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The ten performances comprising Miles’ last album on the Columbia label were recorded in 1985 but not released until 1989, sandwiched between various titles on Warner Bros. It was special and unexpected, achieving an effective meeting of the old Miles, of the pinched, lost-in-the-wilderness cry on his Gil Evans collaborations, with mid-1970s, On The Corner Miles—with even the newer Miles: icy, yet still plaintive in his voice. The predominant sounds on Aura are electronic synthesizers and electric guitar mixed in with a jazz orchestra: somber brass and reed parts, delivering airy delicacy on some tracks and bubbling bursts of energy on others. The arrangements are austere and deeply resonant, leaving much space for Miles’ trumpet.
Aura derived from a tribute to Miles held in early 1985 in Denmark after he won the country’s top cultural award. Part of the prize was a recording with Danish musicians; Miles benefited greatly from the guiding hand of Danish composer/trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, a jazz modernist with deep classical leanings who composed and arranged all the tunes, using the Danish Radio big band and a few special guests, including bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, drummer (and Miles’ nephew) Vince Wilburn, Jr. and guitarist John McLaughlin. Some dated musical elements—like gated drums and a heavy use of reverb—betray Aura as a product of the 1980s; fortunately a sense of good taste and balance prevails.
The tracks are named for simple colors—the closer to white the more subtle and subdued they are musically. The more intense the shade, the more dynamic. “Orange” introduces electronics to the party and gets it rocking. “Red”—with throbbing bass line and tide-like synthesizer swells—flows from one section to another with a kind of solemnity, like a movie score. “Violet” captures McLaughlin in full-force with his less distorted, 1990s sound, cleaner and clearer than the 1970s. It’s Aura’s final track and also includes an especially effective moment when Miles switches from playing mute to open bell. It makes one wish the guitarist and trumpeter had made more music together back in the day.
Aura is Miles’ last great album—fully realized, a suite that made sense as a whole. In 1990, the album earned Miles two GRAMMY Awards for both Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Soloist and Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Big Band.