Miles Davis – Tutu (1986)

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by S. Victor Aaron

Recently I revisited an album that wore our my cassette player during late ’86-early ’87: Tutu by Miles Davis.

It typically takes a long time to get the right perspective on a Miles record, he was often took a direction in music before his listeners were ready to follow him down the path he was taking. Tutu, however, wasn’t a watershed recording for its innovation; rather, it marks Miles’ first record by a new label in thirty years and the beginning of his final fully-realized phase, his collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Marcus Miller.

After more than a quarter century of a historically successful relationship between a musician and a record company, Columbia had grown tired in declining interest of the jazz icon, whose brand of fusion wasn’t catching on with the younger crowd. Meanwhile, the older fans’ interest quickly subsided after the surprise ’81 comeback.

Deciding that another Bitches Brew wasn’t forthcoming, Columbia ditched Davis in 1985 when the star-studded You’re Under Arrest was greeted with a yawn. Warner Brothers jumped on the rare opening and signed up Miles shortly afterwards. Leaving nothing to chance, Warners assigned their ace jazz producer Tommy LiPuma to shepherd the making of new album. Since Miles’ manager unwisely signed away future songwriting royalties to Warners, Miles refused to compose any music under his new contract, and LiPuma casted about for someone other than Miles who could write “Miles Davis” songs.

He soon chose a bass player in Miles’ early eighties band, Miller. Miller, who could also play guitar, keyboards, and a pretty good bass clarinet, had also written compositions for David Sanborn and a couple of his own albums. All this, combined with his previous familiarity with Davis made him a most logical choice.

Song contributions were also solicited from George Duke and Prince (whose composition didn’t make the final cut for incompatibility reasons). Miller undertook the bulk of the instrumentation, including the obligatory sax foil to Miles, a position once held by greats like John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter.

Most of the tracks sound much like funk-pop with dark chords and splashes of dissonance to give it the feel of Miles, without it being anything remotely like a classic Miles tune underneath the surface. This isn’t to say the songs were bad, though. The lead off title tune is a slow-tempo strut that evokes the cockiness that is part and parcel of the leader’s personality. “Portia” is another in a string one of Miller’s strong ballads. “Splatch” and “Full Nelson” are funk excursions that could as easily worked without Davis.

“Perfect Way” is a curious cover of the Scritti Politti hit from a year earlier with a evil-sounding alternate bridge pasted on top of it. “Don’t Lose Your Mind” features an unhinged violin solo by Michel Urbaniak, a rare instance of risk-taking on this collection. The Duke contribution “Backyard Ritual” actually fits Miles than most of Miller’s songs. But perhaps that best tune for this Miles Davis album was the one that was co-written by Miles himself, “Tomaas”.

With a reggae beat married to repetitive single note underpiined by some very nifty bass work by Miller, Miles and Miller (also on soprano sax) trade fours and eights in a rare opportunity for Miles to stretch out. Overall, though, the trumpet playing is subdued, probably more constrained by production than declining abilities. Rarely does the mute come off his horn.

The result of all this is an album that is more meticulously crafted than a typical Columbia Miles album. Improvision is virtually nonexistent. LiPuma’s cutting edge production, in the end, gave the album a sound that’s similar to You’re Under Arrest, only slicker, and with somewhat stronger songs. At the same time, it’s still painfully dated in the eighties. And those who admire the Prince of Darkness for his cutting edge style will find little to appreciate in one of the most MOR records ever put out by Miles.

On its own terms, though, it rates pretty well for a contemporary jazz record of that time.

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