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Miles Davis In The 80s: My Retrospective Inspired By That’s What Happened 1982-1985: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 7

February 26, 2023

I was a late bloomer regarding a lot of things – including music. I was only vaguely aware of pop and rock music as a kid – even as a teenager. As a kid, I was into classical music, big band music, and ragtime. When I was in college my ears were opened to rock and jazz – and specifically to jazz-rock fusion. I got into two Miles Davis masterpieces: Kind of Blue (1959 – jazz) and Bitches Brew (1970 – jazz-rock fusion). I quickly became a music-head/obsessive.

Kind of Blue was an easy entry – it is totally accessible and most people like it right away. Bitches Brew is another matter – it is hard to digest. I bet it took a hundred listens over several years before I learned to like it – it took persistence. I never understood why Mile’s electric jazz-rock was considered a sell-out – it was hardly commercial – it was challenging to listen to.

When I was getting into Miles in the late 70s he was off the grid – he was in a 5-year “lost period.” We learned later that he was drugged out and at times speedballing (injecting himself with a cocktail of heroin and cocaine) and not into music. In a 1982 interview with Musician Magazine, when asked what he did during that time, Miles answered: “Nothin’. Gettin’ high. I didn’t feel like playing the trumpet, didn’t feel like listening to music. Didn’t want to hear it, see it, smell it, nothin’ about it… I didn’t come out of the house for about four years… But then Dizzy came around and said, ‘What the fuck are you doing? You were put here to play music!’ So I started back.”

It was a big deal in 1981 when Miles released The Man With The Horn after several years of silence and even a longer time since he had produced new material. I bought it right away as it was new Miles. The critics said it was pop, but it didn’t sound like pop to me. It sounded like unlistenable shit. But I reverently listened to it and continued to buy the next several studio albums (1983’s Star People, 1984’s Decoy and 1985’s You’re Under Arrest). Some of the material was accessible, very pop, and in line with the lite jazz of the day. I didn’t get it, but assumed I was just too ignorant to get the great master.

The only time I witnessed Mile live was in November of 1981 in Minneapolis. It would have been shortly after his appearance on Saturday Night Live and around the time We Want Miles would have been recorded. I don’t remember much other than Miles stalking the stage and that it was more like watching a rehearsal. Miles was more engaged with his band than the audience. I recall he played keyboards with one hand and trumpet with the other. I recall being more captured by Miles the celebrity, vs. Miles the musician.

My first revelation that there was greatness to the 1981-1985 material was the 20 CD box: The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux 1973-1991. The live material from that era put the music in a new and exciting light. I could now see the brilliance of what he was doing. It was pop jazz, but that was OK as it was well executed and had a unique take that was different from anything anyone else did. Miles had successfully reinvented himself again. I went back to those early 80s albums and now appreciated them. Although The Man With The Horn is the weakest of the four and 1982’s live album We Want Miles would have opened my eyes sooner if I had listened to that when it first came out.

This brings us to That’s What Happened 1982-1985: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 7. It is a three-CD set that includes two discs of previously unreleased studio material from the Star People, Decoy and You’re Under Arrest sessions–and a third disc showcasing Miles Davis live in Montreal on July 7, 1983. I chose to get the two-LP (vinyl) release that collects highlights of the studio material pressed on white vinyl (note the CD is a more complete collection). The three-CD set is available on streaming services. The live set from the third CD is available on Record Store Day release from 2022 titled What It Is: Montreal 7/7/83 and is still available in many independent record stores (I picked that up too).

LP 1 Side A:

“Santana” – As best I know, this song is unreleased. Per the liner notes it is from the Star People sessions. It is a funk workout with Miles as an engaged soloist on muted trumpet. Saxophonist Bill Evans is a worthy foil to Miles. Guitarist Mike Stern has figured out his role (he seemed a bit overwhelmed on The Man With The Horn).

“Minor Ninths” (Part 2) is Miles on electric piano and trombonist J.J. Johnson, an old friend, playing a slow and moody blues solo. Although not documented in the liner notes, based on the recording date I assume this is from the Star People sessions.

“Celestial Blues (Part 2)” – Again based on the recording date and musicians, I assume this is from the Star People sessions. This is a funky blues that is more of a jam session, than a tune. Miles sounds great on open-horn (not muted, although it has echo). Miles really swings on the track.

LP 1 Side B:

“Remake Of OBX Ballad” – Yet again, I assume this is from the Star People sessions. Miles only plays synth under a smooth jazz solo from Bill Evans and a similarly smooth guitar solo from Mike Stern. Despite the smooth jazz genre, it is tasteful and not schlocky.

Miles brilliantly curated some of the best pop ballad melodies from the 80s. He covered them with a gentle beauty. From the You’re Under Arrest sessions we have alternate takes of “Time After Time” (Cyndi Lauper) and “Human Nature” (Michael Jackson). Miles must have concluded that including another 80s mega-hit cover on You’re Under Arrest would have been overkill, but he should have gone for it – “What’s Love Got To Do With It” (Tina Turner) is as good as anything on You’re Under Arrest. These covers are dated – they reek of 80s production values – but in a good way. This stuff sounded great at the time and still sounds great. It should be no surprise that Miles would create lite-jazz masterpieces.

LP 2 Side C:

“Freaky Deaky” (vinyl Edit) – Per the liner notes this tune comes from a Decoy session cassette from guitarist John Scofield’s collection. “Freaky Deaky” appeared as an alternative version of Decoy. This is a slow mellow blues. I can see why Sco saved this recording – his solo is tasty!

“Never Loved Like This” is a You’re Under Arrest session demo. This tune was part of a medley that concludes that album. It is an absolutely beautiful ballad and Miles plays a very clean and unadorned horn. His tone is spectacular.

“Hopscotch” (fast) – is a You’re Under Arrest outtake. This is one of my favorite songs on this release. It is funky AF and has a great hook, Miles’ solo is playful.

LP 2 Side D:

“Theme From Jack Johnson (Right Off) / Intro” is from the You’re Under Arrest sessions. It is the only song that comes from Miles’ back catalog: 1971’s Tribute To Jack Johnson. It is funky and sounds like jazz that Miles and Prince would make.

“Katia” (full session from You’re Under Arrest) is a special delight that includes a stinging solo from guitarist extraordinaire John McLaughlin over a funky groove from bassist Daryl Jones. Miles muted trumpet spars with McLaughlin. Great jam!

The live album (disk 3 on the CD release) What It Is: Montreal 7/7/83 is Miles back on the top of his game with an amazing band: John Scofield on guitar, Bill “The Other Bill Evans” Evans on saxophones, flute, and electric piano, Darryl Jones on bass, Al Foster on drums, and percussionist Mino Cinelu. It includes tracks from that year’s Star People, the Marcus Miller tune “Hopscotch” and the song “Jean-Pierre” that appeared on 1982’s We Want Miles. The recordings of “What It Is” and “That’s What Happened” were so well thought of by Miles that he utilized them for his 1984 release Decoy, but in heavily edited form and this release includes the first release of them in complete form. The audio quality of the live set is near studio quality – it is stunning. Miles and the band’s performance is amazing. This is jazz rock funk fusion at its best. It may not be for everybody, but it is all right with me!

Maligning Miles’ 80s output is mistaken – That’s What Happened 1982-1985: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 7 is proof Miles was not washed up in the 80s, but on to a new and exciting chapter in his career. He is a jazz-leaning peer of his pop contemporaries like Prince and Michael Jackson versus conventional jazz players of the 80s (e.g. the hard bop young lions or even pop/jazz-lite purveyors). As usual, Miles has recruited amazing young talent to achieve his vision. I was as guilty as any of not appreciating Miles’ 80s catalog at the time. It took me a while to get it, but now I love this period of Miles’career as much as the universally acclaimed periods.


From → Music Reviews

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