Miles Davis in the '80s & '90s: Playing It Safe
This is the fourth in a four-part series diving through the vast and innovative catalogue of trumpeter Miles Davis. To read about his other eras, or for the complete article, click the links below.
The ’80s & ‘90s: Playing It Safe
The Man with the Horn (1981)
It would be an exaggeration to label this bad, but by the same token, it would be a stretch to call it interesting. The Man with the Horn is Miles’s first attempt at pop jazz, going for a smoother sound than ever before. With slick, groovy basslines and a simple, repeating rhythm section, each track is catchy enough, but rarely do they evolve or change. “Fat Time” is, by far, the greatest song on the LP, with a thrilling guitar solo and some truly explosive work from Miles. The album never reaches those heights again, playing it safe with a mix of soulful and pop-centric textures. Unlike his previous work in which his bandmates were just as vital as Miles himself, on this record, the other musicians feel secondary. There is no stunning performance from the drummer, and rarely a memorable solo from someone other than Davis. The Man with the Horn is perfectly fine on its own, but it’s a far cry from the genre-twisting classics Miles had become famous for.
Star People (1983)
Star People is a major improvement upon The Man with the Horn. The compositions are still accessible and smooth, but not so derivative. With compelling trumpet solos, frantic drum-work, and plenty of irresistible basslines, Star People captures the groove of Jack Johnson without the harshness attached. It feels much more in line with Miles’s usual sound, especially on highlights like “Come Get It” and “Speak” – lightning-fast fusions of rock, pop, and jazz, where every musician is given room to breathe and excel. The title track might be my favourite: an 18 minute stretch of languid instrumentation and relaxed playing from Davis, with an infectious bassline that never gets tiring. It’s not any complex masterpiece, but for ‘80s Miles, it stands out as a gem.
After the success of Herbie Hancock’s electro-jazz hit “Rockit”, Miles decided to dedicate an entire album to the synth-heavy style, and the results are underwhelming. Monotonous basslines, mundane solos, and uninspired arrangements are the flesh and blood of Decoy. The synths are poorly utilised, shoehorned in here and there to give the LP a futuristic feel without doing anything interesting with the instrument. The album picks up near the end with the one-two punch of “That’s Right” and “That’s What Happened”, but otherwise, Decoy is bland and unremarkable.
You’re Under Arrest (1985)
This was the last album Miles created for Columbia Records before switching over to Warner Bros. Records. Symbolising a major step in his professional career, by contrast, the music itself is inconsequential. You’re Under Arrest isn’t the insulting mess that Decoy was, but it still feels lacking. Aside from a few select tracks, the LP is comprised of covers, putting a smooth jazz twist on some of the biggest pop songs of the time. The covers are nothing terrible, but Miles does nothing interesting with them. Simply matching his trumpet to the movement of the original singer’s voice, you can imagine the cover in your head and it’s just about as compelling as really hearing it. Only the intro captured me – a fast-paced funk track incorporating motifs from previous Davis tunes, like “Right Off” from Jack Johnson and “Speak” from Star People. With weak highlights and inoffensive low points, You’re Under Arrest is about as average as Miles Davis can get.
Tutu is a strange album. It’s catchy throughout, and there isn’t a dull moment, but likewise, there aren’t any memorable points either. The first of three collaborations between Miles and Marcus Miller, this is easily the strongest. An ‘80s twist on jazz-fusion, the LP is filled with prominent basslines and blaring synths, with Miles screaming through his horn across all nine songs. Davis himself works well; it’s the instrumentation around him that brings Tutu down. From the backing horns to the bass, everything loops almost mathematically, rarely evolving as each song progresses. Perhaps these tracks would be impressive for a rookie making beats on GarageBand, but for a jazz veteran over forty years into his career, it comes off as basic. Tutu is far from bad, but it’s far too simplistic to impress.
Music from Siesta (1987)
Music from Siesta is about as interesting to write about as it is to listen to. It’s a serviceable soundtrack, and a welcome departure from the synth-laden pop jazz of ‘80s Miles, but the more Latin touch added by Marcus Miller doesn’t complement him much. Davis’s solos on the horn are strong and emotive, but buried under dreary layers of strings, it almost sounds melodramatic. Perhaps it’s worth a listen on a deep dive through his catalogue, but otherwise, there is no reason to listen to Music from Siesta.
Frustrating at times and mundane at others, Amandla is predictably mediocre. Returning to his messy fusion of jazz, funk, and pop, this LP is a monotonous slog of half-baked ideas, with the occasional standout solo tainted by the lifeless instrumentation around it. It carries over the same problems as Tutu but leaves behind the strengths of that project, embracing monotony and aimlessness without the catchiness to make up for it. Most of the record passes by inoffensively, but “Hannibal” is easily the weakest offering. The obnoxious steel drums that loop throughout the composition make for one of the weakest moments in Miles’s entire catalogue.
The last album released during Miles’s lifetime, AURA acts as a powerful conclusion to his immense discography. The record was created for Davis by Danish composer Palle Mikkelborg, made as a tribute to the legendary trumpeter. What follows is a celebration of Miles Davis – an hour-long odyssey into fusion, funk, electronica, and ambient, summing up the vibrance and versatility of the legend in just 10 tracks. A disjointed intro opens up the LP, with punching synths, ominous guitar, and scattered drum-work forming a spacious atmosphere for the trumpeter to thrive. Each song thereafter is named after a colour, each of which was chosen by Mikkelborg to represent a part of Davis’s aura. “White” is a frigid ambient cut where Miles plays as if he’s floating out in space, surrounded by naught but silence. “Orange” is a fantastic fusion of jazz-rock and electronica, with a pulsing bassline and cinematic guitar-work bouncing nicely off Davis’s lively solos. AURA closes with “Violet”, the beautiful nine-minute finale in which the drums, guitar, and synths slowly fade away, leaving Miles alone to end his legacy with one last performance.
Two years after AURA, Miles passed away at age 65, having suffered a stroke and long periods of pneumonia. The following two projects were the last he ever worked on, with Dingo being the first. As a complete body of work, it flows nicely, but there’s little here worth returning to. Full of simple arrangements and inoffensive performances, no musician falters, but rarely do any of them thrive. It suffices as a film soundtrack, but on its own, Dingo is easily forgotten.
Teaming up with producer Easy Mo Bee, on the final Miles Davis album, the trumpeter tried his hand at hip hop. Critics at the time tore apart the record as a half-baked attempt at jazz rap, but looking back, it’s a great album. Miles isn’t playing at his best, but he fits surprisingly well over the jazzy instrumentals he’s given, zigzagging over the head-bopping boom bap supplied by Bee. Tracks like “High Speed Chase” and “Blow” are reminiscent of early De La Soul or KMD, sandwiching together groovy samples with an explosive beat and driving bassline to make them hit hard. Most of the songs are instrumental, but Easy Mo Bee and a few friends show up here and there, delivering slick verses with flows smooth enough to make up for their vapid bars. Half the time, Miles doesn’t seem like the focus of the music, but that’s to be expected, given the fact he passed away before the project could be completed. It may not touch the classics, and it’s a far cry from anything other rap groups were offering at the time, but Doo-Bop is far from awful. More importantly, it’s evidence that, over forty years after The New Sounds, Miles Davis was still eager to reinvent himself.
All the way from The New Sounds to Doo-Bop, Miles Davis proved time and time again that no other artist was on his level. Even before his debut, in ’49, his worth as a musician was obvious, crafting the iconic nonet Birth of the Cool. Through the ‘50s, he rarely put down the horn, delivering dozens of timeless bop essentials until he grew tired of the sound and decided to reinvent jazz with Kind of Blue. Whether it be his classic run with the First Great Quintet or his avant-garde masterpieces with the Second Great Quintet, no matter who Miles worked with, greatness was guaranteed. Working with Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, Art Blakey, and many more, he gathered an army of jazz greats together, delivering classic after classic until he could no more. Transcending jazz with his electric period, the trumpeter earned his title as a music legend, laying the foundations for music to come, from ambient electronica to noise rock. Miles had his rough patches, but the sheer quality of his output is undeniable. Among the greatest musicians of all time, the discography of Miles Davis is irrefutably masterful.