Miles at (19)85

Seeing as this is a jazz blog, and I am (occasionally) a jazz blogger, I am required by the JJA bylaws to write a post concerning Miles Davis’ birthday. I wasn’t really sure that I had anything to add to the conversation, but this post by Ted Panken, with a really great Marcus Miller interview, got me thinking about 1980s Miles and how his music from that decade impacted his legacy.

I can’t stand Miles’ 1980s output. I hate it. It grates on me. It is dead sounding music, the music of machines. On much of it, Miles’ playing is strained, his years away from the instrument evident in the thin, shallow tone he produces. That tone might have been covered up, or at least assisted, by a live band of expert musicians playing off what Miles was doing and adding their own touches where they felt it. Instead we get layers of synths, drum machines and Marcus Miller’s scooped bass.

In the Panken interview, Miller says he envisioned a relationship with Miles similar to what Gil Evans had had- as a composer/arranger who would create tapestries for Miles to work over. The problem here is that Evans’ work stands on its own, Miller’s does not. Without Davis, Miller’s studio creations sound more like karaoke versions of funk tunes than cutting edge music.

The common criticism of this work is the extensive use of electronic instruments. That criticism is misplaced. Bands like Weather Report used synths and Fender bass and avoided the sterility of Davis’ work. The difference is in the active communication between musicians, something that, according to Miller, was purposefully avoided on the Davis records. That communication is the most important aspect of jazz, or any good music for that matter, and Davis’ decision to avoid it is puzzling.

I’ll throw in the usual disclaimer here that it’s important to give Davis credit for never being one to rest on his past achievements, but I have to think that he was more than willing to use the weight of those achievements to lend some weight to his new projects. I even respect the idea of making music that was uniquely of it’s time. The Warhol/pop art/disposable culture of the 80s is clearly reflected in the music Davis and Miller made. Motivation is one thing, results are something else altogether.

It’s hard for me to tell if the music would have sounded better to me had I heard it when it was released. It is undoubtedly dated, the drum machines and synths sounding almost antique today. I don’t really think anything that is quintessentially “80s” has aged well, except perhaps John Hughes movies. Maybe Davis just had the unfortunate luck of having the last phase of his career coincide with a serious low point in American culture.

Whatever the reason, the fact is the music doesn’t hold up, and I can’t help but feel this sub-par work does leave a negative mark on Miles’ legacy. It obviously can’t take anything away from the amazing work he did in the preceding 40 years, a record of innovation and creation unmatched by any other artist of the 20th century. Miles is, in my opinion, the single most important American musician. Without that last sour note his career would be a string of successes with no failures, a perfect testament to a pure genius.

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