This month’s Miles Davis record is Tutu (1986). Some of the background for the on-air chatter I might do about it comes from two fine texts. French music journalist Vincent Cotro published a short and handsomely illustrated book (in French) about the album in 2013. And there is a long chapter on the Tutu album and era in the late trumpeter Ian Carr‘s excellent biography (check out the hugely expanded second edition from 2006). Here’s a little of what I learned from Cotro and Carr.
The basic story about Tutu revolves around bassist-impresario Marcus Miller. Miller had worked with Miles in the trumpeter’s immediate post-retirement period: it’s Miller’s fantastically funky bass you hear on the telluric “Fat Time” from Miles’s comeback record The Man With The Horn (1981), for example. Miller, so the story goes, single-handedly created the multi-instrumental musical environments, heavy on Prince-era funk; Miles came in and played his trumpet parts atop the pre-recorded backdrop, Miller pointing at him when it was time for the trumpet.
This creative process is both ingeniously inventive and the source of some of the criticism that’s been leveled at the record. By design, the music is not as interactive as a genuine, live group performance: like, say, the Miles quintet recorded at San Francisco’s Blackhawk in April 1961. (The pianist on those great Blackhawk dates, by the way, is Marcus Miller’s cousin Wynton Kelly. Just so you know.) Miles’s solos are wonderful and react to the Marcus Miller musical treatments, but the musical treatments do not, in turn, react to Miles the way a live band would or could.
Perhaps. Then again, the Miller approach mirrors that employed by Miles’s greatest musical partner, Gil Evans. Evans created orchestral backdrops against which Miles would solo and improvise, and they are clearly among the masterworks of the trumpeter’s œuvre: Miles Ahead (1957), Porgy and Bess (1958), Sketches of Spain (1960). Ian Carr likens these recordings to trumpet concerti, in which there are two, and only two, voices: the orchestra and Miles’s trumpet. Carr furthermore points out that the very different Bitches Brew (1969) is similar in this respect: Miles is the lone solo voice against a backcloth of oozing electronic sound. In this sense, Tutu is closely linked to a longstanding practice in Miles’s artistry. Miller sagely saw the connection with the earlier Davis-Evans collaborations.
And there is more interaction than the description above might suggest, particularly between Davis and Miller. Miller recalls the sometimes unpredictable atmosphere created by Miles-roshi:
‘Portia’ on Tutu was a first take. I showed him the melody on a soprano sax I had, so he could relate to another horn, and then we started running tape. I was sitting there while he was playing, and he picked me up by my collar and pushed me up to the microphone to play the melody with him. I’d never played soprano on a record before, and we were both going on to the same track. He was playing so great that I was afraid I was going to make a mistake and ruin everything Miles played. That was one of the most tense experiences I’ve ever had.
The Marcus Miller-based story is not the whole story, either. At the origin of the Tutu sound is the late keyboardist George Duke. Duke was asked by Warner Bros. producer Tommy Lipuma (for whom “Tomaas” on the record is named) to produce a background musical treatment before any of the Marcus Miller material ever happened. He recorded a demo for the track that became “Backyard Ritual” (we’ll hear it on the 19 Feb broadcast). Davis, rather than convening a band to perform “Backyard Ritual,” instead simply recorded his solo over the demo, and that’s what appears on the album. Miller, in turn, was asked to provide more songs that resembled the Duke track. He did, and the rest is musical history.