarding love affairs and drug use and cryptic jazz meetings, and it’s conceivable that these “Silent Years” played a role in Miles’ growing mystique. Emerging from this period of hibernation no doubt put Miles under the microscope. In this context, it becomes easy to see how the trumpeter’s embrace of pop could be seen by critics as an abandonment of “authentic” — read, acoustic — jazz principles, which at the time were seen as being reformed and re-fortified by the then-ascendant Young Lions and neo-bop brigades. When asked why he chose to go digital, Miles, being Miles, leaned into it: “A synthesizer will sound as long as you pay the electric bill,” he famously told Keyboard Magazine in 1987.
But when considering the music itself, it’s hard to deny that Miles Davis’ output in the 1980s left an indelible mark on jazz. Like everything Miles did, it seemed to race toward the edge of what was previously thought possible in music, while somehow sounding as true as the blues itself. Yes, it relied on some of-the-era musical tropes — the musical equivalents of shoulder pads and hairspray — but it also proved an undeniable incubator for some of today’s top-tier jazz talent, from Marcus Miller and John Scofield to Kenny Garrett and Omar Hakim, who continue to shape the sound of jazz today.
When it comes to Miles’ music, there’s no such thing as a definitive list. This guide is merely an overview of the legendary trumpeter’s music in the ’80s, focused squarely on his studio albums and film soundtracks. Our hope is that it can at least shed light on a chapter in his musical life that is much discussed but little understood. Perhaps it may even move you to give them another spin. After all, the best guide to appreciating this divisive music is a pair of ears — and your undivided attention.
The Man With the Horn
Release Date: July 1981
Recording Period: May 1980 – May 1981
Miles’ first album of the ’80s set the pace for the remainder of the decade. Emerging nearly nine years after the release of his previous studio album — 1972’s On the Corner — The Man With the Horn marked an entirely new direction. In no small part, it began with his band. With the exception of drummer Al Foster, Miles had reinvented his sound with a new core of ensemble musicians in bassist Marcus Miller, guitarist Mike Stern, percussionist Sammy Figueroa Jr., keyboardist Robert Irving III, vocalist Randy Hall and saxophonist Bill Evans, who together brought to Miles’ music a pop and rock sensibility that was sleek, shiny and mechanized — a departure from the shaggy ’70s funk of Davis’ previous fusion albums. Though the title of the project and the Harmon-muted trumpet are throwbacks to Miles’ post-bop cool, the music itself is decidedly of the moment, as cutting-edge and aerodynamic as one of his Ferrari coupes. From the heavy clouds of overdriven guitar riffs on “Back Seat Betty” to the satiny synth chords of the title track, the album is a veritable blueprint for ’80s jazz.
Release Date: April 1983
Recording Period: August 1981 – February 1983
Davis’ 1983 album Star People seemed to catch the trumpeter moving in two directions. While on the one hand he continued to toil at the edges of electro-pop — experimenting with synthesizer loops, drum pads and other new-school effects — his application of these techniques fell squarely on old-school material, namely, the blues and the modal jazz of the 1960s. The result is an album that might feel more familiar — at least in substance — to fans of Miles’ “classic” periods, but it is hardly of the same ilk. A mix of live tracks and studio recordings from 1982-83, Star People features a tight rhythm core of bassist Miller, drummer Foster, percussionist Mino Cinelu and guitarist Mike Stern, but augments the proceedings with the hypno-funk stylings of six-stringer John Scofield. And while there are plenty of tracks that feel like they were plucked from a sci-fi soundtrack (“It Gets Better,” “Speak”), there are others that reveal a deeply human heart. The 18-minute title track, for example, is a blues that is equal parts soulful and cybernetic.
Release Date: April 1984
Recording Period: June 1983 – September 1983
From Bill Evans to Herbie Hancock, keyboardists play an integral role in the music of Miles Davis, defining the sound of various ensembles throughout the trumpeter’s career and creating a stylistic throughline across much of his work. Miles’ late period is no exception. And with the release of Decoy in 1984, Miles provided a broader showcase for keyboardist Robert Irving III, who, along with John Scofield, wrote most of the material on the disc. Another mix of studio tracks and live recordings, this album seems to straddle the line between commercial viability and art music. There are some clear stabs at radio airplay here — “Code M.D.,” with its 1980s police procedural vibes, comes to mind — but even those songs contain within them plenty of Irving’s harmonic sophistication and intricate solo work. The spacious “That’s Right,” which was arranged by Miles’ longtime writing partner Gil Evans, plays like a slow-motion chess match between the rhythm section (featuring a stellar Darryl Jones on bass) and Miles’ frontline, which for the first time includes saxophonist Branford Marsalis. Also stepping up in his role as co-producer is drummer Vince Wilburn Jr., Miles’ nephew, who continues to lead the Miles Davis Legacy Band.
You’re Under Arrest
Release Date: April 1985
Recording Period: January 1984 – January 1985
By dint of its cultural and political underpinnings, You’re Under Arrest is considered by many to be Miles’ most salient album of the ’80s. Like so much from that decade, Miles went big, expanding both the size of his band and the scope of his musical interpretation. You’re Under Arrest is famous for including covers of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature,” both of which would go on to become staples of Miles’ own repertoire. And while you might think the inclusion of these songs would take the album in a cheerier direction, you’d be mistaken. The album reveals a noticeably hard edge, with songs — such as the frenetic title track — that, through interpolation of sound effects and spoken-word commentary, deal with themes of police brutality, racism and nuclear war. Among those who contribute vocals to the disc is bassist Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner, otherwise known as Sting, who reads the Miranda Rights in French on “On the Phone Street Scene.” The album also marks the return of guitarist John McLaughlin to the band (having last appeared on 1972’s On the Corner) and the first appearance of saxophonist Kenny Garrett.
Release Date: September 1986
Recorded: February 6 – March 25, 1986
Perhaps the most divisive of Miles Davis’ albums — not just of the ’80s but across his entire discography — is Tutu. When it was released in 1986, jazz fans old and new were taken by its novel approach. To record it, Miles enlisted Marcus Miller and a handful of other producers — George Duke, Bernard Wright and Jason Miles among them — to create a collection of tracks over which Miles would improvise in the studio. It was a popular practice employed by R&B and pop artists at the time, but few artists were willing to attempt it in jazz, where group improvisation was key. In the capable hands of Miles, Miller and co-producer Tommy LiPuma, however, the resulting album sounds remarkably coherent and unified, Miles blending seamlessly into the orchestrated soundscape. Rife with elements of contemporary music — from hip-hop to Quiet Storm to alternative rock — the album was as controversial as it was popular. Some critics believed that Tutu would be a gateway to jazz for younger music fans, while others believed its overly polished aesthetic marked the end of a certain jazz era. Regardless of what the jazz gatekeepers thought, the album was a bestseller, receiving Gold certification in France and notching a spot on the U.S. Billboard Charts. What’s more, Miles would go on to receive the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Soloist.
Music From Siesta
Release Date: November 1987
Recorded: January – February 1987
Label: Warner Jazz
Miles Davis was no stranger to film scoring when he was asked to compose the soundtrack for Siesta — a film starring Ellen Barkin, Gabriel Byrne and Martin Sheen — in 1986. The trumpeter had already lent his musical talents to the 1958 Louis Malle film Ascenseur pour l'échafaud, improvising musical sequences as edited clips from the movie played on a screen in the recording room, and it was precisely that approach — and more specifically that sound — that Siesta’s director, Mary Lambert, was drawn to in her search for the film’s musical aesthetic. The waking-daydream of a film follows the shifting psychological state of a female sky-diving daredevil in Spain, a premise as murky as it is metaphysical. In composing the soundtrack, Miles turned once again to bassist Marcus Miller, who assembled a tight unit of old friends (Omar Hakim, Jason Miles, John Scofield and others) with the intent of building a cinematic soundscape that could match the film’s shadowy, trance-like quality. The album is actually one of Miles’ best works from this period, sounding somewhere between Sketches of Spain and the future.
Release Date: May 18, 1989
Recorded: December 1988 – January 1989
Amandla is seen by many listeners as a refinement of the global-pop style that Miles had been building with Tutu. The parallels are clear, with producers Miller and LiPuma reprising their roles near the top of the creative chain. In an already crowded recording room, the ensemble was expanded to include a few prominent keyboardists (Joey DeFrancesco and Joe Sample), some forward-thinking guitarists (Michael Landau and Bill “Spaceman” Patterson) and a handful of groove-enhancing percussionists (Don Alias, Paulinho da Costa, Omar Hakim and Bashiri Johnson). The program is slightly more ambitious than Tutu, at least from a stylistic perspective, as it seeks to incorporate rhythms from traditional and contemporary African music into its constellation of sounds, as on “Catémbe” and the title track. There are a number of touching tributes here as well, most notably the closer, “Mr. Pastorius,” dedicated to the transcendent bassist who died in 1987 and whose style reflected a profound Miles influence.
Released: September 12, 1989
Recorded: January 31 – February 4, 1985
Recorded under Columbia Records in 1985 but not released until the final year of the ’80s, Aura came out of a collaboration between Miles Davis and the Danish Radio Big Band, which at the time was being led by trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg. Taking a conceptual page from the Kind of Blue playbook, Mikkelborg composed a suite based on a palette of colors that he believed represented Miles’ musical and spiritual aura. That abstraction set the tone for the music on this album, which swirls together influences from 20th-century progressive music: classic impressionism, avant-garde jazz, hazy-eyed funk rock and New Age pop. Miles’ thoughtful, poetic muted trumpet is in fine form on “White,” but he’s quick to throw the energy into high gear on such tracks as “Electric Red,” with its gut-punching bass line and dimly lit street-corner synths. A more acoustic offering, “Indigo” cuts across time both literally and figuratively, pitting a piercing ride cymbal against the slow, balletic piano chords at the song’s beginning before bursting into a full-on sprint halfway through. Reception of the album was positive overall, with even Miles skeptics heaping some praise. It won the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance in 1990, and was a fitting close to the chapter that was Miles in the ’80s. - Brian Zimmerman