The Last Miles: The Music of Miles Davis 1980-1991

British journalist George Cole, a regular contributor to Jazzwize, has undertaken the project of assessing the often overlooked period from Miles Davis’s comeback in 1980 to his death in 1991, a stage in the jazz legend’s life which has puzzled so many of his biographers. What are we to make of the music of Miles Davis’s final decade, full guitar pyrotechnics and synthesizers, with drum machines and overly slick production tricks? What in the world was Miles Davis thinking?

Many critics are dismissive of this last span of music-making, saying that Miles couldn’t go back to what he had done, but that he also didn’t know how to go forward, and so he went sideways. Others have argued that, a lifetime of creativity already accomplished, Miles chose to “bask in the sun and be the personality that he had become,” and that he simply wanted to be popular, summing up the music of his later years as nothing more than “an advanced form of instrumental pop.” All in all, the verdict on this music was quick and severe.

In his book, The Last Miles, writer Cole approaches the music and the man with vigor, directness, respect, and, most of all, an open mind. Cole gives Miles the benefit of the doubt, and his book is all the better for it.

After almost three decades of making jazz – as well as changing the direction of the music several times – by the middle of the 1970s trumpeter and bandleader Miles Davis retreated from public life and retired to his New York brownstone on West 77th Street. Distracted by drinking, drugs, and women, suffering from health problems and, no doubt, mentally burned out after so many years of being at his peak creatively, Miles Davis lived like a self-described “hermit” from the years 1976 to 1980. After several years of this, a few of his friends – most notably Cicely Tyson, who later became Davis’s third wife – managed to help Miles clean up his act, stabilize his health, and, by the spring of 1980, get him in the spirit of making music again.

Having left off his musical development with the street sounds of 1972’s On the Corner and the fusion that can be heard on the 1975 live albums Agharta and Pangaea, Miles needs an album under his belt before he can get his chops back, but by the time he releases Star People and Decoy, he has returned to some semblance of his former self with musicians like bassists Marcus Miller and Daryl Jones, guitarist John Scofield, and briefly, saxophonist Branford Marsalis. A second set of albums, largely written and produced by Marcus Miller, feature Miles in a mostly digital domain of computer-created sounds – the groundbreaking Tutu, along with Siesta and Amandla. The album Miles was working on when he died, a fusion of hip-hop and jazz, called Doo-Bop, also receives serious attention from writer Cole, who, again and again, balances praise and criticism fairly within the context of taking all this music seriously.

All in all, Cole is meticulous in his research and interviews, and readers will have more than enough information about the writing, production, and performance of all this music – often from the people who worked with Miles first hand. Cole is at his best in telling the story of how each album came together and in explaining the new directions Miles felt he was taking. Cole also provides a particularly fine chapter on the evolution of Miles Davis’s live performances over the last decade of his life.

Summing up matters, Cole suggests that it is still too early to pronounce the verdict on the music Miles final years. Whatever he was doing – either resting on his laurels, seeking a broader audience, or continuing to explore new directions – any dismissal of Miles’s work seems premature. I know, for one, that the first Miles Davis album I ever listened to was 1983’s Star People – and I have become nothing less than a fan of all his music since then.

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