In the film Miles Ahead, actor/director Don Cheadle’s portrayal of Miles Davis from 2016, Miles is isolated in his townhouse sometime in the late 1970s, off the scene and not making music for the first time in his adult life. He looks over his shoulder at his trumpet, standing untouched on a table. “What?” he asks it.
It’s a complete and telling comment on the extreme seclusion and music avoidance Miles went through starting at the end of 1975. He was tired and sick and turned his back on the most important thing in his life. In the five-year period of seclusion that ensued, he struggled with personal demons and health issues, bouncing between bouts of self-abuse and boredom. Miles’ absence only amplified the appetite for his comeback. No amount of cajoling or offers of help or profit could move him to return. Finally, in 1981, he began to re-emerge, tentatively at first, and then with the intention to assemble a group and get back into the studio and on the road.
When Miles reappeared in 1981, expectation had reached fever pitch. He was still signed to Columbia and his five final albums for the label reflected his continuing fascination with current flavors of funk (Rose Royce, Cameo, Chaka Khan and later, Prince) and electronics (synthesizers and drum machines), and his enduring ardor for the electric guitar. He continued to work with producer Teo Macero and still surrounded himself with increasingly younger talent including saxophonists Bill Evans and Branford Marsalis, guitarists Mike Stern and John Scofield, various keyboard players and programmers, bassists Darryl Jones and Marcus Miller, drummers Al Foster and his own nephew Vince Wilburn, Jr.
The 1980s were a funny time: innovative in many ways, yet many of the innovations—technical and stylistic—had a habit of making too much music sound alike, and many jazz musicians succumbed to the situation. Miles participated in many of the same things but rose above them—still too individual and inspired to be anything less than a breath of fresh air when things got stale.