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Miles Davis: That's What Happened (1982 - 1985)

Here's a piece I did for Jazziz magazine which was recently published about the Miles Davis bands of the early 1980s, in conjunction with the upcoming release of the Sony 3CD box set, Miles Davis: That's What Happened (1982 - 1985). Some nice testimony from guitarists Mike Stern and John Scofield, saxophonist Bill Evans as well as drummer (and Miles' nephew) Vince Wilburn on the making of music with Miles in the '80s:

It’s impossible to convey the sense of anticipation and giddiness, mixed with maybe a slight sense of butterflies and dream-like euphoria, we all felt when Miles Davis took the stage with his comeback band at Avery Fisher Hall in New York on July 5, 1981. Dean of jazz critics Leonard Feather of the Los Angeles Times called it “the most anxiously awaited event in the world of jazz” while Robert Palmer of the The New York Times was similarly hyped to hear the Prince of Darkness following his six-year period of self-imposed exile from public performance.

Yet neither Feather nor Palmer were quite prepared for what Miles would unveil that night. From the opening salvo of guitarist Mike Stern’s metal-esque power chording on the intro to the simmering voodoo-funk of “Back Seat Betty,” it was clear that this comeback concert would not sit well with jazz purists. In his review the following day, Palmer largely dismissed it with slights such as, “Mike Stern’s guitar solos were rife with the most banal heavy rock clichés imaginable,” then concluded, “A number of musicians who could have brought real originality and excitement to the trumpeter’s Sunday night performance were in the audience when they should have been on the stage.”

Indeed, a veritable Who’s Who in jazz was in attendance for Miles’ gala return to the stage, all curious to see what the man who had already changed the course of jazz three or more times in his fabled career might have in store for them. After six years of sex, drugs, booze and debauchery, it was unclear whether Miles’ chops were still intact or even what style of music he might be presenting that night. The band he assembled included a crew of relatively unknown faces: 23-year-old saxophonist Bill Evans; guitarist Stern, formerly with Blood, Sweat & Tears and Billy Cobham’s Glass Menagerie; 22-year-old electric bassist Marcus Miller, a prolific session player who was also in the house band of Saturday Night Live and had appeared on records by Lenny White, David Sanborn and Roberta Flack; French percussionist Mino Cinelu; and veteran drummer Al Foster, who had joined Miles’ band in 1972 and played on those two hellacious jungle-funk skronkfests recorded live in Tokyo in 1975, Agharta and Pangaea.

A couple of tracks from that Avery Fisher show were documented on 1982’s We Want Miles, which also contained performances from a warmup show six days earlier at the 425-seat Kix in Boston. That double live album was preceded by the 1981 studio album The Man With the Horn, which was largely panned by critics but embraced by fans who heralded Miles’ return to the stage as fervently as Michael Jordan fans embraced his return to the court in 1995.

The Man With the Horn introduced the lineup of Evans, Miller and Stern, the latter who tore it up on the sly shuffling “Fat Time,” which also happened to be the guitarist’s nickname that Miles had laid on him. “He liked my time feel and I was kind of heavy then,” Stern explained of the nickname. “Later on, after I went into rehab and slimmed down a lot and returned to Miles’ band, he started to call me just ‘Time.’”

And while privately Stern was enamored of the warmer, darker tone and more sophisticated walking-on-eggshells approach of jazz guitar great Jim Hall, in concert with Miles he was ordered to “Turn it up or turn it off!” As he revealed in a 1982 interview with me, “Miles wants me to play loud. At Avery Fisher Hall last year he went over and turned my amp up at one point. And he’s always saying things to me like, ‘Play some Hendrix!’ So right now with this band, he wants to hear volume. Miles wants me to fill a certain role with this band, so I have to play kind of rock-style. So while I may be going for a softer Jim Hall tone on a tune like ‘My Man’s Gone Now,’ I’m mostly cranking it up and going for Jimi when I’m playing with Miles.”

Two other tracks on that comeback album for Columbia Records — “Shout” and the title track — featured a young Chicago crew that Miles had recruited for the session, including his nephew Vince Wilburn Jr. on drums, Felton Crews on bass, Randy Hall on guitar, keyboards and vocals and Robert Irving III on piano and synthesizer. As Wilburn recalls, “We had a band that gigged around Chicago back then, and we’d rehearse in my mother’s basement. In her kitchen she had a phone with a long coil cord, so we would bring it all the way downstairs when Uncle Miles would call, and he’d listen to us rehearse. Then after we would take a break, we’d pick up the phone and talk to him and he’d critique us, give us pointers and say, ‘Neph … why don’t you and Randy and Bobby try this …?’ This went on for maybe two, three weeks until he finally said, ‘Y’all want to make a record?’ And we couldn’t believe it. We were like, ‘What?! Yes, yes, yes!’ So he had [Columbia Records executive] George Butler’s assistant Genevieve Stewart set up some flights to New York for us. She told us we would be staying at the Sheraton Center in midtown Manhattan and what gear we would need from S.I.R. [Studio Instrument Rentals]. So we flew to New York and, man, we had limousines, room service, the whole nine. And at some point Dr. Butler called us and said, ‘You guys are running up a tab. Now, wait a minute!’”

They rehearsed at Miles’ brownstone on West 77th, then went in and cut tracks. “We actually cut about 15 songs in all,” Wilburn says. “And Uncle Miles chose ‘The Man With the Horn’ because he wanted Randy and Bobby to compose a radio song for airplay. And he dug ‘Shout’ because it was poppy. He definitely knew what he wanted.” Wilburn was backstage at Miles’ celebrated comeback concert, watching from the wings at Avery Fisher Hall, just as he had watched as a little kid when his uncle played The Plugged Nickel in Chicago and, later in life, when Miles came to town with his Agharta/Pangaea band to play the Auditorium Theater. “All life-changing moments for me,” he says. “But that Avery Fisher gig, man, it messed me up! Our whole family was there and I was backstage checking out Uncle Miles from the side of the stage. I remember that he had his new yellow Ferrari and parked it on the side by the stage door. And I remember the military gear that he had on, because I was hanging out with him before he went on stage. I also remember Lenny White coming by in his black Porsche and taking me for a ride before the concert started.”

Saxophonist Bill Evans was a key figure in that Miles comeback band. Recommended by his William Paterson College teacher Dave Liebman — who had played and recorded with Miles — Evans pulled both Stern and Miller into the band. “Miles trusted me with his recommendations for the band,” he says. “For the first few months with him, in the spring of 1980, Miles and I were hanging out together damn near every day. We got along and had mutual respect for each other musically and otherwise. We also recorded a fair amount in the studio with Miles nephew’s band around that time. So when Miles asked me for a bass recommendation, someone who could really play, I mentioned Marcus. Miles wasn’t involved in the music scene at this point and I was. I was sitting in with bands and going to clubs all the time. I was young and very into everything ‘New York,’ so he relied on me in a certain way. I like to think I was another set of ears. He always knew what he wanted but I guess he trusted me enough to give my opinion on certain aspects of the music, so I felt honored. Then when Miles asked me for a guitarist, I immediately told him about Mike Stern, who I had just played with in Boston a few months earlier. We ended up checking Mike out with Billy Cobham’s band at the Bottom Line and, needless to say, Miles liked him.”

Evans would provide the same service for Miles in 1983 when the iconic bandleader got the notion of incorporating a second guitarist into the lineup. As Evans remembers, “We were playing in Columbus, Ohio, and I got a call at soundcheck from Miles, who was coming later. He said, ‘I want to have another guitar player up there tonight with Mike. So get someone.’ It was as simple as that. I thought about it for a while and called John Scofield.”

Stern’s heavy drug dependence at the time was not only affecting his playing on the bandstand but his punctuality as well, causing him on one occasion to miss a flight to the gig. “I was getting too high and he said so,” Mike told me. “He said to cool out. And when Miles Davis tells you that, you gotta realize that something must be wrong.”

“I joined Miles on a moment’s notice on November 7, 1982,” Scofield says. “Bill Evans recommended me and Miles’ road manager, Jim Rose, called me that day and told me to get on the next plane to Cleveland where they were playing that night. Mike Stern had no idea that I was going to be there, so he was like, ‘What are you doing here?’ Mike was getting high a lot. It was before he went into rehab and Miles was complaining that Mike couldn’t remember the heads, so it was my job to do that. It was painful because Mike was in bad shape. He was a good friend of mine and an incredible guitarist and we had been playing together around that time at the 55 Grand in New York [in Peter Warren’s band]. I’m not sure how Miles divided up the dual guitar responsibilities that he wanted us to play, but I know Mike and I just watched out for each other’s parts on the gig.

“Meanwhile, people were coming up to me and saying, ‘How can you horn in on Mike’s gig like that?’ But I wasn’t about to turn down playing with the great Miles Davis. If I had, he would have gotten someone else anyway. But Mike was a real gentleman about me being there despite his problems at the time, and our friendship endured through and past the awkward situation. That shows what a good guy Mike is. But I really think Miles liked to get two guys on the same instrument and have them compete in the band. I saw him do that with the saxophone chair later and he was famous for doing that with other musicians.”

The two guitarists both appeared on Miles’ 1983 album Star People and played in the touring band together for eight months, from November 1982 to June 27, 1983. The only document to date of their chemistry on the bandstand is on a Japanese release of a May 29, 1983 concert at Yomiuri Land Open Theatre East in Tokyo. Scofield used either a Mu-Tron or T-wah pedal to funky effect on that gig, and also to distinguish himself tonally from Stern’s piercing rock/blues-inflected single-note attack.

When Stern eventually went into rehab, Scofield took sole possession of the guitar chair in Miles’ touring band, as documented on the upcoming That’s What Happened 1982-1985: The Bootleg Series Vol. 7, the next installment of Columbia Records and Legacy Recordings ongoing mission to unearth hidden gems from the company vaults. Scheduled for a September 16 release, this three-CD set contains previously unreleased session material from 1983’s Star People, 1984’s Decoy and 1985’s You’re Under Arrest, the latter marking the end of Davis’ 30-year association with Columbia before jumping to Warner Bros.

The third disc of this set documents Miles’ performance at the Montreal International Jazz Festival on July 7, 1983, with a band of guitarist Scofield, saxophonist Bob Berg, bassist Darryl Jones, percussionist Cinelu and drummer Foster. That revved up crew comes charging out of the gate on a kinetic medley of Miles’ “Speak” from Star People and Scofield’s “That’s What Happened” (a portion of which later appeared as a live track on Decoy), with the bandleader laying in eccentric, intuitive horn pads on a synth to kick the proceedings into high gear. Evans and Scofield play tight unisons through this 12-minute piece before delivering potent solos. The sparse slow blues “Star People” features some tasty soloing from Miles followed by a nasty six-string explosion by Sco. “What It Is,” based on a tricky Scofield line, is another adrenalized track with a strong solo from the guitarist, Evans on soprano sax and The Chief stretching out over the last minute and a half of the song. Miles then dips back into deep blues on a 12-minute version of “It Gets Better,” also from Star People, which finds him soloing through the first four minutes of the piece before turning to the synth to orchestrate like Gil Evans (chord voicings, horn pads) behind a brilliant Scofield solo.

Another funky offering, “Hopscotch,” which would later appear on You’re Under Arrest, is a feature for Cinelu with more weird synth comping from Miles. A version of the menacing groove number “Star on Cicely,” which Stern had originally played on for the studio version that appeared on Star People, finds Scofield resorting to his T-wah pedal for maximum funky effect and Evans stretching out on a rare flute solo. Miles offers grand Basie big band synth voicings behind Scofield’s killer solo here. Miles then goes with muted trumpet on the playful anthem “Jean Pierre,” the opening track from We Want Miles. “Code 3” is a powerful tenor sax showcase for Evans, and the closer to this Montreal concert, “Creepin’ In,” sounds like “Star on Cicely, Part II,” with Evans again stepping out on flute, Jones stepping up with a fleet-fingered bass solo, Scofield employing Hendrixian feedback and detuning in his skronkified solo, and Miles erupting at the tag with the kind of power he hadn’t exhibited since the ’70s

Comprising 10 previously unreleased studio tracks, Disc 1 of the Legacy set includes the regal presence of trombone great J.J. Johnson on two intimate duet jams with Miles on keyboards (“Minor Ninths, Part 1 & 2”), as well as on the three-part “Celestial Blues.” Says Wilburn, “Uncle Miles loved J.J. I remember J.J. coming out to the house in Malibu. Uncle Miles was tight with a few of the buddies from the past. When we were on the road, he’d love to see them. They’d come backstage and hang. And J.J. did that a lot.”

The comeback lineup of Evans, Stern, Miller, Foster and Cinelu wails on an aggressive 13-minute jam called “Santana.” Miles plays strictly synth on a moody, atmospheric “Remake of OBX Ballad,” which has Stern, Miller and Evans (on soprano) all turning in superb solos. Meanwhile, the two-part “Freaky Deaky,” with Scofield, Jones, Cinelu and Robert Irving III on Linn Drum programming, came from a cassette recording in Scofield’s personal collection. As he recalls, “When we recorded what became ‘Freaky Deaky,’ Miles recorded a really long version as he was working out what it was going to be. After a long set up, Miles took a great straightahead trumpet solo and then I played. I thought it was a particularly good performance and Miles sounded great on it, so I asked the engineer if he could roll a cassette of it right there in the studio before I left, and he did. I remember after we recorded it, I told Miles I loved his solo and he said something like, ‘Oh, I’ve already done that sort of thing back in the ’50s.’ I was friends with Michael Cuscuna when I was playing with Miles, and I had forgotten this, but he says I played him that cassette right after we had done it because I liked what Miles had played so much. I kept it all these years and I told Michael about it when they were putting this box together. He said they went through all the tapes and couldn’t find what I was talking about, so I sent in my cassette and they ended up using that.”

The set’s second disc represents the You’re Under Arrest lineup of Scofield, Bob Berg, Robert Irving III, Darryl Jones, Al Foster and percussionist Steve Thornton and includes previously unreleased versions of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature,” the Tina Turner hit “What’s Love Got To Do With It” and a studio session demo of the Miles-Irving pop ballad “Never Loved Like This.” Clearly, Miles was intent on crossing over the pop threshold on this album. But in a way, this instinct was no different than what he had done in the late ’50s by playing popular show tunes like “If I Were a Bell” and “Surrey With the Fringe on Top.” As Wilburn notes, “I lived with him and [Miles’ son] Erin at his home in Malibu during the ’80s, and Uncle Miles would have MTV on all the time with the volume down. He’d be listening to music or playing the piano, playing his horn, or listening to concert tapes or whatever, and if he looked up and he saw something that interested him, video wise, he’d turn it up and then he’d call the label and have the record sent out to Malibu, be it Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’ or Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’ or Scritti Politti’s ‘Perfect Way.’ He dug them all. We used to play Mr. Mister’s ‘Broken Wings’ live. Uncle Miles was always looking for new tunes to put his stamp on. And I used to love his interpretation and the way he would bring life to an already masterful composition. And some nights we’d play those ballads and the crowd … you could hear a pin drop. It was deep. People would hang onto his every note. It was amazing to witness that from behind the kit.”

Or from his vantage behind the guitar, Scofield concurs. “It was cool hearing Miles play a pop tune that he liked because he was such a great melodist and could play a song so well. Yeah, the critics generally never went for that kind of stuff, and I don’t think he cared about them at all. I guess people don’t understand it, but Miles loved songs and could really get inside them, and he was great at doing that. I mean, sometimes I’d get chills on the gigs when he would do ‘Time After Time.’”

Given that Miles recorded everything — rehearsals, gigs, studio sessions — and was obsessive about listening back and analyzing everything to pull out improvised nuggets that might become his next song, there’s likely an inexhaustible supply of material to draw from in the vaults. “It’s always like finding gold, like a treasure hunt,” says Wilburn. “There’s so many gems, so much gold. And people also send us bootlegs. Carlos Santana years ago made me an iPod that I still have with all types of live Miles Davis concerts and things that I had never heard before. I still have it. You hear all the different bands of Uncle Miles’ career in these tapes of live concerts. It’s one thing to record in the studio with Uncle Miles, but then to hear how it transforms live is amazing, because he always takes it somewhere else.

“That’s why he always listened to board tapes. He would have us come into his room every night after the concert and he would alter and change set lists. He was constantly analyzing those board tapes and getting new ideas. Uncle Miles was a thinking musician. He was just always looking for a new sound — the sound of that day and forward. He never rested on his laurels, he was always trying to elevate and evolve this music. That’s one thing I always will cherish.”

Wilburn adds with a chuckle, “And he was a double Gemini, so you had to keep up! When you’re in the studio or on stage around Uncle Miles, you had to be ready. You had to be open and prepared for anything. And it happened so fast that once we’d get into it and it’s killing, we’re finished, and the next thing you know it’s on the record. I remember Lenny White telling me about the Bitches Brew sessions that, ‘Man, we didn’t know what the hell to expect until I saw it in a record store window in San Francisco.’ The owner of the record store was about to close and Lenny got him to stay open long enough so that he could buy the record, take it home and listen to it for the first time. I also heard from Chick Corea that during those same Bitches Brew sessions they would have to meet at a coffee shop afterwards to discuss what they just played. And that’s how we often felt after recording with Uncle Miles.”

“I was 30 when I joined Miles,” says Scofield. “I guess I see my playing as ‘before Miles and after Miles.’ I got a lot of confidence as a player having Miles’ approval because he was just about my favorite jazz improviser. Just getting up there with him every night and hearing how he approached the music was a great lesson. Also, when you played with Miles, people appreciated you. I remember people that wouldn’t give me the time of day before I was in Miles’ band all of a sudden thinking I was somebody. But I was able to leave Miles and really build on my own bands and recordings. He inspired me to play some rockin’ stuff, not just stay in the acoustic swing thing. Because of Miles’ ‘Screw the Jazz Police’ attitude, I was able to develop that style while playing backbeat stuff in his band.

“But more than that, he was completely committed to improvising in the moment, and his own playing always responded to what we were playing,” he continues. “That was one of the major lessons from Miles and from all great jazz musicians.” – Bill Milkowski

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