The Final Years: A Retrospective Of Miles Davis’s Last Albums (Part 1)

In 1975, Miles Davis began life anew as a recluse, a hermit in the middle of Manhattan. Supported by a healthy retainer from Columbia Records and fueled by cocaine, Davis spent most of the next six years in his Upper West Side apartment, composing and practicing rarely, but mostly neglecting his musical gifts. (Whatever else went on during this “retirement” is perhaps best left untouched.) However, by 1980, Davis was back in the studio recording what would become 1981’s The Man With The Horn—his comeback record, and an album that would arguably set the standard for this new wave of his music until his untimely death nine years later.

Davis is undisputedly one of the single most important and influential figures in jazz music; its evolution from a New Orleanian tradition to a multifaceted, ubiquitous presence in music today owes much to his radical ideas and incredible style of playing. So why do we look upon this final era with such an apathetic shrug? Perhaps we as a collective of jazz fans thought that Davis had burned out? That maybe he didn’t the same drive that had kept him perpetually playing, composing, recording, and touring since about 1945? Probably the biggest reason for this drop-off comes from what had come before this final period; Davis’s earlier work—such as the singles that became Birth of the Cool—and his infamous Electric Era (i.e. Bitches Brew, In A Silent Way) are still regarded today as groundbreaking and essential albums of their subgenres (cool jazz and jazz fusion, respectively). 1959’s Kind of Blue is considered to be the biggest-selling jazz album of all time (the RIAA actually gave it a quadruple-platinum status back in 2008), and is almost always recommended to newcomers of jazz. Simply put, Davis had basically spent thirty years constantly outdoing himself and experimenting with music, and since his final years don’t represent anything “huge” in terms of progress, they have fallen by the wayside.

I can admit that I’ve been of this opinion for quite some time. It wasn’t that I was vehemently averse to these later Miles albums; it’s more that I viewed them in the same way that a classic rock fan would view a Rolling Stones album from the last decade or so—not so much bad as just deficient. As musicians age they can often begin to lose the luster and tenacity that so defined their previous work. I was, in a way, frightened to possibly hear a musical hero of mine reduced to a facsimile of his former self. For years I avoided Davis’s final era like the plague, sticking instead to the period between Kind of Blue and In A Silent Way, where his music had an interesting looseness, thanks to Davis’s use of modes and his (somewhat) acceptance and/or use of improvisation.

But now I’ve taken the plunge, and, surprisingly, the water I’ve dived into isn’t bad. In fact, the music was interesting enough that I thought to write my observations down in this multi-part series. I don’t count these as reviews, though—they’re more like snapshots of what are now Miles Davis’s final eight albums, from 1981 to 1991. While I do make comparisons and references to previous work, it’s worth noting that I’m not comparing its quality to that of earlier albums; if Miles Davis was anything, he was an innovator—one who could (and often would) look back, but be constantly shifting forward, who always had a new idea in mind when making music.

The Man With The Horn (1981, Columbia)

Funk. Get it in your head, and then proceed to get groovy. The Man With The Horn is, above everything else, a jazz-funk album. It’s actually quite fun to hear Miles Davis playing this kind of music at this time, considering that albums like Head Hunters and Man-Child had come out nearly a decade before (the instrumental lineup of either I feel defines more classic jazz-funk). By the 1980s, Herbie Hancock was doing weird shit in this style and expanding it into electronic music (creating what is now known as electro-funk). But this isn’t what Miles seemed to be doing here—Man With The Horn feels like a progression of music from a decade ago rather than whatever Hancock was doing in the 80s—and I mean this in the best way possible.

However, it’s worth saying: Miles has played jazz-funk, but never with this amount of simplicity. His previous forays into the genre were highly experimental when it came to structure and presentation—just look at the much-maligned On the Corner: an album that has come to be regarded as a forerunner for hip-hop and later electronic music and featured heavy influences from composers like Stockhausen. Like his relationship with free jazz, Miles wasn’t against jazz-funk or jazz fusion per se (though he did denounce Ornette Coleman’s music when it first came out)—he just needed to find his own way to improvisation that made sense to him. It was through experiments like In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew that closed this personal gap between not only regular jazz and free jazz, but rock and jazz as well. In The Man With Horn, Davis keeps his past excursions in mind, but doesn’t replicate it—instead, he streamlines it. He planes down the experimentation and capitalizes on funk’s signature, hip-swaying groove.

But that’s just simplifying it quite a little bit; the parts that make The Man With The Horn great, in my mind, come from the little details, like Davis’s trumpet playing. Miles’s Electric Era had produced a lot of controversy, and part of that came from how he played, ridding himself of the controlled embouchure that had made him famous in favor of a more powerful and free tone. The Man With The Horn brings back the mute and that delicate precision, which was a nice surprise. However, there are parts where you can hear him blast out a couple of notes like he did back in the Bitches Brew days.

Another little detail I can’t get enough of is the string playing on this album, both from the bass and guitar. Marcus Miller’s unshakeable bass playing serves up a groove that’s impossible to resist, while Mike Stern does an incredible solo on “Fat Time”. Barry Finnerty, who plays guitar for the majority of the album, brings a heaviness you don’t often hear in an album that’s technically jazz.

One would think that considering this is Miles’s comeback album and one of the last albums he ever made that this wouldn’t be a great release. I can’t express how damn wrong that is. Opinions are opinions, of course, but the songwriting and playing on this album is undeniably good—perhaps not too flashy/showoff-y, but nonetheless solid. Each track has its own feel, like the smooth melody of “Shout”, the auto-wah solos in the title track, or the odd post-bop tendencies of “Ursula” (seriously, that track came out of nowhere for me), and yet they all seem to have a common theme in some well-done jazz-funk/-fusion. It’s not Bitches Brew, but it doesn’t have to be. Like I said before, Miles likes to move forward; you can always hear pieces of the past in his work, but its never retro for its own sake.

Star People (1983, Columbia)

It would be easy to write off Star People as being a sequel to The Man With The Horn—after all, it features a palpable influence of funk, and some serious guitar playing courtesy of Mike Stern yet again. (And that bass! Somebody give Marcus Miller a goddamn trophy for this, please.) But this really is only a sequel in the loosest of terms. Star People is technically the third post-retirement/exile Davis album, after the live album We Want Miles, and yes, you can hear parts of The Man With The Horn in it, notably in the bass, but, if anything, it’s more like Live-Evil in the way it attacks funk rather than grooves with it. The funk is present, but instead of using it to a rhythmic advantage (like much of Man With The Horn), it’s as if those delicious grooves and everything are simply a platform or a soundscape for more important things.

What really hit me off from the start of Star People was Miles’s minimal playing, at least in the intro track “Come Get It”. It’s not that he isn’t present (though he doesn’t start playing trumpet until like 2-3 minutes into the song), but his contributions seem more like a response to what is going on below him. Like I previously stated, the rhythm section and guitar make a groove, but it’s not something that he pounces on—it’s more like Miles’s trumpet playing in “Come Get It” serves as a supplement to the track, full of Bitches Brew-esque moments. You could easily take his playing off of it and it’d still be pretty decent (though possibly lacking in drive). Although he sometimes will start playing with the brutality that he used in Bitches Brew, Star People—for the most part—sees Miles again coming back to that muted, delicate precision that he was once known for.

I find it fascinating that despite Davis inching ever closer to sixty years old (he was 57 at the time of Star People’s release), he still has a few tricks up his sleeve that he doesn’t mind pulling out if/when he feels like it. I thought I was possibly mishearing the beginning of “It Gets Better”, but no—that really is a synthesizer starting off the track, played by none other than Miles himself. I never figured for Miles to be someone against using synthesizers or electronics (considering how much he utilized early electronic methods like tape editing and took huge influence from electronic pioneers like Stockhausen), but at the same time he’s never been one to use instruments and techniques like those found in electronic music so broadly and simply. Regardless, the synths are utilized well—while Davis is dipping his toe (at least partially) into the nascent New Wave scene, he’s doing it (like all things, it seems) on his own terms.

The growth between this album and The Man With the Horn is at once noticeable—Miles seems to have brought back some of the looseness that had been a trademark of Bitches Brew, but combined it with a hint more of a funk sensibility. The title track features what is the closest thing to a “Bitches Brew”-esque jam session, what with this strange percussion leading the beat (like a small cymbal soaked with reverb?) in the background for much of its 18-minute runtime, that sometimes, strangely enough, sounds like it goes in and out of tempo. At the same time, he isn’t afraid to deviate, with “U ’n’ l” having a legitimate earworm of a trumpet riff played over a pretty simple rhythm. All in all, it’s a great album, especially if you’ve listened to the Electric Era enough that you want something just a little different.

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Stay tuned for the next part(s) of this article, spanning from Decoy to Doo-Bop, and feel free to comment with your own opinions on these albums.

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