A collection of Charlie Parker's complete recordings for the Savoy and Dial record labels (excluding alternate takes--hence the title), including Miles Davis on trumpet on session dates from 1945-1948. The stellar lights of bebop are heard throughout this set, as Parker plays with the likes of Miles, Dizzy Gillespie, and Max Roach, creating the enduring shape of contemporary jazz.
Parker waxed what many term as his best recordings during a period which stretched from May 1947 to September 1948. During these months Parker headed a top-rank quintet which usually included Miles, pianist Duke Jordan, bassist Tommy Potter, and drummer extraordinaire Roach. The combination of musicians worked to maximum effect: Miles' light, middle-register on the trumpet was a perfect foil for Bird while Jordan was a sensitive accompanist with a lyrical solo style. Together with Potter and Roach, Jordan helped form a rhythm section that was the ideal climate in which Parker could flourish.
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Miles Davis’ first truly influential project as a leader—which produced a series of recordings between 1949 and 1951 that helped shift the course of improvised music—was publicly underappreciated for almost ten years. In fact, Birth of the Cool, the title by which these tracks are now collectively known, was not applied until 1957 when Capitol Records collected the original eleven 78rpm sides and reissued them as a cohesive LP.
Birth of the Cool was the most important stylistic step to follow after bebop—generating an entirely new wave of playing that influenced a new generation in the early 1950s. It started as a way of finding a way to meld the polyphony and other modern classical ideas (discordance, impressionism, unusual instrumentation) with the harmonic licenses pioneered by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Its reserved, emotional affect was its most recognized aspect: a laid-back reprieve from the unfettered frenetic energy of bebop that seemed a perfect fit for the insouciant, dark-sunglasses-at-midnight spirit that was shared by the likes of Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz and other purveyors of the Cool jazz sound.
Birth of the Cool was born in a series of rehearsals that began in 1947 in a small basement apartment on 55th Street: Miles was in charge, leading a crew of like-minded musicians. The musicians who popped in and out of that basement band represented the cream of the next generation of jazz modernists: Davis’ old friends George Russell and John Lewis, Lee Konitz, Kai Winding, Mike Zwerin, Al Haig, Max Roach, Gunther Schuller, Al McKibbon and many others. Some—like Mulligan and Konitz—had been in a big band led by pianist Claude Thornhill who had developed a unique sound that drew generously from 20th Century classical textures and colors. The apartment was rented by arranger Gil Evans, another Thornhill alumni, who helped give shape to the music.
The nine-man group they finally settled on was a reduced version of the jazz-band-cum-orchestra-brass Thornhill model: trumpet, trombone, French horn, tuba, alto saxophone, baritone saxophone, piano, bass and drums. “We wanted that sound but . . . as small as possible, “ Davis noted, adding: “I looked at the group like it was a choir . . . I wanted the instruments to sound like human voices.”
Most importantly, this “composer conclave” (as Russell described it) ultimately afforded the young trumpeter the first opportunity to spread his wings as band leader and to take an initial, calculated step towards a more relaxed, reduced sound. At first, Davis was “unsure of how to be boss” recalls trombonist/writer Mike Zwerin. "He relied quite a bit on Evans to give musical instructions to the players.” But soon he had “cracked the whip” and “dominated the band completely,” according to Mulligan.
In September 1948, the marquee went up at the Royal Roost – one of Manhattan’s leading jazz haunts at Broadway and 47th Street – to announce the band’s first engagement, supporting Count Basie. Their residency lasted two weeks. It played only one other gig and disbanded the next year, but not before waxing 12 recordings for Capitol Records in early 1949 and 1950.
With Miles name as the leader on the record label, the music was released over the next few years as a series of influential—but not best-selling—78s. Their initial impact was relegated to jazz critics and musicians. But before the 1950's had passed, the critical world looked upon the Birth of the Cool sessions as a musical shift of seismic proportions in jazz. One critic hailed the nonet’s music as summarizing “the whole achievement of modern jazz up to that point.” Writer Martin Williams, in an overview of all jazz achievements of the ‘50s, hailed its influence (“the effect of melodic rhythm on phrasing and on percussion”) and its role in launching an ascending star (“the promise of maturity in Davis himself, particularly in those splendid solos in ‘Move’ and ‘Israel’.”)
It had been a bold effort for the young trumpeter, and one that came with a price. While planning the nonet recordings, Davis had received the call of a lifetime: the opportunity to join the Duke Ellington Orchestra, arguably the jazz world’s most established and respected outfit. Miles still recalled being blown away: “[Duke] tells me I’m in his plans for the fall [of 1948], musically speaking, and he wants me in his band. Man that knocked me right out . . . But I had to tell him that I couldn’t make it, because I was finishing up The Birth of the Cool.” (Auto., p.121)
It is nothing less than astonishing to consider that even at 22, Davis had the presence of mind and sense of commitment to turn down the security and stature-raising of a seat in Duke’s band.
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The Miles Davis Quintet of 1955-’57 was a phenomenon that left many jaws dropping. Their magic and in-the-fast-lane fluidity was best caught onstage, in a live context. One who witnessed the ascent of the group was the normally staid music journalist Ralph Gleason, who later wrote:
I heard this band many nights at the Blackhawk in San Francisco, for which I am grateful…they wailed. And they didn’t need to warm up…the sheer intensity of it was thrilling. Fast or slow, they made every bar sound like it had been born in an atom-splitting burst of energy.
The quintet was a phenomenon. At their exuberant, full-throttle best, the group simply had so much to offer: Coltrane’s raw, edgy – at times endless – tenor improvisations. Garland’s fiery, left-hand chording. Philly Joe’s exciting cymbal work and propulsive rim shots. Miles’ subdued, muted trumpet. Chambers’ adept and soulful bowed solos. Years after the quintet’s debut, jazz writers were exhilarated by their interactivity. “The intricacy of the linkage between the minds of these musicians has never been equaled in any group, in my opinion,” wrote Gleason. Prestige president Bob Weinstock lauded them “the Louis Armstrong Hot Five of the modern era.”
In 1956, when Columbia Records wanted to sign Miles away from Prestige, he still had significant time on his 3-year contract. As Columbia’s George Avakian remembered, Miles brainstormed a win-win situation that made both labels happy:
Miles got a crazy idea and it worked. He said “Tell Bob Weinstock you’d like to record me, and you won’t put the masters out until the end of my [Prestige] contract, which would be about two years hence. Meanwhile they can stockpile albums, and when Columbia comes out with my first album, you’re going to advertise it and promote it, right?” I said, “Sure we will.” “So Prestige will get the benefit of that . . .”
Stockpile is exactly what Prestige did: in 1956, over two marathon sessions, Miles and his Quintet performed four album’s worth of tunes, most of them from their well-rehearsed live set-list of jazz standards, with no retakes. To this day, the gerund-themed quartet of Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’ and Steamin’— define a high-water mark for small group jazz improvisation.
The tunes are also telling of the group’s distinctive strengths: their cohesive swing -- and Coltrane’s growing confidence – on burners like “Salt Peanuts,” “I Could Write A Book,” Rollins’ “Oleo,” and Miles' “Tune Up.” Their penchant for brisk, mid-tempo numbers that closely followed Ahmad Jamal’s interpretations of “If I Were A Bell” and “Surrey With The Fringe On Top.” Their ability to re-imagine certain structures, like Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight,” making them their own. The pretty songs: Miles alone with the rhythm section, Coltrane laying out as he often did on the trumpeter’s ballad features. Miles’ performances of “My Funny Valentine” and “It Never Entered My Mind” proved career-launching and revealed the inner sensitivity he spent a lifetime masking with a street-tough exterior.
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A crowning achievement—in terms of small band, hard bop interplay. A farewell of sorts—to the post-bop way of handling harmony and rhythm, and to some of Miles’ mainstay sidemen. An excellent example of how the addition of one single player—in this case the loquacious alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley—can turn the heat up exponentially, especially when placed alongside one as long-winded as Coltrane.
Milestones is all these things—and more. Miles’ solos on tracks like “Dr. Jackle” are among the most incendiary of his recorded legacy, drawing their drive from his first true love, bebop. Yet his modern, edgy improvisation on the next track—“Sid’s Ahead” (a sly reworking of “Walkin’”)—suggests the modal ideas he’s begun to consider, testing the brakes on bebop’s fast-moving harmonies. In fact, the title track, a Miles original that features drummer Philly Joe Jones’ signature offbeat rim-shot (“The Philly Lick”), is regarded as a preliminary sketch for the modal ideas that would come into play on his next album with Gil Evans—not to mention Kind of Blue.
Milestones is indeed a goodbye—the last time Miles would record with two of his great 1950s quintet: pianist Red Garland leaving in the middle of the recording sessions; Jones departing not long after. Their replacements—Bill Evans and Jimmy Cobb—would join Cannonball, Coltrane and Paul Chambers to create perhaps the all-star lineup to outshine all others.
Milestones works on many levels, and has many gems to offer: Garland’s star-turn—the trio performance of “Billy Boy” that also features an expressive arco solo by Chambers—pays tribute to Ahmad Jamal in song choice, open feel, and structure. The fleet, push-and-pull of Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser” that benefits from the fact that Coltrane had spent the previous summer playing and studying with the pianist.
Then there’s another spirited take of the Dizzy Gillespie burner “Two Bass Hit;” the earlier version from the sessions to Miles’ debut album for Columbia (not included on the original release). Want to know how far an already tight band could come in three years? Want to hear how the Columbia engineers had gotten their act together capturing the detail and depth of Miles’ sound and each of the players?
Compare the first half-minute of the two versions of “Two Bass Hit,” from 1955 and 1958. Miles and Columbia were working well together. The next album—Porgy and Bess—proved that even more.
If Miles and Gil Evans had done nothing more together than “Summertime,” their collective reputation would be assured. Miles’ singularly plaintive reading of the tune, urged on by Evans’ harmony response line that repeats, and repeats, and repeats the same seven notes—makes for one of the most hip renderings of one of the most familiar melodies in the Great American Songbook. (“How many singers does it take to sing ‘Summertime?’” goes the set-up. The punch-line: “Apparently, all of them.”)
The secret behind Miles’ and Evans’ reworking of the over-worked tunes from the Gershwin brothers’ jazz opera lies in a simple restructuring of priorities: a languid mood and an overriding feeling of restraint take precedence over the compositions themselves. Melodies and song forms are made fluid and restructured. Bright colors, fresh textures, and new emotions are revealed: the bittersweet mood of “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” The hovering, barely moving effect of “I Loves You, Porgy.” The subtle groove of “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” “Gone,” a big-band flag-waver that excites with its ecstatic drum fills. The suave “My Man’s Gone Now” that comes off with a sly feel that Bess might be OK with the fact that she’s alone.
Producer Cal Lampley recalls suggesting the idea of covering Porgy and Bess from an idea he recalled having while working on the Miles Ahead sessions. “I called Miles…he said, ‘Cal, I’m sitting here trying to think of doing something with my wife and you’re calling me with this shit.’ and hung up! Uh-oh, I guess I blew that. Then ten days later he called me and said, “Cal, that Porgy and Bess idea’s a good one – let’s get started . . .” Miles himself later credited his wife, “Frances [Taylor] was dancing in Porgy and Bess at City Center. . . that’s where I got the idea.”
Porgy and Bess boldly took ideas that reversed the bebop esthetic—instead of navigating one’s solo with rapid-fire assuredness from one chord to the next and next, Evans’ approach to the harmonies of Porgy and Bess was to slow down the rate of those shifts—the “changes” jazz musicians often speak of—and allow the soloist to stay on one modality (hence “modal jazz”) and invent his own melody and mood.
To Miles’ ears, by the late 1950s, the “music [had] gotten thick. Guys give me tunes and they’re full of chords. I can’t play them.” Miles was talking to the jazz journalist Nat Hentoff, for the short-lived Jazz Journal magazine. It was 1958 and the article was titled “An Afternoon with Miles”—but it could be called “A Modal Manifesto.” The trumpeter explained why this new way of playing held a fresh, uncluttered appeal.
When Gil [Evans] wrote the arrangement of “I Loves You, Porgy,” he only wrote a scale for me to play. No chords. [It] gives you a lot more freedom and space to hear things . . . I wrote a tune recently that’s more a scale than a [melodic] line . . . when you go this way, you can go on forever. You don’t have to worry about changes [chords] and you can do more with the line [melody]. It becomes a challenge to see how melodically inventive you are.
This was a rare instance of a musician describing not just the how of a new musical style, but the why, which is more often left unexplained. Modal jazz, restful and relaxing, swept away the clichés that Miles disliked, while still holding challenge for soloists. Kind of Blue, built on the same foundational idea, was just around the corner.
Kind of Blue is arguably Miles’ greatest hit, the one album with which he is most associated. It is still one of the most popular jazz albums of all time, outselling most contemporary recordings and prized as a harbinger of modal jazz and revered as a paradigm of improvisation over reduced harmony—creating a perfect balance of sound and space. Outside the jazz realm, it is consistently chosen by music historians and critics as one of the best albums of all time, alongside evergreen classics by The Beatles, Elvis Presley, and others.
Inspired by many ideas—mood-painting, modal structures—behind the soundtrack to Elevator to the Gallows, Kind of Blue can be seen as Miles’ signature work not only in its enduring popularity, but its attitude as well; in many ways the album’s cool and aloof effect, with its minimal, almost dismissive musical gestures, serves as a sonic reflection of Miles legendary aloofness. The title of its famous opening track—“So What”—is a perfect reflection of Miles’ insouciant, sunglasses-at-midnight way of being.
Numerous other elements specific to Kind of Blue push it to the top of the “Best Of” lists: the all-star sextet Miles had assembled to accompany him, including three players (John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley) who would themselves prove to be jazz legends, and a rhythm section (Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb) that outswung any other in its day. There was the shared feeling of fresh discovery in the studio on those two days in 1959, as almost all the tracks were the first complete takes—no edits, no second tries. There was Bill Evans’ evocative essay on the album’s back cover highlighting that idea of “first-mind, best-mind”, comparing their music to the spontaneous, unerasable ink-on-rice-paper work of a Japanese calligrapher.
As the title suggests, Kind of Blue was an exercise not only in primarily blues structures, but also in generating an abiding melancholy through the album’s five tracks—an emotional cohesion unlike any other title in Davis’ catalog. As basic as the structures are—a deliberate choice on Miles’ part to move away from the harmonic complexity of bebop—they proved that an emotional depth could be achieved by great improvisers utilizing simple scales or modes (hence “modal” jazz) rather than chord sequences. All five of the tracks—“So What,” “Freddie Freeloader,” “Blue in Green,” “Flamenco Sketches,” and “All Blues”—today serve as a Bible on improvisation to musicians of all instruments and all levels: the solos as closely studied as the tunes themselves.
Take Miles’ “So What” solo: it’s a brief, two unhurried choruses that go by in no time at all, featuring the laconic, behind-the-beat phrasing of his skinny-tie period, unfolding in call-and-response patterns faintly echoing the opening theme. Paolo Fresu, one of Europe’s premier trumpet and flugelhorn players who teaches at Università di Bologna, uses it as a primer for first-year music students, showing “how creative they can be, how much emotion they can get to, even at the beginning. “It is so easy and so clear. Most solos jump up and down octaves. Miles keeps it simple, like it’s a new melody.”
The lasting value of a recorded masterpiece lies not only in the notion of reaching and grasping the music itself, but in using it as a doorway to other pathways. Kind of Blue, it can be argued, earns its accolades less for its continuing sales or critical popularity, and more for its long-serving role as the portal for so many who come to jazz for the first time.
How did Miles himself feel about Kind of Blue? Ironically, he described it as a “failed experiment” in his autobiography, explaining that the album did not fully realize the sounds he had been hearing in his head before the session. Nonetheless, in an 1986 interview, when pianist/journalist Ben Sidran remarked that Kind of Blue is probably the number one jazz record on virtually all the jazz critics’ lists, his sincere answer was short but held a palpable sense of pride: “Isn’t that something.”
Kind of Blue came and went in Miles’ view, soon followed by another big band project directed by arranger Gil Evans, one which demanded many hours of takes and re-takes—the opposite of the first-take ideal of Kind of Blue. Sketches of Spain would prove to be another hit, a followup that helped cement Miles’ musical stature through the 1960s and up until today.
If there is one studio recording that truly captures the Second Great Quintet establishing its identity, Miles Smiles—recorded over two days in October 1966—is it. The cliché avoidance and unpredictability the Quintet had forced into their playing the previous December at the Plugged Nickel was by then an inherent part of their approach, now applied to studio efforts as well as onstage performances: minimal takes, hit-it-and-quit-it energy, leaning on laxity and surprise. Recordings were as open to experimentation as gigs: on half the album’s tracks on this album— "Orbits," "Dolores," "Ginger Bread Boy"—Miles insisted Herbie Hancock stop playing chords with his left hand, on only use his right, effectively liberating the music from being locked into certain harmonic patterns that the pianist later admitted had crept into his playing. “It was hard to get used to,” Hancock later wrote in his autobiography, “but playing differently made me hear the song differently, and my right hand responded with new lines…it was a revelation.”
Finding or creating music to benefit from these ideas was the new challenge; on Miles Smiles the quintet did both.
Wayne Shorter’s role as provider of new material for the band was growing, his tunes serving to define their sonic identity; “Wayne contributed some major compositions for the sound of that band,” Hancock once emphasized. Miles Smiles opened with Shorter’s out-of-the-gate explosion of “Orbit”—with its quirky chord progression yet catchy melody—and also features “Dolores,” with its subtly stated theme that spurs a series of contrastingly hard-driving solos, and “Footprints,” a straight-ahead blues with complex, shifting time feels; note how Tony Williams keeps playing after the tune ends, bringing the rest back for one last statement. Shorter had already recorded the last tune for his Blue Note album Adam’s Apple; the version with Miles was the one most listeners would hear and come to love.
Miles’ own “Circle,” the slow, smoky waltz featuring his muted trumpet, opens with a Ravel-like flourish and was built on a reordering of the chords to his 1961 composition “Drad Dog.” The pair of tunes closing the album were both by other jazzmen—Eddie Harris’ snaky-funky “Freedom Jazz Dance” (Ron Carter had played on Harris’ original version for Atlantic) and Jimmy Heath’s 16-bar tribute to his son Jeffrey, “Gingerbread Boy” (the defining trumpet smears in the theme were Miles’ addition).
Both tracks point out Miles’ unerring ear for selecting great material, his appreciation for the groove-oriented feel prevalent at the time—in jazz and popular music—and, especially, Williams’ growing importance in the band. The drummer’s balance of pulse, drama and power—he had recently switched to heavier sticks, reflecting a general volume-raising trend in music at the time—pulled in many ears to these recordings. Still only 20 at the time, Williams was fast becoming the drummer to follow for other musicians and music fans.
In November 1969, Miles Davis’ producer Teo Macero sent a memo to a higher-up at Columbia Records with one request. “Miles just called and said he wants this album to be titled: BITCHES BREW. Please advise.”
Bitches Brew was Miles’ era-defining double album and surprise popular hit, filled with swirling, extended jams and kaleidoscopic mix of acoustic and electric instruments, snaky groove rhythms and loud rock power. For many jazz fans, it had a scary, confrontational vibe. It was divisive and still is; some go for it, others back away. But in March 1970 when the album was released, the music community—even Miles’ own producer—were simply stunned, and the title was just part of it.
Columbia Records ultimately believed in what Miles was doing, accepting the name he chose for it, agreeing to an Afro-futurist cover image (painted by German artist Mati Klarwein), releasing it as a double-LP (his first), and actively promoting it to a new, youthful audience. The investment paid off: Bitches Brew sold more than 100,000 units, an unheard of number for a jazz musician.
Miles’ leap from one side of the great generational divide to the other had happened so quickly. He had gone from ties and Italian suits to loud, patterned shirts and leather trousers. From playing onstage with an acoustic quintet blowing familiar ballads, to a rock-jazz band with long hair making loud, electronic sounds that felt like shapeless jams—all in two short years. Bitches Brew was Miles’ last, determined leap from one era to another, and no turning back.
Musically, Bitches Brew is the confluence of multiple priorities. It is series of studio experiments with different double-quintet lineups—an idea Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane also created recordings around in the 1960s. But Miles added in new, plugged-in instrumentation like a Fender Rhodes, an electric bass, and a processed trumpet. Another idea was the rhythmic focus—drawing on R&B and rock feel, letting that carry the power of the tunes. There were the compositions: loose, fractured constructions that moved from one mesmerizing moment to another, the result of splicing together parts of different performances. Some are smooth to the ear, other transitions obvious and jarring.
The musical details captivate and surprise: a liberal use of echo, reverb, and other studio effects. Dissonant passages with a sense of menace. There’s Miles’ trumpet blast sounding like an alarm on the title track, and his fanfare opening to “Spanish Key.” On “Pharoah’s Dance,” there are Wayne Shorter’s searing soprano solo, Bennie Maupin’s moaning, bass clarinet parts, and Joe Zawinul’s aggressive comping on electric piano. John McLaughlin’s slashing guitar riffs on—of course—“John McLaughlin.” The percussion team of Jack DeJohnette, Lenny White, and Don Alias on “Miles Chases the Voodoo Down.” The yelp of the cuica in Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira’s hands on “Felo,” and the sneaky electric bass lines played by Harvey Brooks.
Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Dave Holland were on Bitches Brew as well. Miles was proud of the jazz musicians he had assembled; “The greatest rock band of all time,” he called them, knowing the confusion he was causing. He also was well aware of the prevailing rock, soul and R&B stars of the day, and not hiding where he was getting his ideas and inspiration. But here’s something to consider: at the end of the 1960s, millions of people were also listening to Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, James Brown. Some were even checking out electronic composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. But there was only one musician who filtered all of that and came up with Bitches Brew—and changed the world with it.
Here again are the boys from Chicago who brought Miles back with The Man With The Horn. Robert Irving III on keyboards took over the role that Miles had assumed with a true sense of harmony and only a rudimentary mastery of synthetic sounds and movements. Irving shared the responsibilities of directing with the trumpet player’s nephew Vince Wilburn, Jr., but Al Foster continued to lead the tempo. John Scofield drew the funk of bassist Darryl Jones in the direction of chromatic abstraction. The two tracks that he cowrote with Miles are fragments of solos, “That’s What Happened” reprising the beginning of his solo on “Speak” (Star People). On another note, the participation of Branford Marsalis in the September 1983 sessions convinced Bill Evans to leave the band. This rather short album was extended with two recordings from the 1983 Montreal Festival. In spite of this, Decoy offered a good balance between the dominant funk that subsequently took over and the jazz tradition, reflected by Scofield’s angularities, Marsalis’ freedom of tone, and the breadth of Miles’ playing that had recovered its full power.
By the mid-1980s, as recording practices began to embrace its digital future, the notion of creating fully produced tracks before a session, over which the headline artist would later add their part was becoming standard practice. But would this formula work for a legendary jazz musician, when jazz was supposed to be about collective interaction and spontaneous conversation? If there was an artist willing to test the new waters and see if jazz and this new technology could work together, it was Miles and Tutu was the album: his first for Warner Music and a critical and popular success on a level he had not enjoyed since Bitches Brew.
The man behind the triumph was Marcus Miller—primarily a bassist and producer but a versatile multi-instrumentalist who was only 27 at the time. He was nominated by Warner Senior VP Tommy LiPuma who had brought Miles to the label that same year and the choice made sense. Miller was a seasoned jazz player at home with modern studio techniques and the overlap of 1980s funk and jazz Miles was exploring at the time. He had already been a sideman with Miles in 1981, and he was cousin to Wynton Kelly, Miles’ longtime pianist in the early 1960s. The two clicked and Miller ended up composing most of the tracks on Tutu, and playing parts for bass, guitar, synthesizers, soprano saxophone, bass clarinet and drums.
Years later, Miller described his approach to preparing tracks for Tutu. “A lot of times I would hear stuff that people wrote for Miles and the track was killing and sounded modern. Then I’d say, ‘OK, what’s Miles gonna do?’ and they’d go, ‘You know, Miles is just gonna do his thing.’ Big mistake. You have to know in your head what the main instrument is going to do. On Tutu, every track was created with his voice in mind. Miles was never incidental to the track, trying to fit the horn in. Miles’ sound led the whole thing.”
Miller also recruited an all-start cast of players to perform on the album, including keyboardists George Duke, Adam Holzman, and Bernard Wright; percussionists Paulinho Da Costa and Steve Reid; drummer Omar Hakim and violinist Michael Urbaniak. Jason Miles—a keyboardist with up-to-date familiarity on synthesizer programming—played a significant role, ensuring a level of sonic detail on a par with contemporary popular recordings. Miles himself sounded clear and strong, his gem-like tone in the settings that Miller had created with his sound in mind.
Recorded in early 1986 and released in October, Tutu was an album that had time on its side. It benefited from catchy, funk beats that sounded up-to-date yet avoided cliché. The various tracks could be upbeat and playful, yet Miles trumpet statements kept it grounded with a marked sense of purpose. The album had social relevance as well, with song titles—“Tutu,” “Full Nelson”—taken from the headlines of the day, referencing South African archbishop Desmond Tutu and anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela. Then there was that bold, disarming, black-and-white close-up of Miles’ visage on the front cover, plus other hyper-detailed images of his face and hands on the inner sleeve and disc label, all shot by famed photographer Irving Penn.
Tutu—which eventually garnered Miles his fourth GRAMMY Award—pushed Miles back onto center stage when even the most reverent seemed to admit that his best music lay in the past. "Thanks, man," Miller recalls Miles telling him at one point. "You brought me back."