In 1955, Miles Davis signed with Columbia Records. For the next 30 years, the label rode with him through a series of artistic evolutions, from the modal jazz of Kind Of Blue to the orchestral collaborations with Gil Evans (Milestones, Porgy And Bess, Sketches Of Spain) to his embrace of electric instruments and rock rhythms on In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew and A Tribute To Jack Johnson, not to mention the baroque, studio-centric funk-rock soundscapes of On The Corner and Get Up With It. When Miles disappeared for five years, Columbia waited for him, releasing The Man With The Horn and We Want Miles upon his return in 1981.
But in 1985, seemingly out of nowhere, Davis grew dissatisfied with Columbia. In the summer of that year, it was announced that he had signed with Warner Bros. Naturally, rumors flew about what this might mean for his career. His final Columbia album, 1985’s You’re Under Arrest, included versions of pop and R&B hits — Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature,” Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” and D Train’s “Something’s On Your Mind.” Consequently, some believed an entire album of contemporary hits, possibly featuring vocalists like Chaka Khan and Al Jarreau, might be in the offing.
And indeed, Davis initially stayed on the path he’d been on since roughly 1983, combining modern pop-funk, rock, and electronic music into swirling backdrops for his sharp solos. In September 1985, he entered the studio as a Warner Bros. artist for the first time, recording the track “Maze,” named in tribute to the R&B band led by Frankie Beverly. A month later, he recorded a piece called “Rubber Band,” and in January 1986, he tracked one called “See I See.” In between, there were nearly a dozen other trips to the studio, yielding a few fragments but nothing solid.
At some point, producer Tommy LiPuma, who was the head of Warner Bros.’ jazz division at the time, realized that a record wasn’t coming together. He approached bassist Marcus Miller, who’d been a member of the trumpeter’s band in 1981 and 1982, and asked him to generate some new material. The resulting synth-and-drum machine demos were approved, and Miller and Davis went into the studio in February 1986 and produced Tutu, an ice-cold, cybernetic masterpiece of an album. The Rubber Band sessions, as the previous batch of work had come to be known, stayed in the vault.
Well, not entirely. When Davis died before his final album, 1992’s Doo-Bop, could be completed, two Rubber Band tracks were given to producer Easy Mo Bee to create “Fantasy” and “High Speed Chase.” In 2011, “Maze,” “Rubber Band,” and “See I See” were all released on a European box set, 1986-1991: The Warner Years. They didn’t generate much excitement at the time, strangely. And now, those three tracks have been combined with eight others as Rubberband.
To their credit, nobody at Rhino Records is pretending this album was anywhere near completion in 1986. However, the existing recordings were finished by the original producers, Randy Hall (who had played guitar and synth on 1981’s The Man With The Horn) and Zane Giles, and Davis’ nephew Vince Wilburn, Jr., who played drums on it and has served as the keeper of the Davis estate since his death. And they’ve done a good job, with a few jarring exceptions.
Reading the credits, it’s easy to figure out what was recorded in the ’80s and what was punched in later. Guitarist Mike Stern, saxophonist Bob Berg, and keyboardist Adam Holzman, all of whom were part of various Davis touring bands back then, are prominently featured on multiple tracks. Three of these tunes — “Maze,” “Wrinkle,” and “Carnival Time” — were features of his concerts in that era, and can be heard on multiple live albums. Those three pieces, “Rubberband,” and “See I See” make up the heart of the album, and if you’re a fan of Davis’ ’80s music in all its gleaming, synth-heavy glory, you’ll be very pleased by those.
Rubberband’s first half, though, features the tracks that Hall, Giles, and Wilburn did the most work on. The album opener, “Rubberband Of Life,” features vocalist Ledisi, who’s been around and has a dozen Grammy nominations to her name, but who was 13 in 1985. The track also has a hip-hop beat built around a sample of Lou Donaldson’s version of Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe.” It sounds like an early ’90s R&B single in the En Vogue vein, with Davis’ trumpet mixed in here and there.
The second track, “This Is It,” seems like it was cooked up by Davis, keyboardist Holzman, and percussionist Steve Reid, with Hall, Giles, Wilburn and a few studio musicians filling in the arrangement now. It begins with a recording of Davis offering guidance of a sort; he says “We’re playin’ the guitar; it’s kinda just a little bit funky, and it goes in another direction, with Prince’s side and James Brown’s side.” What we hear is fast, twitchy funk with popping bass, tight guitar stabs, and squelching synth bass. Davis’ horn is fleet and fluid; he’s tossing off speedy runs as good as anything in his latter-day catalog.
The next two songs, unfortunately, turn Davis into a sideman on his own album. The sad fact is, every time Miles Davis allowed a vocalist onto one of his records, the results were dismal, starting with Bob Dorough’s performance on “Nothing Like You,” a 1962 track inexplicably tacked onto 1967’s Sorcerer. (It was the label’s decision; Davis hated it.) The title track from The Man With The Horn, sung by Randy Hall, and the three tracks from Doo-Bop that feature rapping are all musts to avoid, too.
“Paradise” features singer Medina Johnson, whom I’ve never heard of and who does nothing to stand out or create a sonic identity for herself, and some really terrible acoustic guitar and synth steel drums. Despite some energetic live percussion in the background, this is a fake island pop/R&B song Carlos Santana at his most mercenary would have rejected. It sounds like they found a minute or two of Davis noodling on the horn and laid it onto a songwriting demo. “So Emotional,” featuring Lalah Hathaway, has even less Miles Davis content than “Paradise.” It’s a generic quiet storm R&B song, with some background horn.
“Give It Up” gets Rubberband back on track. It’s a heavy electronic funk jam with nasty, stinging guitar, some electronic noise in the background that sounds like Ministry circa Twitch, and Davis’ short but potent horn phrases shadowed by synths. A few dashes of saxophone and flute from Michael Paulo and Glenn Burris are newly added, but take nothing away from a track that could easily have fit on You’re Under Arrest or 1989’s Amandla.
“Maze” and “Carnival Time” are potent performances, too, less sprawling than their live versions but still clearly the product of a band in a room, more so than anything else on Rubberband. There’s still reconstructive surgery going on, though. The version of “Maze” that appeared on the Warner Years box was nine minutes long. This one shaves off the first two minutes, and shifts some other elements around, fading out after Mike Stern’s guitar solo and making some big synth drones more prominent in the mix. “Carnival Time” is a wild mix of ideas; there are metallic power chords, snapping funk bass, repeated tempo changes and surges, and some lush, almost Art of Noise-like passages.
Sadly, that’s followed by another vocal number. “I Love What We Make Together,” a terrible R&B-funk song with Randy Hall on lead vocals and Davis used as a compositional element, is the album’s absolute nadir. Just skip it, because the album’s final third goes from strength to strength, and you’ll be happier the faster you get there.
“See I See” is a minute shorter than the original version (and some creepy synths, reminiscent of an early Peter Gabriel album, have been sweetened or replaced), but it’s still potent. It’s a crawling blues-funk number with multiple layers of drums and percussion and fierce playing from Davis. “Echoes In Time/The Wrinkle” staples a short trumpet-and-synth intro to a bouncing, uptempo piece the band performed at almost every show in the late ’80s. Giles, Hall, and Wayne Linsey (who handles keyboards, bass, and drum programming) may have had to build it up from a foundation created by Davis and Holzman, but they do a very good job; it feels like a band performance, with an almost go-go rhythm and some surprisingly harsh electronic noise in the background. And everything concludes with “Rubberband,” which sounds like a perfect cross between the live-band funk-pop of You’re Under Arrest and the drum-machine moonscape of Tutu. Davis’ solos are energetic, even when played through his trademark Harmon mute, and the synths stab and throb over a beat that packs a convincingly ’80s punch.
The best tracks here imply that Rubberband — had it been completed in 1986 — would likely have been a middle ground between the shiny pop-funk of You’re Under Arrest and the more African-diasporic electro-funk of 1987’s Amandla. Of course, that’s a world in which we probably wouldn’t have gotten Tutu, which is the most fascinating of Davis’ mid ’80s albums, so it’s probably best that things happened the way they did. Still, seven of the 11 tracks here — all the instrumental ones — are worth hearing, and some of them rank up there with anything else Davis recorded during his final decade.