The jazz legend's collaborators recall the creation of his greatest works

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Originally published in Uncut’s September 2011 issue (Take 172). Interviews: John Robinson

Playing with Miles Davis, says Jimmy Cobb, the sole surviving member of the trumpeter’s Kind Of Blue quintet, “was a position”. The 82-year old drummer’s view is one shared by all of the musicians interviewed in this survey of Miles’ pivotal albums, be they funky fusioneer or hip-hop producer. The man directed his music boldly, and it was his musicians’ assignment to keep pace while he did so – or risk exposure to Miles’ witheringly laconic sense of humour. Whatever the stylistic changes Miles put his work through, one thing remained constant. Says Jimmy Cobb: “It was the best jazz band in the world.”

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KIND OF BLUE
Columbia, 1959
Produced by Teo Macero, Irving Townshend
A wordy idea (George Russell’s theory, The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organisation) helps Miles and band create one of the most accessible and beautiful albums in popular music. Kind Of Blue placed his ideas in settings as calm and progressive as a gallery space. It contains moments of exquisite melancholia and intellectual passion, but over 50 years on, retains its core swing.

JIMMY COBB (DRUMS): Kind Of Blue was a different style: before we were playing structured tunes, show tunes… tunes with a lot of changes in them. This was the exact opposite of that – what you call “modal”, with only a few changes, and scales. Sometimes jazz is kind of complicated for, let’s say, the average person. This was easier for most people to hear. Miles came in with that idea. It was his idea, his and [pianist] Bill Evans – it sounded more to me that it was more in the way that Bill played. If you listen to it you can hear that Bill brought a lot to the sessions. We just got on with it: like Miles would say, “This is a blues”. Or he’d play another tune and say “It’s in 3/4 time. Make it sound like it’s floating…” One time I was making circles on the snare drum with brushes and the engineer said: “Miles, what the drummer’s playing sounds like surface noise.” So Miles said: “That’s part of it…”

John [Coltrane, sax] was a conscientious guy – he was steeped in what he was doing. He was working on something, and he was going to get it. Sometimes he didn’t know how long he was playing for. I recall one time Miles saying to him, “Trane – why don’t you play 27 choruses instead of 28?” Miles loved it, though, or he wouldn’t have let him do it. It was a relaxed business: I was there with all them bad guys – I’m just trying to work out how I’m gonna be around them. I was a little nervous. But not so I couldn’t play.

At that time, my favourite was the blues, “Freddie Freeloader” – the one that Wynton Kelly plays [piano] on. Miles wanted him to play that particular tune. Miles did that at times: he wanted the best person for the best song – at one time he had Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, two tenor players. When Wynton got to the date and saw Bill there, he started to be pissed off. But I told him, “You on the date too, man, don’t go nuts. “I went by Miles’ house to hear it. It sounded good then, like it sounds good now. For me, all the records Miles made sounded good. I never thought it would be this vibrant this long, but I knew it was a good record when we made it. It was the best gig in the world. It was the best jazz band in the world. For anyone to join that band felt it was a… position, you know?

SKETCHES OF SPAIN
Columbia, 1960
Produced by Teo Macero, Irving Townshend
Gil Evans, Miles’ collaborator on Porgy And Bess (1958) returns to work on material from the Spanish folk and classical tradition, suggested to Miles by his wife. The effect: stirring, modern and widescreen. Used to great effect in Mad Men Season 1, when Don Draper happens upon a beatnik scene at Midge’s place.

JIMMY COBB (DRUMS): Sketches… was a large ensemble, with Gil Evans again. Miles’ wife was a dancer, and one day she said to him, “You have to come and hear this music I’m working with.” Frances was a nice lady – she’d give him ideas about things. It was her that made it happen; the album could have been a tribute to her. So Miles picked out what he wanted, and gave it to Gil, and Gil transcribed and augmented it. Miles was the kind of person who wanted to move things on. It didn’t have to be jazz. It was music – that was what we’re after here. It was Spanish music interpreted by American people. It wasn’t supposed to be jazz. I was with Miles for five years. We were friendly, I used to go by his house, daily when he wasn’t doing anything, check him out, like maybe he would want me to do something for him – take him somewhere if he didn’t have a car. I used to take him to the gym… I’d take pictures of him shadowboxing. This was the best jazz band in the world, so if the money wasn’t right, he wouldn’t agree to it – he’d wait until there was something come along he could agree with. We did pretty good.

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BITCHES BREW
Columbia, 1970
Produced by Teo Macero
Miles convenes a large, young, electric band for this crossover success. Teo Macero writes a pivotal role for himself as Miles’ studio amanuensis, piecing together compositions from long, open-ended studio jams.

JACK DEJOHNETTE (DRUMS): Betty [Miles’ wife] got him into Hendrix and a record by Eric Mercury – Electric Black Man. He does a version of “Hurdy Gurdy Man”, it’s just a killer record. Betty opened him up. He was listening to the Isleys, Blood Sweat & Tears, Sly Stone. That period was fertile ground, with a lot of experimentation going on. Miles had sketches, melodies, basslines, and he let me come up with some grooves. Teo would record everything. As the grooves gathered steam or got to the right space, Miles would conduct another soloist – it might be a keyboard, Wayne [Shorter, sax], Dave Holland [bass]. Miles directed everything. You could compare it to the rock musicians who were spending fortunes in the studio, six months trying to find one groove. But in Miles’ case it was like a work of art being recorded, everything that was going was developed. Miles was in the studio every day taking advantage of that, and of the availability of young musicians he liked. It alienated a lot of staunch jazz fans, but it brought in a lot of other fans, particularly when we played the Isle Of Wight – that was 650,000 people, man. The music of Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson, which is what we were playing, really reached those people, and that’s what Miles wanted to do.

A TRIBUTE TO JACK JOHNSON
Columbia, 1970
Produced by Teo Macero
A jam before Miles is even present kicks off this hugely enjoyable LP that’s even more funky and Hendrixy than Bitches Brew. Edited together from different sessions by different bands, even to the puzzlement of the recording personnel (Jack DeJohnette: “Am I on that one?”).

MICHAEL HENDERSON (BASS): Betty Davis brought Miles to see me when I was working with Stevie Wonder. Miles was looking for an electric bass: he was looking to get into more fusion, more funk. I knew I had the gig, when he came by and told Stevie Wonder, “I’m taking your fucking bass player.” The next day at his house, John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham and some of the guys showed up to rehearse some songs. We thought what we were going over in his living room was going to be what we were going to record, but we didn’t do any of that the next day. We got in the studio and Teo was doing his line check, and we were waiting for Miles, and John started playing [sings guitar riff]. I jumped in. Cobham jumped in. We were going for it, then Miles shows up. Teo was recording all the time, always. The next thing, Miles is running in with his trumpet. Herbie Hancock was recording upstairs and dropped by to say hello, but Miles directed him to come out and play. Herbie had a bag of groceries. Teo and the sound guy fixed up a Farfisa – on the record you can hear a noise when they plug it in. So Herbie put down his groceries, came in and started playing. That was where “Right Off” came from.

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LIVE-EVIL
Columbia, 1971
Produced by Teo Macero
A curate’s egg – and a hard-boiled one. The proposed sequel to Bitches Brew turns into something else entirely. Short, meditative studio compositions from the Jack Johnson sessions are juxtaposed with longform electric jams from four nights at the Cellar Door, Washington DC.

JACK DEJOHNETTE: Live-Evil came about because Buddy Miles was playing with Elvin Bishop in a band called The Electric Flag and Miles wanted the kind of groove Buddy Miles had, but he wanted my technique. So I applied that kind of steady thing to Live-Evil. I’m glad they put out all three nights of it, because you can hear the development each night of the pieces. It was aggressive, but it was a searching thing: all those pieces with the exception of “Yesternow” were just one chord, so it shows what creative musicians can do with a groove and just one chord. You really have to come up with something else to make it interesting, and everyone in that band did – Airto Moreira, Gary Bartz and Michael Henderson. It’s a great tutorial in how to play on a vamp for 20 minutes and keep it interesting. Miles’ music continued like a suite live: he would cue the songs by playing the melody of the next piece and we would go into it – it was a continuous suite. The music wasn’t that difficult, but there was complexity in the feeling and the intellect, that gave it substance. Everything Miles did was groundbreaking… I was thrilled to be a part of that musical movement.

ON THE CORNER
Columbia, 1972
Produced by Teo Macero
Stockhausen, funk and civil rights are in the mix for this funky loop-based LP. The sessions also birth Get Up With It, and its half-hour long tribute to Duke Ellington, “He Loved Him Madly”, an Eno favourite.

MICHAEL HENDERSON (BASS): Miles was like a soothsayer. He could feel and interpret stuff. You know how you can’t lie to your mother, ’cos they know you? Miles looked through you, so you better come with the truth. If you were intimidated it’d make you quit – or it’d make you jump in and swim as fast as you could. He wanted to get funkier, and bring in the Eastern vibe. I met Paul Buckmaster [cello/arranger] at Miles’ house. You’re pretty quiet at Miles’ house, ’cos he doesn’t speak above a whisper. Paul seemed like a nice guy, he had some charts and things for us. A brilliant guy. Miles recognised that and they hit it off. And when we got to the studio we threw the ideas out. It was a fun session – I felt we were doing something great. You walk in, there’s a sitar player, two guitar players, a Conga player, a tabla player… The On The Corner band – those guys are still in the music, ’cos people sample them all the time. On The Corner is almost the first hip hop record, in the sense that they did a lot of looping. That was Teo Macero’s technique.

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THE MAN WITH THE HORN
Columbia, 1981
Produced by Teo Macero
Debilitated after two car accidents, in 1975 Miles retires for the rest of the decade. When he re-emerges, continuity remains in the shape of Al Foster (drums) and Miles’ commitment to finding new jazz talent.

BILL EVANS (SAX): In February 1980, I was living in a loft on 27th St. One of my roommates said, “I think it’s Miles Davis on the phone.”  He asked me to come up to his building on the Upper West Side and to bring my soprano [sax]. A woman met me at the door: “He’s been expecting you. He’s upstairs, follow me.” He was relaxing on a bed. We then proceeded to where Bobby Irving, who was in the first sessions, was playing a small keyboard. Miles says, “Hey Bobby, play a blues in G.” He stood next to me and said: “Play!”

MARCUS MILLER (BASS): Miles isn’t going to give you a lot of direction. He took me to the piano and showed me two notes, and said, “You got it?” I said, “Yeah, I got it.” So the band showed up and I played the two notes over and over. Miles said, “What the fuck you doing, man? You just gonna play those two notes?” Next take I played like a million, and he said, “What the hell you doing? Just play two notes!” Third time, I went a bit deeper. The last take, he said, “You all played like a bunch of faggots, man,” and left the studio. But he gave me a wink as he walked by.

TUTU
Warner Bros, 1986
Produced by Marcus Miller, Tommy LiPuma
Miles changes labels for this overdub-fest with Marcus Miller. Named in homage to Desmond Tutu.

MARCUS MILLER (BASS/COMPOSER/PRODUCER): I got a call from Tommy LiPuma at Warners and he said “We got Miles Davis – do you have any music?” Then he sent me a George Duke tune, that had drum machines, sampled trumpets and sax on it. I was like, “Woah! So Miles wants to step into this direction.” So I put together demos, over-dubbing myself. I brought them to California for Tommy to hear, and he said, “Let’s start.” I said, “But what about the band?” And he said, “We’ll do it how you did your demo.” Miles liked it: all he said was ,“Call me when you need the trumpet.” It was weird, scary and exciting. One day Miles called and said he wanted to do “Spitti Monitti”. I said “Oh, you’re talking about Scritti Politti… that’s a pretty extreme choice.” He said, “Just do it, motherfucker,” and hung up, and that was “Perfect Way”. In the ’50s he’d do covers and the band would say “Why do you want to do this corny shit, Miles?” But he uncovered the beauty in some of these songs. Tutu was modern, even if it carried Miles’ tradition and history with it. He found a sound that could become a soundtrack to the 1980s.

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DOO-BOP
Warner Bros, 1992
Produced by Easy Mo Bee
Miles connects with hip-hop, hiring producer/MC Easy Mo Bee. The result? Occasionally jazz-referencing pop-rap, with trumpet breaks.

EASY MO BEE (MC/producer): Miles wanted to get into hip-hop, so he contacted Russell Simmons. My manager sent a reel of songs I’d done. One of these was “True Fresh MC” by The Genius/GZA of Wu-Tang, and it caught Miles’ ear. He was living on Central Park West between 88th and 89th. He had a meeting where they invited all the auditioning producers. While he’s listening to their reels, he sat on the couch real quiet. Then they all left. I said, “So what’s up, Miles?” and he said: “I didn’t like that shit.” He played my tape again and said, “That’s bad – you’ll do that for me?” I said “Yeah, Miles, yeah!” Every time we went to the studio it was Miles, me and keyboard player Deron Johnson. I’d lay the basic music and rhythm track, Deron would lace it with keyboard. Miles’ manager Gordon Meltzer said, “Miles is kind of sick, but we need to finish the LP. We want to give you two songs to rework.” So “Fantasy” and “High Speed Chase” are remixes of two unreleased songs. Miles went through all genres in his time. He never stayed in one place, and it seemed like it was only right that he’d try hip-hop.

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