Blue notes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 June, 2011, 12:00am


Was Tutu the last great Miles Davis album? He certainly did nothing better - or even half as good - afterwards. But was it really, as some critics have asserted on and off over the years, Davis' Sketches of Spain for the 1980s?

To some that comparison would be considered a compliment - to others a condemnation. To mark its 25th anniversary, and what would have been Davis' 85th birthday on May 26, the album has been re-released in a deluxe edition by Warner Jazz, which presents an opportunity to re-evaluate.

The new release comprises the original eight tracks, plus a live performance from the 1986 Nice festival by Davis and his band of the Tutu period, although that includes only two tunes from the album and is not a particularly noteworthy addition to Davis' hugely extensive live discography.

However, the original studio album sounds better than ever, not only because of the remastering job but because Tutu itself has worn much better than almost anybody - including Marcus Miller, who wrote most of the music and played most of the instruments - expected.

One criticism at the time was that the record was more Miller's than Davis', although by the former's account much of the electronic instrumentation that went on to the final record was produced in response to the solo tracks the trumpeter laid down, and not the other way around.

Miller has staked more of a claim to the project in recent years, and has just released a live CD/DVD set on Dreyfus revisiting the album, and some other Davis standards, called Tutu Revisited. Christian Scott plays the trumpet parts.

Wherever the credit lies, there can be little doubt that Miller provided Davis with the last recorded soundscape truly worthy of him as a soloist, and some comparison with Gil Evans is warranted. Listening to the music again it sounds of its time, but is clearly focused on the future, which is presumably what Davis, who disliked looking back, intended.

As Miller puts it: 'There are two goals for me primarily. One is to create something that describes the time that you're living. The second one you don't have any control over because how your music is viewed down the road is as much a function of what happens down the road as what happens in your music.'

Take Three

We'll take the 1959 modal masterpiece Kind of Blue and the 1970 jazz-rock manifesto Bitches Brew as givens. Here are three other epoch-defining Miles Davis albums.

Birth of the Cool (Capitol, 1957): actually recorded as 78rpm singles in 1949 and 1950, the Birth of the Cool sides recorded by a nonet led by Davis mapped out an alternative road to bebop for jazz to go down. Collected and released together for the first time in 1957, the album has seldom been out of print since.

Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960): as later with Tutu, and many other Davis albums, critics asked: 'Is it jazz?' Davis replied 'It's music, and I like it'. Perhaps the most broadly popular Davis album after Kind of Blue, with Sketches the trumpeter and arranger Gil Evans established a link between Spanish music and jazz improvisation which other artists, including Chick Corea and Paco de Lucia, went on to explore.

In a Silent Way (Columbia, 1969): less turbulent than Bitches Brew, which followed it, In a Silent Way is a more contemplative and atmospheric record, and in many respects more innovative thanks to producer Teo Macero's pioneering tape editing. With Davis' melancholy horn appearing for the first time at length in an electric context, it has also turned out to be more durable.