Long Read: Miles Davis – Rubberband

“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.”

Miles Davis 1989 by Richard Rothman
Miles Davis by Richard Rothman (1989)

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.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Further.