Miles for the modern age – synthesizers and all
Throughout his long career, Miles Davis was never averse to taking risks. In the ‘50s and ‘60s the trumpeter oversaw the formation of some of modern jazz’s most formidable line-ups, and then there was the ‘70s, a period often considered to be as controversial as it was experimental. Accusations that Miles had turned his back on jazz were not uncommon, whose adoption of electric instruments and effects, a la Jimi Hendrix, was often seen as a betrayal of his roots and more traditional following.
Though despite such criticism, Davis really didn’t give a damn what people thought of him, much less his music. The man was a pioneer, a cosmic explorer in search of new frontiers, and perhaps because of that was never one to rest on his laurels, in spite of his many considerable achievements.
And so it was in 1986, at the tender age of sixty, Miles released what many considered to be his most contentious album since Bitches Brew more than a quarter century before. But unlike many previous endeavours, rather than an actual band playing live in the studio, Miles played his trumpet over a primarily digital landscape one constructed entirely through the use of drum machines, synthesizers and samplers, making Tutu the most ‘state of the art’ LP Davis had yet recorded.
It is also because of this that the LP is probably one of his most dated. Some applauded Miles’ embrace of the modern age, while others simply hated the way he had incorporated so much new technology into his sound. And while he had employed synthesizers previously, most notably during the ‘70s, never had he utilised them to the extent that he did on Tutu.
Yet behind and in the midst of all this electronic wrangling, courtesy of Marcus Miller, who overdubbed everything from synths to soprano sax, Miles is cleary the star throughout, playing with the sort of elegant though no less deadly precision he had long been famous for. Tunes such as “Tomaas” and “Portia,” despite the somewhat sanitised production, simply ooze with Miles’ distinct personality throughout, where he applies his instrument the way a painter will a brush.
The overall result is one of sublime understatement, like a thinking man’s soundtrack to Miami Vice. “Splatch” (instead of “Splash”) and Scritti Politti’s “Perfect Way” each brim with attitude and purpose, while title track (named after Desmond Tutu) is awash with funky beats and Miles’ trademark sound. It might not quite be the birth of the cool, but cool it is all the same.
The processors work overtime on the lyrical and stately “Backyard Ritual,” as they also do during “Don’t Lose Your Mind,” which is a kind of “Pharoah’s Dance” albeit given a serious ‘80s reboot. Miles goes for the commercial jugular on the pop-funk of final number “Full Nelson” (another track named after a real person, this time Nelson Mandela), a composition which simply begs for a lead vocal (perhaps Sting could have volunteered his services?).
Tutu would go on to win two Grammy awards, one for best soloist/performance, and the other for best album packaging (the superb cover shot was taken by portrait photographer Irving Penn). Accusations that Miles had sold out to popular music were made, accusations which Davis himself firmly denied (he preferred to describe what he was doing as “social dance music”). Nonetheless, if the listener can manage to tolerate the various machines which dominate, what remains is another intriguingly stylish document by the one and only man with the horn.