During July, our Miles Davis album is Star People. Recorded live and in the studio in 1982 and 1983, the Columbia release features a couple of bands that included, among others, guitarists John Scofield and Mike Stern, bassist Marcus Miller, saxophonist Bill Evans and drummer Al Foster. Eighties Miles is not everyone’s cup of tea, but even if you feel that way, this disc merits a close listen. In the indispensable Penguin Guide to Jazz, Richard Cook and Brian Morton write:
Star People has long been a favourite of ours. Though never a big critical or commercial success, it stands out in this period as one of the first unambiguous signs that Miles was trying to re-inscribe himself in a jazz tradition. Punctuated by pre-recorded organ interludes, it mixes swing-era choruses over Motown riffs, dark blues shapes and passages that seem to hark all the way back to Buddy Bolden. An astonishing performance, marred by cluttered arrangements and a fuzzy mix.
As for looking back at his jazz past, it’s interesting that Star People is produced by Teo Macero and features arrangements by Gil Evans and liner notes by Leonard Feather, all of which might make you think we’re describing an album from 1957.
About those Evans arrangements: for this record, Evans would transcribe elements of the sidemen’s solos – typically guitarist Scofield’s — that were particularly tasty, and build them up into a composition. Thus during the 10 July broadcast, we listened to “Speak,” based upon a Scofield riff. We also heard “That’s What Happened,” from the 1984 recording Decoy, which was arranged by Evans from a Scofield riff on “Speak”… We’ll hear more such compositions all this month. The technique of creating a melody from a transcribed solo was employed famously by George Russell, who subjected Davis’s canonical solo from “So What” (1959) into a a big-band arrangement for his 1983 album of the same name. (Now’s the Time listeners heard the Russell piece, picked out of KUSP’s vast vinyl vault, during a May broadcast.)
Paul Tingen, the author of Miles Beyond, an authoritative analysis of the trumpeter’s electric years, calls this composition-arrangement technique “chromatic funk”. Check out Tingen’s website for a wealth of electric Miles material.