“I’m an instinctive kind of person who sees things in people that other people don’t see. I hear things that other people don’t hear and don’t think are important until many years later, when they finally hear them or see them themselves. By then I’m someplace else.” – Miles Davis, Miles – The Autobiography
It’s tempting to view the modern jazz scene of the late-1980s and early 1990s as a barren, inhospitable place. The combination of ubiquitous digital keyboards, omnipresent clean bass lines and sharp production in place of the raw energy of earlier versions of the jazz form gave the genre a sort of dryness that became a shorthand for elevator music.
Miles Davis, adaptable though he always was to what jazz could be, took a while to adapt to what the 1980s represented. He started the decade emerging from retirement, meaning that when he returned, it took a while for his breath to reach its full potential again, while recurring bouts of pneumonia threatened to – and and ultimately did – take his signature style away forever. Nevertheless, Davis looked around and found himself a place, whether in the way that he took Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’ or Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’ and made them his own on You’re Under Arrest (1985), or his seminal late-career work with Tommy LiPuma and Marcus Miller, his creative friendship with Prince or the recently-exhumed Rubberband sessions from 1985. Davis, to paraphrase the master of punchy epithets himself, remained as relevant as a motherfucker.
Merci Miles!, cringey title to one side, captures all of these bold aspects of Davis in his literal twilight moments. Recorded at the Vienne Jazz Festival in southern France on July 1 1991, Davis would be dead less than three months after he performed this concert with his group. There’s no weakness in his playing, no less energy, no less enthusiasm for the material or his art; no trace at all of these being among Davis’s last breaths.
The setlist drew from what was Davis’s most recent album at that point, 1989’s Marcus Miller- produced Amandla, and You’re Under Arrest. The material from the former is delivered with a gentle, lyrical crispness, while his duetting with the group’s alto saxophonist – Kenny Garrett, who easily gets as much solo time as Davis across this set, if not more – evokes the spirit of some of his vital sparring with sax players in the bebop era. Both ‘Amandla’ and ‘Hannibal’ here have a certain mystique, evoking the African spiritualism that connected the album to 1986’s Tutu.
Also included in the set are two pieces written by Prince, ‘Penetration’ and ‘Jailbait’. Both carry a slick, funky outlook that’s immediately recognisable as Prince compositions, and that Davis initially seems able to engage with, but after a while it feels as if he’s lost interest, leaving the rest of the group – and Garrett in particular – to lead.
The lengthy versions of ‘Human Nature’ and ‘Time After Time’ find Davis at his most profound on this date. His playing on these two tracks has a searching, questing quality, finding endless new angles within the distinctive melodies to explore and develop, taking two instantly familiar pieces down intriguing new pathways. Considering Davis was forever prickly about playing signature moments from his own catalogue, he doesn’t seem to have any such issue with playing these two pieces, raising them to the status of contemporary standards.
Key to the sound of pieces like ‘Wrinkle’, later to emerge on the Rubberband album, is the rhythm section of bassist Foley, second bassist Richard Patterson and drummer Ricky Wellman. On ‘Wrinkle’ you hear the trio pivot sharply from elastic funk to frantic, white-hot runs. Foley’s playing deserves special mention on this date – his approach was to play an octave higher than expected, allowing him to riff like he’s playing an electric guitar. Despite its integral positioning in this set, Foley himself had been self-critical of his playing literally up to these last few concerts with Davis. Like so many stories you read of Davis giving nurturing advice to his young players, he had suggested to Foley that he try to play less; the result was space and room to hear the expressiveness of his playing. The group was rounded out by young keyboard player Deron Johnson, who manages to give the normally stale-sounding digital equipment of the period as much a sense of resolute firmness as textural colour.
Ashley Kahn’s inclusive liner notes for the album capture what it was like to be around Miles at the end of his days. We learn about his love of foie gras and pig’s feet, his enthusiasm for France and live music, his gratitude humility, and a certain shyness about talking on stage or in public. More poignantly, we hear first-hand accounts from Johnson about his bandleader’s failing health. “The whole inside of my body feels like it’s falling apart,” complains Davis to his new protégé. Despite playing as well as any other point in his career, physically he looks drained, sluggish and worn out on stage at points during the 80-minute Vienne set.
“For me, the urgency to play and create music today is worse than when I started,” wrote Davis at the very end of his 1989 autobiography, smack in the middle of his final career nadir. “It’s more intense. It’s like a curse. Man, the music I forget now drives me nuts trying to remember it. I’m driven to it – go to bed thinking about it and wake up thinking about it. It’s always there. And I love that it hasn’t abandoned me; I feel really blessed.”
Merci Miles! Live At Vienne is released June 25 2021 by Rhino. Thanks to Jess and Joe.
Piano is Norwegian jazz musician Kjetil André Mulelid’s first solo album. Ordinarily to be found leading a trio with drummer Andreas Skår Winther and bassist Bjørn Marius Hegge, the pianist had been encouraged to make a solo piano album nearly two years before recording the two locked-down sessions in June and September of last year that yielded Piano.
The eleven pieces here were each performed on the 1919 Bösendorfer grand piano located at Halden’s Athletic Sound studio. Mulelid talks about the instrument’s imperfect sound being a direct contributor to the tone of the album, but unless you are a pianist of his calibre, it’s hard to detect. Instead, what you hear are pieces like the fragile, introspective ‘Le Petit’ or the pretty ‘Skjong’ that straddle the gulf between classical music and jazz.
The majority of the album was recorded during a heatwave. Strange, then, that in these pieces I can hear rain. Specifically, I find myself imagining being sat in an empty café – probably in Paris; when my heart aches I usually find myself transported to the Paris of my mind – staring out onto puddles forming in the road. Perhaps it’s because I hear a sort of muted, haunting lightness of touch in Mulelid’s playing, or maybe it’s just the frame of mind I’ve found myself in every time I’ve put this album on. There is undoubtedly euphoria and beauty here in the languid note formations of a piece like the tender ‘For You I’ll Do Anything’ or closing track ‘The Sun’, but I also hear a sadness, a contemplative dimension that feels oddly anguished.
Lockdown may have limited Mulelid’s options to get his band together, but in Piano he has produced a striking, transcendent album that I expect to return to endlessly.
As innovative as it is, modern classical music has settled into something of a comfortable pattern, with a relatively predictable interplay between acoustic instruments and electronics. What once felt like progressive, modernistic flourishes now feel familiar; there’s nothing wrong with this, per se, but with a few notable exceptions, it’s often easy to form an impression of what a modern classical album will sound like before you’ve even put it on.
One of those exceptions is Norwegian composer and ensemble leader Christian Wallumrød. After a series of celebrated albums for the venerable ECM label, alternative musical paths in his sibling electronic duo Brutter, and parallel time spent in the Dans Le Arbre quartet, Wallumrød released the brilliant Kurzsam And Fulger through Hubro in 2016. His is a modern classical that nudges into jazz territory without ever fully giving in to that movement’s improvisatory pedigree, creating music with an inherent fluidity that nods to traditions in its foundations, but which aggressively looks to more experimental territory for its final appearance.
Wallumrød’s new ensemble recording, Many, finds inspiration in the musique concrète innovations made by Pierre Schaeffer at the Groupe de Recherche Musicales in 1950s Paris or the early deployment of tape technology by John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. What you won’t find here, however, are moments of forcibly-processed sound or intrusive technological gestures. This is an album which – at times – is heavily electronic without using heavy electronics, its reverential concession to musique concrète being some of its confounding, nonconformist rhythmic basis. A piece like ‘Danszaal’ with its chiming trumpet and saxophone passages from Eivind Lønning and Espen Reinertsen respectively progresses with a dizzying, stop-start judderiness that nevertheless carries subtle, microtonally shifting beauty. A similar effect is achieved on ‘Staccotta’, led by Wallumrød’s unswerving piano stabs and plucked cello, blasts of brass and a breakdown into pure electronics giving this a playful, elusive, ever-changing quality.
Elsewhere, that use of electronics is more prominent, and each of Wallumrød’s ensemble – himself, Lønning, Reinertsen, cellist Tove Törngren Brun and drummer / percussionist Per Oddvar Johansen – is credited with the use of electronics alongside their usual instrument. Opening track ‘Oh Gorge’ weaves sprinkles of bleeping, synths around Brun’s mesmeric cello cycles, the whole thing pushed through a heavy echo that gives any of the additional elements – Johansen’s vibraphone, Wallumrød’s upper register piano playing – a sense of spinning out from a turbulent vortex. ‘Abysm’ is perhaps the moment where the electronics take over, the whole piece dominated in the foreground by droning synth textures, effects, loops and a general feeling of wild experimentation, its discordant tendencies operating at odds with a prevailing sense of calm.
The key piece here, perhaps, is the fourteen-minute ‘El Johnton’, a series of three movements that begins with a strident piano, saxophone and brushed snare passage that sounds like the coda to a Billy Joel song, before evolving into something firmer and yet more free. The following section develops as a thrilling minimalist, electroacoustic sound field of electronic pulses, bursts of synthetic tones and arrays of metallic non-rhythms, offset with unpredictable acoustic interventions, almost as the extremest counterpoint to the opening passage; brief passages of that starting point’s piano section drift in and out like melodic memories, suggesting and forcing a connection between the two with the most unlikely sonic construction. By the time the original section is reprised, it feels altered somehow, less straight, its traditional structure sounding suddenly alien after being mauled, manipulated and brutally erased in the ten intervening minutes.
Many by the Christian Wallumrød Ensemble was released February 28 2020 by Hubro.
The follow-up to last year’s Christmas album Still! Still! Still! and the reissue of 2018’s Dancing Wittgenstein, Beethoven’s Breakdown exemplifies what composer / arranger Leonhard Kuhn and bandleader Roman Sladek’s Jazzrausch Bigband do best: namely, creating large-scale sonic landscapes occupying the nexus of jazz, classical music and house music.
If that still seems unlikely, one cursory listen to the group’s arrangement of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ sonata should help dispel any sort of notion that this is some sort of novelty hybrid. Here, the piece’s familiar melodic motif is interwoven with a thudding dance beat and freeform brass solos that swing gently on the framework of the composition, never detracting, but highlight this Munich-based sixteen-piece band’s dexterity within the jazz oeuvre. The major surprise are the small, subtly evolving circular sections running throughout the piece, creating a familiar sensation for anyone used to hearing the tweaked modulations of a minimal techno track, but here providing the connective tissue between that strain of dance music, Terry Riley and Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics. It perhaps shouldn’t work, but it does.
Beethoven’s Breakdown sees Kuhn and Sladek distinctively re-interpreting three Beethoven pieces – the aforementioned ‘Moonlight’ sonata, his Symphony No. 7 and the two-part String Quartet No. 14. Each one is delivered with the flair and sensitivity that Jazzrausch Bigband have become known for, in other words being respectful of the source material, the jazz tradition and the expected formalism of house while still allowing enough room for gentle improvisation. Leonhard Kuhn’s synths are deployed carefully, never detracting from the traditional jazz instrumentation but also providing interesting detail and colour throughout.
The album also includes a four-part sonata composed by Kuhn and featuring the trombone of Nils Landgren. This piece nods firmly in the direction of Beethoven but have more of an open, less densely-packed dimension that allows greater room for soloing – Landgren’s expressive trombone, the combined pianos of Severin Krieger and Kevin André Welch and Kuhn’s blipping electronics.
The element that is perhaps least appreciated, yet omnipresent, here is Silvan Strauß’s drum technique, wherein the entire album hinges on his ability to play unwavering robotic drum machine patterns and more complex polyrhythms, often alongside Kuhn’s programmed rhythms.
Beethoven’s Breakdown by Jazzrausch Bigband is released March 27 2020 by ACT Records.
My desk at home is a mess, as Mrs S continually points out to me.
It is a place for incoming mail to accumulate, a home for broken bits of things that need to be repaired, seven-inch singles that were taken out of their alphabetised boxes and which never quite found their way back, research materials for projects I may or may not ever finish, an in-tray containing goodness-knows-what and somewhere, somewhere, somewhere, a miniature Zen garden; I imagine that if the bird statue could come to life it would be shaking its head in dismay at the very un-Zen chaos that surrounds it.
On the left hand side of the desk is a pile of CD promos graciously sent to me over the course of the year which never quite got reviewed. This troubles me endlessly. And so, in an effort to repay that generosity and goodwill, and so I can show Mrs S that I’ve cleared at least some of the detritus off my desk, here’s a clutch of short reviews of some of the albums I never quite got around to in 2019.
“A good many back payments are included,” said Ebenezer Scrooge as he whispered his donation to the same charity collectors he had dismissed several pages before in A Christmas Carol, and so this is for all the labels and PRs and artists who graciously shared their music with me this year but which I then seemed to uncharitably ignore.
I’ll keep the desk – both physical and digital – clearer in 2020; I promise.
Jazzrausch Bigband – Dancing Wittgenstein (ACT)
In which the Roman Sladek and Leonhard Kuhn-led forty-piece big band’s 2018 self-released album gets a shiny reissue by the ACT imprint. The album found the band showcasing their distinctive flavour of acoustic jazz augmented by techno beats and authentic synth flourishes, with lyrics derived directly from the work of Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. It’s bonkers, but it works – honest.
The album’s finest moments arrive on the eponymous opening ten-minute piece – replete with cycles of Terry Riley motifs – and the hypnotic house pianos of ‘Continuous Dirichlet’, the latter forcing headache-inducing Googling of incomprehensible statistical theory.
Lumen Drones – Umbra (Hubro)
Umbra is the second album from Norway’s Lumen Drones, a trio of esteemed fiddle maestro Nils Økland, guitarist Per Steinar Lie, and drummer Ørjan Haaland. Lie and Haaland’s day jobs in the post-rockers The Low Frequency In Stereo provides the weighty folk-blues bedrock of the standout ‘Droneslag’, whereupon Økland’s Hardanger fiddle provides a noisy, discordant tension.
In complete contrast, the trio’s seamless interplay on ‘Etnir’ produces the album’s most serene and dreamlike piece, full of beguiling wonder and ethereal, mystical texture. Umbra was released on the inestimable Hubro label, the first of three releases in this list that I failed to review this year.
Elephant9 – Psychedelic Backfire I & II (Rune Grammofon)
Norway jazz-rock supergroup Elephant9’s double live collection was recorded at Oslo’s Kampen Bistro in January 2019 and finds the trio of Ståle Storløkken (Hammond, Rhodes, Minimoog, Mellotron), Nicolai Hængsle (bass) and Torstein Lofthus (drums) ripping through white-hot takes of tracks from their five studio albums.
The first set features energetic re-treads of their debut album’s title track ‘Dodovoodoo’, which here seems to traverse the paper-thin frontier between Can at their most freeform Chick Corea’s Return To Forever at their most lysergic. Two versions of the evolving groove of ‘Habanera Rocket’ – one on the first set as a trio performance and one on the second augmented by Reine Fiske’s additional guitar – riff on the track’s central rhythmic shuffle, the latter featuring Fiske’s guitar prowling feistily around Storløkken’s dexterous keyboard work in a truly breathtaking duel.
Afenginn – Klingra (Tutl Records)
The work of Danish composer Kim Rafael Nyberg, Afenginn offers a distinctive take on modern classical composition that draws parallels with the work of Yann Tiersen. Tiersen’s vocal collaborator Ólavur Jákupsson can be heard across the eight pieces included here, as can The Danish String Quartet, percussionist Knut Finsrud, bassist Mikael Blak, drummer Ulrik Brohuus, the twin pianos of Teitur and Dánjal á Neystab and the mournful violin of Niels Skovmand.
To call this body of work haunting would be an understatement, with the gentle melodic washes, electronic textures and layered jazz percussion of ‘Ivin’ and the growling analogue synth-heavy coda on the towering ‘Skapanin’ having a particular resonance.
Jo Berger Myhre / Ólafur Björn Ólafsson – Lanzarote (Hubro)
Lanzarote is the second outing on Hubro for Norwegian bassist Jo Merger Myhre and keyboard / percussion guru and Jóhann Jóhannsson collaborator Ólafur Björn Ólafsson, and follows 2017’s The Third Script.
Their new album finds their simpatico approach to texture and sound augmented by resonant brass contributions from Ingi Garðar Garðarsson and Eiríkur Orri Ólafsson. The slow-build and ultimately noisy layered crescendo of ‘Atomised – All We’ve Got’, features buzzing electronics, urgent drumming and anguished horns, the whole thing sounding a lot like the end of days before collapsing into a passage of muted reflection. The tuned drums of the quiet ‘Current’ evokes comparisons with Manu Delago, its percussive core offset by Myhre’s searing double bass melodies and gentle spirals of delicate, inchoate Moog.
Armin Lorenz Gerold – Scaffold Eyes (The Wormhole)
Armin Lorenz Gerold is a an Austrian multimedia artist who also performs under the name wirefoxterrier. Currently based in Berlin, Gerold’s primary focus of late has been on altering perceptions of the radio play, with Scaffold Eyes taking the form of a live performance for Gerold’s voice augmented by pre-recorded sounds delivered through a binaural speaker installation.
Originally performed at Berlin’s KW Institute in November 2017, the CD release on The Wormhole presents Gerold’s rich narrative as a noir soundworld, featuring occasional forays into café jazz, harpsichord classicism and delicate sections of pianissimo texture. Gerold’s soft diaristic delivery is accompanied by additional segments performed by Doireann O’Malley and Miriam Stoney, each word imbued with a strange, haunting resonance, even when describing quotidian events and observations. The effect is not dissimilar to the strange, unresolved ambience of Patrick Modiano’s Missing Person, and it’s hard not to imagine Gerold’s work resplendent in murky monochrome, lit by the diffuseness of ineffective street lighting.
Frode Haltli – Border Woods (Hubro)
Frode Haltli is an accordionist and no stranger to the Hubro imprint. For Border Woods, he is joined by the esoteric percussion of Håkon Stene and Eirik Raude, and his distinctive accordion playing is interwoven with Emilia Amper’s nyckelharpa (a Swedish keyed fiddle).
On tracks like the concluding ‘Quietly The Language Dies’, the quartet’s unified sound centres on a seamless interplay between the accordion and nyckelharp, veering from stirring (if mournful) melodic alignment to powerfully discordant drones. Beneath them, Stene and Raude’s percussion is ephemeral and textural, a gentle foundation of tuned drums providing an unexpected counterweight. At the other extreme, the fifteen minute ‘Mostamägg Polska’ channels a particularly vivid flavour of traditional Nordic folk music, interspersed with moments of beatific ambience.
With thanks (and apologies) to Ian, Jim and Philip.
The second album from Brighton-based multi-instrumentalist Marcus Hamblett is a significant departure from his debut LP, 2015’s Concrete. Featuring six tracks of diverse styles ranging from jazzy balladry through to scratchy electronica, Detritus hangs together through Hamblett’s dexterous ability to assimilate himself into often incompatible genre reference points, ably switching between guitar, synth, cornet and vibes across the course of the album.
Hamblett is joined by a cast of similarly-minded sonic adventurers, including LNZNDRF’S Ben Lanz, synth maverick James Holden and saxophonist Etienne Jaumet, a fellow member with Hamblett in Holden’s Animal Spirits and one half of French electronic duo Zombie Zombie. These extra musicians add counterpoints to Hamblett’s own, many-layered vision for Detritus, the result being far from the trashy leftovers implied by the album’s title.
The central piece of the album is ‘Ghost Socks’, which features Hamblett sparring seamlessly with Colin Stetson’s clarinet and saxophone. Running at over eleven minutes, ‘Ghost Socks’ has a journeying, restless quality, effortlessly flicking between passages of languid jazz guitar, rigid electronic sections, noise rock and a concluding moment built out from stacked circular loops of Stetson’s playing that owes a debt to the effervescent cycles of Terry Riley’s In C. To cram this many ideas into one track is, on paper, a recipe for a dizzying, capricious sprawl, yet it feels entirely logical in Hamblett’s hands.
After a segue into Latin guitar on the reflective two-part ‘The Warren’, the second half of which features some beautiful, if mournful, strings, we find ourselves in the fizzing electronics of ‘Gardner’s Basement’. Aside from some horn sections from Mathieu Charbonneau and Ben Lanz, ‘Gardner’s Basement’ is mostly Hamblett at the synthesizer, offering a towering, cinematic piece loaded with rich detail and evolving melodic passages edged with a noir sensibility, twinned with rhythms and beats which seem randomised to the point of chaos.
The album concludes with ‘Vibraphone Piece’, for all intents and purposes an Animal Spirits track given the involvement of Holden and Jaumet, alongside flutes and strings. On this piece we are transported to a distant exoticism thanks to Hamblett’s contemplative vibraphone playing and its elegant string accompaniment, only for the mood to become suddenly unpredictable: echoing sprinkles of electronics appear out of nowhere, rasping horns that are both reflective yet curiously abrasive drift gently to the surface, and a sense of discordancy emerges as a metallic rhythm begins to underpin the whole assembly. At some point along this track’s path you realise you are no longer in a romanticised eulogy to mai tais, sunsets and palm trees but a dangerous, edgy, noisy, brilliant, harrowing vision of what it feels like to be alive right now.
Detritus by Marcus Hamblett was released on November 15 2019 by Willkommen Records.
Clarinettist Doug Wieselman is one of those adaptable players that can alternate between New York’s music scenes effortlessly, straddling involvement with artsy bandleaders like Laurie Anderson and Yoko Ono, the left-of-mainstream pop of Martha Wainwright or the freedom of the city’s jazz firmament. From Water is a solo album consisting of several Doug Wieselmans in the form of a many-layered suite of eleven pieces whose melodies were inspired by water, beaches, rivers and hot springs.
Each piece here is led by a fluid, evocative melody operating somewhere on a continuum stretching between classical minimalism, delicate ambience and the most lyrical phrasings of jazz. Those melodies have a lightness of touch yet also a largesse and grandeur befitting of pieces often inspired by the vastness of oceans. It would have been all too easy for Wieselman to leave From Water precisely there, and it would have been compelling enough as an album were he to have done that. Instead, his approach was to add loops, layers, discordancy, drones, and, on ‘Tennessee Valley’, a whole-instrument technique involving vocalising rhythmic sounds through the reed. He also adopted a technique of playing predominantly deployed in Turkish folk music, giving pieces like ‘Gloria Fleur Madre’ an exotic mystique, like detritus arriving on the shores of the Hudson from the cargo of a sunken vessel running the historic trade routes of the Middle East.
The trippy phased effects on the standout ‘Moonhaw’ lend that piece a volatility and turbulence, reminiscent of standing on a beach during a storm, while the plaintive, relatively unadorned ruminations of ‘Salmon’ contain a gentle, laconic playfulness that ultimately concludes with rippling passages of echoing upper register note clusters.
One of the most haunting moments here is a stunning, muted version of John Lennon’s ‘Julia’, its instantly-recognisable lyricism offset by the subtlest of background processing to create a moment of calm, yet pensive, tranquility.
From Water by Doug Wieselman is released October 25 2019 by Figureight Records.
Utopia is the fourth album by Copenhagen duo Jonathan Bremer (bass) and Morten McCoy (keyboards and tape delay). Their music nods firmly in the direction of mellow jazz and vintage bossa nova while also hinting at classical formalism, the result being sublimely meditative and hauntingly evocative instrumental music, overflowing with ideas despite the pared-back line-up and restrained instrumentation.
The pieces on their new album carry melodies which could haunt you forever, from opener ‘Åben Bog’s Satie-esque refrains through to the tranquil gestures of ‘Vega’. Oftentimes Morten McCoy’s melodies are resplendent enough to carry these tracks, Jonathan Bremer’s subtle bass accompaniment content to wriggle gently underneath; at other times it’s the weaving of other reference points around their playing that carries the track forward. ‘Tusmørke’ is a case in point, wherein McCoy’s keyboards drift off into an echoing distance while strings evoking that most untranslatable of Brazilian concepts, that of saudade, mournfully dominate the middle section.
The album was recorded during Bremer’s divorce, and it’s hard not to hear a saddened, regretful tone in the playing on the likes of the lyrical ‘Salme’. His bass here is reduced to minimalist forward motion, while, in what feels like a sort of empathetic gesture toward his partner, McCoy offers some brilliantly-layered passages for piano and organ that have a dreamy, wistful air about them. ‘Dråber’ is perhaps the most ‘full’ track here, with the interaction between McCoy’s organ and piano and an urgency to Bremer’s bass carrying a tightness and insistence, while a pretty sequence containing something like Mellotron flutes after a patch of atmospheric nothingness provides a strangely affecting left-turn at the very end.
Meanwhile, the strident, emboldened notation of concluding track ‘Determination’ suggests a firmness, a new resolve of sorts, the interplay between electronic strings, piano and bass being a small wonder to behold.
It would be easy to let these pieces drift quietly toward the background of your existence, but to allow them to become like sonic wallpaper would be to do this duo an incredible disservice; these pieces demand and deserve your attention, leaving you ever so slightly altered in exchange.
Utopia by Bremer / McCoy is released by Luaka Bop on October 18.
“The synthesizer has changed everything whether purist musicians like it or not,” wrote Miles Davis in his 1990 autobiography. “It’s here to stay and you can either be in it or out of it. I choose to be in it because the world has always been about change. People who don’t change will find themselves like folk musicians, playing in museums and local as a motherfucker.”
Throughout his fifty-odd year career, trumpeter and jazz pioneer Davis was forever searching, always looking for new ways to develop the vernacular of jazz. Whether with the smooth, tender balladry that coloured Birth Of The Cool or the adventurous fusion with rock music on Bitches Brew, Miles’s sharp ear, his ability to improvise freely around any combination of musicians and a singular musical vision marked him out as a formidable bandleader.
In 1975, a year after the incendiary Dark Magus was recorded in front of a slack-jawed Carnegie Hall audience, Davis was strung out. In pain from recurrent hip issues, Miles was addicted to cocaine and spending most of his days locked in his Manhattan brownstone; he never picked up his trumpet, and aside from a slew of compiled archive recordings that inevitably emerged during his withdrawal from the world, Davis was exhibiting all the signs of creative burn-out. While languishing in a drugged-up state at a precarious rock bottom, the gentle insistence of his doting nephew, Vincent Wilburn Jr. – an accomplished drummer – nudged Miles out of retirement in 1979.
“I would tell him, ‘Uncle Miles, you sound great!’ and when I told him he didn’t sound great he would say, ‘Fuck you, nephew!’” recalls Wilburn Jr. with a laugh. “I would always encourage him. I’d say, ‘Unc, I love you – people love you.’ I was starstruck around my uncle from the time I was a kid, right from when I was four or five years old. He was always like a superhero to me. He was missed, you know, and so when he was completely ready, he came back. He quoted it in his book as like ‘learning to ride a bike again’.”
Davis emerged into a music scene that was markedly changed, and one where he could have struggled to fit in if it wasn’t for his unerring ability to rapidly assimilate what was going on, and find a way to stay relevant. He scoured the scene for new talent, alighting upon saxophonist Bill Evans, bassists Marcus Miller and Darryl Jones and guitarist John Scofield, and he repaid the debt to his nephew by bringing him into his group. His initial 1980s recordings were focussed squarely on a heady mix of funk and rock, but by 1985’s You’re Under Arrest, Davis’s group was dominated by a period electronic sheen.
Ostensibly a political album, You’re Under Arrest found the trumpeter tackling pop standards like Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’ and Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’. With the benefit of hindsight, You’re Under Arrest was an album perfectly suited to the 80s zeitgeist, but one which did more than most jazz records of the time to enforce a flimsy, ersatz, elevator music naffness. With each album of the early 80s, Miles’s playing once again became stronger and more fluid, fending off critics who suggested he was a long way past his creative nadir.
After thirty years at Columbia, Davis signed to Warner Bros. in 1985 and was itching to take his music forward. He was handed a generous deal from label VP Tommy LiPuma that supposedly allowed him the freedom to go wherever he wanted, working with whomever he chose. In his head was a raw, funky, modern and irrepressible synth-heavy LP. His chosen producer was Randy Hall, who had co-written his 1981 hit ‘The Man With The Horn’, and who was then working on his second solo album with the likes of Wilburn Jr, a friend since kindergarten.
“I found out officially that I was going be the producer of this new record at his New Year’s Day dinner at his place in Malibu,” remembers Hall. “There were some celebrities there – people like Sammy Davis Jr. and Bill Cosby. We were eating dinner and Miles stood up, tapped his glass to make an announcement, and he said, ‘I want to introduce you to the producer of my new album – Randy Hall.’ I was like, ‘Woah,’ I mean, I thought we was just going to work on a song together, but he said I was gonna be the producer on a new album, and I was like, ‘Man, that’s fantastic!’ ‘The Man With The Horn’ was the first time that Miles had a song that got played on black radio stations in the US. I remember when the record went number one on the Billboard Jazz chart he had called me to thank me, and so I guessed he wanted to get back on black radio again.”
In 1985, Hall was ensconced at Ray Parker Jr.’s Ameraycan Studios in North Hollywood with a young guitarist and producer, Zane Giles, with whom Hall started working on the new Miles project. From the outset it was clear to the pair that Davis wanted to do something different. “He specifically said ‘I don’t want to do no jazz – I’m sick of that,’” recalls Giles. Prince was a huge influence on Davis at that time, and often he could be found talking through a slew of ideas with Paisley Park HQ on the phone during the sessions. “Uncle Miles was also really into Tears For Fears and Missing Persons,” remembers Wilburn Jr. “He really loved Scritti Politti. We used to do ‘Perfect Way’ on stage when I was in his band. He dug Mr. Mister. We also used to do a song of theirs called ‘Broken Wings’ – we recorded it but we just never released it.”
There was also the small matter of ‘Rockit’, the phenomenally successful crossover 7-inch by Miles’s old keyboard player Herbie Hancock, released two years before the team entered Ameraycan. Whether it was intentional or not, Hall and Giles set about recording a track – ‘Rubberband’ – that would offer a blistering riposte to ‘Rockit’. “We put together a kind of groove that was something like what we thought Prince would do,” says Hall. “We were taking a really raw approach – it was just raw and funky and hard. Miles wanted one of those instrumentals that had handclaps on it, with people in the background going ‘Let’s party with Miles!’ He wanted you to put it on and then everybody would dance – a party record. That’s basically what ‘Rubberband’ is. I don’t think we ever put the handclaps on. We hadn’t got to that point because we didn’t get to finish any of the songs we worked on with him.”
“He was so excited when we came up with the groove for ‘Rubberband’,” recalls Zane Giles. “Man, it was amazing. I didn’t know much about him other than the fact that my dad, who was also a musician, loved Miles, and I used to see his records at the house. All of a sudden here I am, working, talking with this guy on the phone, and every time we’d have an idea, we would call him and he would green light it, then we’d go into the studio.”
Giles threw as much electronic kit as he could at the ‘Rubberband’ track to realise Miles’s vision. “I used a Linn sequencer, two Akai MD280s, a Mini-Moog and a DMX drum machine,” he remembers. “Randy and I came up with the groove, and then I played it for Miles over the phone. That was embarrassing – I rubbed my foot on the carpet and it created a shock which caused the sequencer to lock up. He’s like, ‘What’s goin’ on?’. And I’m like, ‘I’m sorry, give me another two hours so I can reprogram this thing.’” Most of the electronic equipment used in the Rubberband sessions came from Goodman Music, just a few blocks down from Ameraycan. Goodman’s Adam Holzman, who had worked on Randy Hall’s solo LP, supplied most of the kit, winding up working on the sessions as a programmer.
With the basic groove laid down, and with the addition of guitars by Hall, Giles and Mike Stern and percussion by Wilburn Jr. it fell to Miles to deliver an especially lyrical trumpet line; on the track his playing is effortlessly simple, funky and uncluttered. During the track you also hear some wild synth stabs, all played by Davis on a PPG Wave that Adam Holzman had suggested for the sessions. “He really liked the sound of that keyboard,” says Hall. “The parts he played were supposed to be horns. He was hearing the music as if it was one of those New Orleans bands from way back. He didn’t sit up and figure this stuff out – he played that stuff on the fly. In between he’d whisper ‘rubberband, rubberband, rubberband’, like the chants that those marching bands used, so I sampled that and used it on the track. I knew he was a genius, but you got to remember that he also had the horn in one hand while he was doing that stuff. He played it one time, all the way through, no practice, no nothing.”
“I remember one time he laid his arms on the keys and we all stopped playing, because we thought we’d messed up,” adds Giles. “He was like, ‘What did you stop for?’ He literally just wanted to play all the black keys at once, so he put both arms on the keyboard.”
Miles had a reputation for being a tough taskmaster in the studio, but Randy Hall and Zane Giles didn’t experience that during the Rubberband sessions. “It was hilarious,” laughs Giles. “He’d pull up in his Ferrari while we were setting up, and say, ‘How much is this necklace I’m wearing?’ I was like, ‘Well that necklace looks like you got it from K-Mart,’ and then he’d hit me in the side because he loved to box. He would come into the studio and the next thing I know he’s hitting me in the shoulder or he’s got his guards up and he’d be shadow boxing. That’s just the kind of guy he was. He was real strong back then.”
As incongruous as this might sound for a player with an angry streak, the pair put it down to how much fun he was having. “He was on fire in those sessions. Sometimes we would go to the studio and Miles would be there before us,” says Hall. “That was a good thing – that let me know he was really into it. He would call me at night and say tell me what he liked about what we’d recorded, what he didn’t like, what he wanted to change.”
The studio set-up was really inspiring to Miles, recalls Hall, “He really loved Ameraycan. We had a great engineer, Reggie Dozier, the brother of Lamont Dozier from Motown. We’d play all day, then we’d send out and we’d get chicken, pizza and all that kind of stuff. Miles used to eat Goldfish Crackers all the time. He would bring those in, with some candy, every single day. Miles was so excited about this music that he was going out on tour at the same time as we were working on the album, and he started playing this music at shows immediately.”
“He really liked the direction that we were going in,” adds Giles. “I’m telling you, man – Miles was really blowing during those sessions. That dude was lightin’ it up because he was enjoying playing so much. He said to Randy and me, ‘I wanna play it on the funk,’ and that’s exactly what he did.”
Aside from ‘Rubberband’ which emerged on a rarities collection, the recordings from those sessions languished, unreleased, in the Warner Bros. archives until now. Instead, what emerged as his first Warners album was the atmospheric, synth-dominated but only occasionally funky Tutu. The blame for that lay with the individual who had brought him to the label in the first place, Tommy LiPuma.
“When Tommy signed Miles, he had a certain dream about what he wanted to do with him as an artist,” shrugs Hall. “He wanted to cut a Tommy LiPuma-influenced Miles Davis record, which was Tutu. This wasn’t that record. This was like a Miles Davis On The Corner record. There was a lot of energy in the music we were making. I remember, while we were cutting the songs and Miles was getting excited, I got a phonecall from Miles saying that Tommy didn’t like the music. That’s all there is to it. Miles isn’t an apologetic type, but I could tell that it kinda crushed him too.”
“We got caught up in politics,” sighs Zane Giles. “Tommy had signed Miles to Warner Bros. and he was determined to produce him himself. Tommy made the move and snatched everything away from us, and then Adam Holzman and Steve Reid went along too. Warner Bros. pulled on his coat and said, ‘Hey, this is what we wanna do,’ and Miles just had to go along with it. He fought it for a minute, because we ended up doing ten songs with Miles, but these were songs that we never really got a chance to finish back then.”
We’re now able to hear what has rightly been dubbed Miles’s ‘lost album’ thanks to the meticulous studio work of Randy Hall and Zane Giles and the support of Vincent Wilburn Jr. and the rest of Davis’s family.
Restoring the entire suite of ten ideas created for the Rubberband sessions involved revisiting studio tapes not touched for over thirty years and piecing together the jams. In some cases, the producers abandoned attempts to restore the period vibes and instead updated them, adding contemporary flourishes and soulful vocals from the likes of Ledisi and Lalah Hathaway. If it seems vaguely disrespectful to reinterpret hitherto unheard, important material that some might view as sacrosanct, recall that Davis didn’t want to make a typical jazz record with Rubberband, and one suspects his forward-thinking self might have appreciated the repositioning of his horn playing in these new settings.
When the temptation to give the tracks a complete do-over is suppressed and the original arrangements are presented, what emerges most prominently, on tracks like the irrepressibly joyous ‘Give It Up’ or the heavy synth-bass and guitar-led ‘This Is It’, is a strength and conviction of playing that reinforces how fully immersed in the sessions Miles was, and also how much confidence his playing had once again gained. You can hear the influence of the likes of Scritti Politti on his playing, the fizzing effervescence of these pieces being infused with an essence of bold, brash 80s pop arrangements that never once leave Miles sounding like he doesn’t completely belong there. Yet despite the forward-looking presentation across Rubberband, ‘Maze’s melodic trumpet lines recall some of his earliest tracks as a leader, despite being augmented by period slap bass and the kind of clean, wandering guitar riffing that his own experiments with fusion in the 70s had anticipated. It is the embodiment of Davis biographer Ian Carr’s assertion that “Miles often looked back – but he always moved forwards.” These sessions, the previously lost bridge between the lacklustre You’re Under Arrest and the richly textured strokes of Tutu, find Miles doing that over and over again.
Perhaps one of the finest moments here is ‘The Wrinkle’, a chunky funk cut dominated by wah-wah guitar, little circular recurring synth melodies and memorable trumpet lines from Miles delivered with a breezy, carefree flourish over a crisp programmed beat. We also find Davis in tender mood, riffing elegantly and romantically on the sultry ‘See I See’, an unexpected but necessary moment of reflection when heard alongside the more urgent cuts on the LP.
It is, however, the original ‘Rubberband’, placed right at the end of the album, that remains the most essential moment here. It is possible to hear a certain initial tentativeness in Davis’s playing on this track, a sense of him feeling his way before approaching the recording with a vitality and vigour, by the time of his one-handed PPG Wave solos sounding like he’s utterly absorbed in the sound proposed by Randy Hall and Zane Giles. In contrast, the other tracks on the album – despite showing that Davis was back up to full strength – seem to suffer a little from Miles having settled comfortably into a new skin, whereas ‘Rubberband’ captures that precise moment of discovery, the moment where it all clicks into place and he storms forward in a brave new direction that was ultimately to be thwarted by the whims and egos of big label capriciousness.
Despite the disappointment that these thrilling sessions were buried for the best part of forty years, Zane Giles remains sanguine about the experience. “It was like working with Beethoven or Yoda, man – like working with someone who had the mastery over the Force,” he reflects. “He’d tell me, ‘Zane, there’s no such thing as wrong music.’ Quincy Jones used to say the same thing to me – he ‘Zane, you can never conquer music as long as you live. It’s something you’ll always be chasing – it’s limitless.’
“When you work with individuals like that, it really does help make you humble,” he concludes. “You got a guy – Miles Davis – who you can read about for the next hundred years, who loved the first song I ever worked on with him. For me that’s a compliment in itself.”
Rubberband by Miles Davis is released on September 6 2019 by Rhino / Warner Records.
The original version of this feature first appeared in issue 42 of Electronic Sound and is used with the kind permission of the publishers. Buy Electronic Sound at electronicsound.co.uk. Sincere thanks to Neil Mason and a lifelong debt to Steve Smith.
Bassists Bill Laswell and Jah Wobble both emerged from two vibrant post-punk scenes, Laswell in New York with Material and Wobble in London with Public Image Ltd. Both have spent the last forty odd years as deft collaborators, their playing threading effortlessly through everything from jazz to dub to electronica, while Laswell’s production nous has seen him involved in so many sessions that it’s generally hard to keep up with his discography.
Realm Of Spells is the pair’s first jointly-credited album since 2001’s Radioaxiom, a record that found Wobble sitting in alongside many players familiar from other Bill Laswell projects. Their new record evens things out slightly, with the whole project largely initiated by Wobble’s long-standing unit The Invaders Of The Heart (Marc Layton-Bennett, George King and Martin Chung), who provide the backbone of the nine tracks included here. Alongside The Invaders and the idiosyncratic bass approaches of Laswell and Wobble, the group were augmented by drummer / percussionist Hideo Yamaki and multi-instrumentalist Peter Apfelbaum, here playing sax on a number of stand-out pieces.
Though tracks like the serene, constantly-shifting electronically-enhanced dub of ‘Uncoiling’ link back to the sound of Radioaxiom, Realm Of Spells was directly influenced by Laswell and Wobble’s shared love of Miles Davis’s unparalleled electric period in the first half of the Seventies. You can hear that freedom of expression and borderless, flexible quality on tracks like ‘The Perfect Beat’ and the album’s nine-minute title track, melting pots of jazz, rock, electronics and funk with an unswerving, tight rhythm sections and cavernous basslines. ‘Dark Luminosity’ operates in similar territory, a snare-dominated groove and nagging low-end attacked by everything from delicate keyboard motifs to guitar lines that flip-flop between jazzy licks and prowling, angsty hooks, while the curt organ-led grooves of ‘At The Point Of Hustle’ sounds like Money Mark jamming with The Wailers.
Realm Of Spells by Bill Laswell and Jah Wobble is released on August 2 2019 by Jah Wobble Records. My interview with Laswell and Wobble will appear in the next issue of Electronic Sound.