The Month In Jazz – July 2021
People still don’t understand what Miles Davis was doing in the 1980s. That goes for record companies as well as critics (and, to a lesser degree, listeners). Sony Music, the label that owns most of his catalog, seems to prefer to think of his career as having ended in 1970. Bitches Brew has been granted icon status and celebrated with multiple reissues of varying degrees of deluxe-ness, but the music that followed has been given far more cursory treatment. The final volume in the generally excellent mid-2000s series of boxes, The Complete On The Corner Sessions, which covered his studio output from 1972 to 1975, is out of print. And his post-comeback albums — The Man With The Horn, We Want Miles, Star People, Decoy, and You’re Under Arrest — have never been given any kind of reassessment. We Want Miles and Star People are only available as import CDs in the US; meanwhile the former, a live album from 1981, has been expanded to a double CD in Japan.
For some reason, people’s brains break down when they try to fit the Miles Davis of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s into the mental frame labeled “jazz musician.” The image of the jazz musician was pretty much codified in the 1940s and 1950s: sharp suits, cigarettes, sunglasses, a certain stoic cool with maybe just a trickle of sweat descending at one’s temple. Miles Davis helped establish that paradigm; he was featured in magazines’ best-dressed lists back then. But the people who admired his style of the 1950s and mid-1960s recoiled when he started dressing like a member of Sly And The Family Stone. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they blamed it on his young then-wife, Betty. So how come even after Betty Davis vanished from his life, he continued to dress that way?
And when he came back in the ’80s, things were even worse, from their perspective. In the ’80s, Miles Davis, who had often been standoffish, even hostile to the audience before, was all about stardom and playing the showbiz game. Beginning with 1983’s Decoy, his albums featured his own face prominently on their covers, and he wore shiny designer outfits both onstage and off. He was selling himself as a celebrity as much as he was selling the music he was making.
His campaign for stardom peaked with the 1985 album You’re Under Arrest . That was the record on which he covered three recent pop and R&B hits — the Michael Jackson song “Human Nature,” D Train’s “Something On Your Mind,” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” At one point, he’d been planning an entire album of pop covers, but most were shelved. Both the Lauper and Jackson tunes got radio play, though, and were actual hits in Europe. In concert, they became highlights of his sets, and often stretched well beyond the 10-minute mark. There’s a 20-CD box, The Complete Miles Davis At Montreux, that documents almost a dozen live shows from 1973 to 1991, and he performed “Human Nature,” “Time After Time,” or both at every one of them, except for the 1973 show and a 1991 concert where he was performing the orchestral music from his albums with Gil Evans. And the crowd went wild every time he played them.
The music on You’re Under Arrest owes a lot to ’80s R&B; it sounds like Prince, or Cameo, or any number of other groups having big radio hits at the time, just with a trumpet instead of a lead vocalist. But the mainstream music press was intent on guarding the divide between jazz and pop, and keeping Miles on the same side of the fence he’d been in the 1950s. Rolling Stone gave the album to Francis Davis, a jazz critic, to review, and while he noted the “reinforced guitar and synthesizer licks, which suggest that Miles, like the rest of us, has been listening closely to Purple Rain,” he still concluded his review by saying, “Poor Miles. As a thinking man’s pop star, he’s unbankable in a market that increasingly depends on conditioned reflex. As a jazz blue blood, he’s been trading on credit for far too long. To judge from the cover photograph, what with his embroidered jacket and leather trousers, even his fashion sense has deserted him: in jazz, smart Italian suits are back in, thanks to Davis’ anointed heir and label mate, Wynton Marsalis.”
Count the assumptions at work in those four sentences. Miles Davis wasn’t an independent artist pursuing an individual path, creating something new; he was an aging jazz musician who’d gone astray somehow… but maybe Wynton Marsalis, his anointed heir — anointed by whom? — could lead him back onto the path of righteousness. It’s absurd.
Davis was dressing the part of who he wanted to be — an across-the-board Black celebrity. He used his music as a springboard in the ’80s, taking acting roles on Miami Vice and Crime Story and making TV commercials for Honda scooters in the US, and tapes and liquor in Japan. It’s worth noting that the other artists Honda used in that same ad campaign were Lou Reed, Grace Jones, and Devo, and Miles looked more like them than any jazz musician his age. He worked really hard to break out of the jazz ghetto. He showed up on VH1 as a guest VJ. He was interviewed on 60 Minutes. He played on The Arsenio Hall Show and Saturday Night Live. He made a cameo in the Bill Murray movie Scrooged, and actually acted in the movie Dingo. He was doing everything he could to get people to see him not as a jazz musician, but as a star — and, crucially, a Black star. He noted in his autobiography that when he’d been playing acoustic jazz, he couldn’t get on late night TV. But in the ’80s, returned from self-imposed exile, opportunities were strewn at his feet like rose petals, and he took pretty much every one that was offered.
He changed his approach to the music, too. In the 1960s, with his acoustic quintet, and in the 1970s with his funk-rock band, he’d played uninterrupted shows featuring extended collective improvisation, but his ’80s concerts were all about discrete tunes, spotlit solos, and breaks for applause. He acknowledged his bandmates and the audience much more than he’d done in the ’50s and ’60s, often smiling at the crowd and announcing players’ names after their solos. He even made music videos for the title tracks of both “Decoy” and “Tutu,” the latter clip directed by Spike Lee.
But none of it was what the jazz business wanted from him. Since his death, the music he made in his final decade has been treated as a footnote, and I think it has everything to do with marketing. These records are not jazz records. Period. They’re electric funk records, and damn good ones. And the jazz business needs Miles Davis to be its standard bearer. So do jazz critics, many of whom were deeply wounded by his change of direction because it flew in the face of the idea they hold most dear, which is that jazz is innately superior to all other forms of music, especially those that outsell it by a factor of ten. It’s a shame that an entire decade of vital, creative work can be shoved aside just because it presents an inconvenient narrative, and doesn’t help sell the latest repackaging of Kind Of Blue.
Fortunately, Warner Music is doing a lot better at honoring Miles Davis’s final decade of creative output than Sony. In 2019, they put out Rubberband, an album of pieces from a scrapped album and some reworked demos; it wasn’t great, but it had its moments. Now they’ve released Merci Miles! Live At Vienne, a complete concert from July 1, 1991, a little less than three months before his death on September 28 of that year. I’ve long argued that Davis’ ’80s bands were a lot stronger and more interesting than they’re given credit for being, and this set — like the Complete Miles Davis At Montreux box — makes that argument a lot easier to present.
The band on this tour included Kenny Garrett on alto sax, Deron Johnson on keyboards, Foley McCreary on “lead bass” (a bass tuned up one octave to function as a guitar), bassist Richard Patterson, and drummer Ricky Wellman. They play only eight songs in an hour and twenty minutes, and they stretch out in a big way right from the start. They open with a nearly 16-minute version of “Hannibal,” from 1989’s Amandla, the last studio album Davis released in his lifetime. That’s followed by “Human Nature” and “Time After Time”; those are 18 and 10 minutes long, respectively, and the version of “Human Nature” is actually a pretty radical deconstruction. He’d been playing it for six years, and knew it inside and out, so as with the jazz standards he performed with his final acoustic quintet, he could basically hint at the melody and then jet off into the stratosphere.
The rest of the set is even more adventurous, and provides some real surprises, even for longtime fans. The creative exchange between Davis and Prince has been the subject of discussion for decades. Davis spoke rhapsodically about Prince in his autobiography, and they attempted to work together several times in the mid ’80s. The recent Sign O’ The Times super deluxe box features a live DVD on which Davis guests with Prince’s band. And the set list on Merci Miles! includes two songs Prince wrote for Davis, never before released in any form.
According to PrinceVault.com, “Penetration” and “Jailbait” were originally written and recorded in 1988 for an album by Prince’s project Madhouse, which was scrapped. In January 1991, he sent them to Davis along with a third piece, “A Girl And Her Puppy,” thinking he would lay trumpet parts down and send them back. Instead, Davis rehearsed them with his band and recorded studio versions in March 1991. Those recordings have never been released. He also added “Penetration” and “Jailbait” to the live set.
You can tell in about five seconds that “Penetration” is a Prince song. It has the head-nodding groove that he was deploying all over the Black Album and Lovesexy, but Davis and the band put their own spin on it. Patterson’s bass is dub-deep and Wellman is playing a hard funk beat that nods to go-go at times. Johnson takes an extended electric piano-esque solo, while Davis stays mostly in the background, coming in to riff on the melody in unison with Garrett before the saxophonist takes a solo full of screaming long tones and crowd-pleasing crescendos.
“Penetration” leads directly into an even faster, harder track, “Wrinkle,” which Davis and band played live for several years at the end of the ’80s but never released on an album until it showed up on Rubberband. That’s followed by a version of “Amandla,” and then “Jailbait,” which is a thick, greasy blues groove punctuated by massive keyboard stabs. Davis was an absolute master of the blues, and his opening solo is patient but fierce and precise, setting up a wild organ eruption from Johnson and a final statement from Garrett.
I don’t expect everyone to love ’80s Miles as much as I do. But if you’ve given this portion of his catalog a miss until now, Merci Miles! Live At Vienne is very much worth hearing… once you’ve heard We Want Miles, You’re Under Arrest, Tutu, and Amandla. At the very least, the two Prince compositions (“Penetration” in particular) are a fascinating discographical footnote.
And now, new music!
Mike Westbrook Concert Band - "Waltz (For Joanna)"
British jazz has been having a moment the last few years, with the rise of Shabaka Hutchings, Nubya Garcia, and many other players. But there was lots of interesting music being made before that; it just didn’t often cross the Atlantic to America. The new compilation Journeys In Modern Jazz: Britain 1965-1972 isn’t a correction to the historical record or anything — this music has always been available to people who went looking for it. But it’s a nice way to spend an hour and a half. A lot of the tracks on this double disc are superficially more conservative than what was being done in America at the time — there’s no blaring free jazz, everything swings, and there’s a surprising amount of big band music — but that’s easily attributable to cultural differences and, frankly, the general whiteness of the British jazz scene, then and now. Pianist Mike Westbrook’s Concert Band, which ranged in size from 10 to more than two dozen members, is heard here on “Waltz (For Joanna),” originally released on the 1969 album Marching Song Vol. 1 and featuring a lengthy and exploratory soprano sax solo from John Surman, tucked into a lush big band chart. (From Journeys In Modern Jazz: Britain 1965-1972, out 7/23 via Decca/Universal Music Group.)
Philip Tabane & His Malombo Jazzmen - "Kathloganao"
South African guitarist Philip Tabane formed the group Malombo Jazz in 1962. His idea was to combine jazz with the folk music of the Venda and Pedi tribes of South Africa. The original trio lineup, which featured flute and percussion, split up after a few years, and despite how it’s credited, he recorded this 1969 album as a duo with drummer Gabriel ‘Sonnyboy’ Thobejane. It’s stark and occasionally harsh in a Delta-blues way; Tabane switches rapidly between gently strummed chords and stinging single-note jabs reminiscent of Grant Green in a particularly bad mood. The album’s opening track, “Kathloganao,” sets up the dynamics instantly. Tabane’s guitar chops and jangles like the strings are coming loose from the neck, and occasionally he can be heard singing/shouting to himself off mic. Thobejane doesn’t keep steady time for the whole piece; there are passages where he’s laying down a driving rhythm for the guitarist, but at other times he falls silent, only to return with a burst of percussion like a comment on something Tabane’s just played. (From The Indigenous Afro-Jazz Sounds Of…, out now via We Are Busy Bodies.)
Art Hirahara - "Together, Apart"
Pianist Art Hirahara has made five previous albums for the Posi-Tone label, almost all of which are at least worth hearing and two of which — 2018’s Sunward Bound and 2020’s Balance Point — are brilliant. Those two records featured bassist Linda May Han Oh, drummer Rudy Royston, and saxophonist Donny McCaslin; Royston is still on drums here, but now he’s joined by bassist Boris Kozlov. Most of the album (nine tracks out of 13) showcases that trio, but vibraphonist Behn Gillece pops up once, and saxophonist Nicole Glover appears on three pieces. “Together, Apart” is the best of the latter group. It opens with a spiraling-downward melody that seems directly derived from John Coltrane’s “Countdown,” from 1959’s Giant Steps, after which Hirahara takes a quick, sparkly piano solo. When Glover comes back in, she’s playing as fast as anyone I’ve ever heard, digging deep into complex, squirrely bebop runs. After a little while, sensing their superfluousness, Hirahara and Kozlov drop away, leaving her to do battle with Royston on her own. He’s as thunderous as he’s ever been, battering toms and cymbals with equal force, and for a brief moment, she lets him have the spotlight before coming back in even faster and more furiously than before. It all ends quite beautifully, though. (From Open Sky, out now via Posi-Tone.)
Orrin Evans - "Libra"
A lot of musicians have spent the pandemic delving deep within, whether making solo recordings or embracing composition or doing something else unexpected. Pianist Orrin Evans has not only announced his departure from the Bad Plus, he’s released a new album with players he’s been looking to bring into the studio for years. He first worked with bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Bill Stewart as a team in 2014, but it was strictly a one-off live gig. In December 2020, he finally got the two men into the studio, joined by up-and-coming alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins. Evans and Wilkins each contributed three compositions to the seven-track The Magic Of Now; the last piece is a medley of Stewart’s “Mynah” and Mulgrew Miller’s “The Eleventh Hour.” Evans wrote “Libra,” which has the high energy level and simple, hooky melody of something Keith Jarrett might have written circa Treasure Island. The piano solo is heavy and relatively hard-hitting by Evans’ standards, with big toms and a booming, bucket-like snare sound from Stewart anchoring the rhythm. Wilkins doesn’t solo so much as recapitulate the melody in slightly divergent ways before chewing on a single note for several minutes. (From The Magic Of Now, out 7/23 via Smoke Sessions.)
Xhosa Cole - "Zoltan"
British saxophonist Xhosa Cole has made his debut with an album of other people’s tunes, but the ones he’s chosen reflect excellent taste and a strong predilection toward the exploratory. K(no)w Them, K(no)w Us takes its title from something Dizzy Gillespie said about Louis Armstrong — “No him, no me.” Cole is offering a self-portrait using others’ music as a mirror through which to see him. It opens with a version of trumpeter Woody Shaw’s “Zoltan,” and also includes Ornette Coleman’s “Blues Connotation,” Thelonious Monk’s “Played Twice,” the standard “What’s New,” and more. On “Zoltan,” he and his band — trumpeter Jay Phelps, bassist James Owston, and aptly named drummer James Bashford — tear the piece apart, using the melody as an anchor before journeying out into the wilderness, but bringing it all home with a marching rhythm. Cole plays like he’s got dirt under his fingernails; his tone has real bite and his lines come at you in a way that’s challenging without being hostile. (From K(no)w Them, K(no)w Us, out 7/30 via Stoney Lane.)
Emma-Jean Thackray - "Our People"
Emma-Jean Thackray is a nice, somewhat nerdy young woman from Yorkshire (I had a really interesting Zoom conversation with her last month) who’s also a multi-instrumentalist and a skilled composer, arranger and producer. She plays trumpet, reeds, keyboards, guitar, bass, drums and percussion, and has been releasing her music on her own label for several years now. Yellow is her first full-length album, and there are guests and collaborators present, including extra singers, a tuba player, and more. A lot of the songs on the album have a universalist perspective drawn from early ’70s post-hippie spirituality, and “Our People” is definitely one of those; the chorus runs “My people, your people, their people/ We are all our people” and the multi-tracked vocals have a kind of friends-singing-together feel rather than a more structured choral sound. Thackray plays electric piano and lots of other things as well, as the tuba pulses in the background and a hard-driving disco-funk beat keeps it all charging along. (From Yellow, out 7/23 via Movementt.)
William Parker - "Tabasco"
Bassist William Parker and drummer Gerald Cleaver have worked together many times, most notably in the improvising piano trio Farmers By Nature with Craig Taborn. Here, they’re on an entirely different journey, joined by electric guitarist Ava Mendoza, who ably blurs the lines between blues, fusion, and skronk-rock. On the album-opening “Tabasco,” the music starts seemingly out of nowhere, with Parker and Cleaver laying down a thick, rocking groove, and ends with a fade, implying a kind of oceanic endlessness. In between, Mendoza’s biting tone and use of sound effects like faraway explosions places her somewhere between Sonny Sharrock and Neil Young, but her decision to throw in jazz chords that seem to wax and wane like midnight tides is what signals her own identity most clearly. Parker has worked with guitarists before — Joe Morris on several occasions, Derek Bailey on the fully improvised Harras, with John Zorn — but never anyone as loud and shred-happy as Mendoza. I’d love to see this trio tear it up live, and I hope they record again. (From Mayan Space Station, out 7/23 via AUM Fidelity.)
Roy Brooks - "Prelude To Understanding"
Detroit-based drummer Roy Brooks is likely best known for his work with pianist Horace Silver; he appears on one of Silver’s most famous albums, 1963’s Song For My Father. He also played and recorded with Chet Baker and Yusef Lateef, among many others, but rarely worked as a leader. His 1972 album The Free Slave was recorded at the Left Bank Jazz Society in Baltimore, Maryland in April 1970 and featured Woody Shaw on trumpet, George Coleman on tenor sax, Hugh Lawson on piano, and Cecil McBee on bass. It was a superb, high-energy example of hard boppers stretching the margins of the form. Now comes Understanding, recorded less than six months later, in November 1970, with almost the same band. (Carlos Garnett is on sax here, and Harold Mabern is on piano.) It’s being released as a two-CD set and a triple LP, with one of the extended pieces, “Taurus Woman,” split across two sides of vinyl. “Prelude To Understanding,” the first track, starts out with atmospheric percussive sound effects, before the band comes in at full roar, delivering a blend of hard bop and free jazz. Woody Shaw was never that interested in playing “out,” but his lengthy solo here is as explosive as I’ve ever heard him, and Mabern, McBee and Brooks are absolutely jackhammering the rhythm. Toward the end of the piece, things get weird again, as the drummer picks up a musical saw. Trust me, you’ve gotta hear it. (From Understanding, out 7/26 via Reel To Real.)
JD Allen - "Queen City"
JD Allen is one of my favorite saxophonists (full disclosure: I wrote the liner notes for his 2020 album Toys/Die Dreaming) and a tremendously smart and insightful musician. It would be easy to say, “Well, of course he’s recorded a solo album — everybody was locked up all last year,” but he’s managed to make it a thoughtful and even more personal statement than you might expect. Queen City, named for Cincinnati, Ohio, where it was recorded, contains nine new Allen originals, bracketed by versions of four standards: “Three Little Words,” “Wildwood Flower,” “Just A Gigolo,” and “These Foolish Things.” The album has an arc, starting in a Sonny Rollins-ish zone (Rollins recorded “Three Little Words” on 1962’s On Impulse!) but quickly moving beyond that into territory that’s pure Allen. The fact that it’s 45 minutes of solo tenor, and the very slight edge of reverb and room sound captured by the engineer, makes it feel like you’re sitting in the next apartment listening to him practice. The title piece, which kicks off the album’s second half, has a bluesy melody that bridges the gap between Rollins and Ornette Coleman, and his extrapolations are filled with deep honks and floor-shaking low notes. (From Queen City, out now via Savant.)
Alice Coltrane - "Krishna Krishna"
In the late ’80s, the LA-based publisher Amok Books put out the Amok Assault Video, a compilation of racist old cartoons, news stories about cattle mutilations, footage of an animal control officer being attacked by a dog, R. Budd Dwyer’s suicide on live TV, a guy talking about the occult messaging behind She-Ra, and a lot more. It began with a segment from Eternity’s Pillar, Alice Coltrane’s public access cable TV show which she filmed at her California ashram. She wasn’t doing anything particularly bizarre; she was just discussing her beliefs and offering a metaphysical lecture to the viewer. But that was how Coltrane’s mystical/spiritual side was seen for years, by those who were aware of it at all: as a kind of weird joke for hip underground types to smirk at. These days, of course, her reputation has been thoroughly rehabilitated. Almost her entire catalog is back in print in one form or another, including the devotional music she recorded in the ’80s and ’90s and sold at the ashram and through a few New Age bookstores. Tracks from three of those releases (1987’s Divine Songs, 1990’s Infinite Chants, and 1995’s Glorious Chants) were reissued on a Luaka Bop compilation in 2017. But her first devotional release, 1982’s Turiya Sings, has always been the hardest to find. It was only ever available on cassette, except for a bootleg German CD. Which is too bad, because it’s a great record. Her synth and Wurlitzer organ are combined with harp and strings, and she sings in Sanskrit, but with a gospel-ish flavor. Now, Turiya Sings has been reissued… sort of. Coltrane’s son Ravi has found tapes of the basic tracks, before the strings and synthesizers were added, and released it. It’s nice; it has an intimate feel, like you’re in her house and she’s playing these songs just for you. Her voice is soft and maternal, and the organ swells all around. But this isn’t the finished product. After John Coltrane died, Alice released Infinity, an album on which she took recordings by his quartet and filled out the arrangements with strings, new keyboard solos, and in some cases overdubbed bass, replacing Jimmy Garrison with Charlie Haden. A lot of people bitched about the strings, but Coltrane herself responded, “‘Were you there? Did you hear [John’s] commentary and what he had to say?’ … We had a conversation about every detail; [John] was showing me how the piece could include other sounds, blends, tonalities and resonances such as strings.” Similarly, the strings and synths were key to Turiya Sings’ power, sending the music into wild otherworldly realms, and bringing it back down to earth this way feels a little like an attempt to sand down Alice Coltrane’s edges, so she can be “appreciated” instead of respected for what she was: a sonic visionary who made music in service of the divine. (From Kirtan: Turiya Sings, out now via Impulse!.)