Miles Davis Tells Us (Most of) What Happened

MILES DAVIS: The Bootleg Series, Volume 7: That’s What Happened, 1982-1985 (Legacy Recordings).

Before getting what’s in the latest Bootleg Series release surrounding the career of Miles Davis on Columbia Records, it feels necessary to say a word or two about what’s missing. Interestingly, it bookends what took place within this set.

Miles dropped out of the music scene in 1975 and re-emerged five years later. His first comeback release was The Man With the Horn in ‘81. While there are some decent moments (like guitarist Mike Stern’s solo on “Fat Time”), very few of them are about Miles. Thanks to a steady young and very talented band, Miles (and his relatively weak tone) could be carried until his sound came back fully a couple of years later. The Man With the Horn is more about Miles returning than it is about Miles playing. Keeping those tracks in the vault was probably a pretty good idea.

That said, it would have been interesting to hear a couple of full shows from the ‘81 tour that gave us the solid live release We Want Miles in ‘82. (If you can find it, seek out the equally good Japanese release Miles! Miles! Miles! Miles Davis Live in Japan, 1981.) Miles’s tone was getting stronger and his band sounded even more confident. The blues and funk meld in a far less frenetic way than it did in his acid-funk 70’s period. The touring band’s sound is the foundation Miles took into the studio in late ‘82 into ‘83, which is where this set picks up.

Also missing are the sessions that gave us 1985’s Aura, a fascinating fusion/big band/neo-classical hybrid that produced some of the most underrated music of Miles’s career. put down your Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain records for a few minutes and give this album a go. The Bitches Brew crowd will dig it, too! Yes, Aura was released in ‘89. But it was recorded in late January of ‘85, days after the final track in this box set went down on tape. Therefore, I feel it qualifies. Why it was left out of this set is a question best answered by those qualified to do so.

Now … to the matter at hand.

This seventh entry of the Miles Davis Bootleg Series seems relatively short given the new sound Miles was bringing into the world during the period being documented. Most of the music on the first two discs finds its way to LP via Star People (released in ‘83), Decoy (‘84), and You’re Under Arrest (‘85). Three albums covered by essentially 12 tunes (19 if you include multiple takes)? Why more “cutting room floor” material wasn’t included is anyone’s guess.

A brief aside: I feel it important to note that at no time have I referred to the music on this album as “jazz.” This was done intentionally, as Miles was far more interested in branching further out into music. Jazz had become beside the point. One of the reasons’s this period of Miles’s career has been looked down upon is because critics were still listening to these works exclusively as jazz. That was a mistake. Fusion? Sure! Jazz? Not so much in the eyes of the traditional.

First impressions are everything, and this set’s opener, “Santana,” makes a terrific first impression. This is the sound Miles was looking for when he came back, but for the most part kept missing. His band (featuring future legends Mike Stern on guitar and Marcus Miller on bass) was air-tight, thanks no doubt to time on the road with their leader. Props must also be given to the musical constants of this period in Bill Evans (saxophones), Al Foster (drums), and Mino Cinelu (percussion) who were the foundation of Star People and Decoy.

“Santana” lays the groundwork for what would become Star People, arguably one of Miles’s best “electric” era albums. Sessions featuring trombonist J.J. Johnson are a surprise inclusion in this set, though it’s not surprising why they were left off Star People. Simply put, the music from Johnson’s appearances didn’t fit the album proper’s overall vibe. It’s always important to read the musical room.

Miles’s decision to handle keyboard duties himself also proves most interesting, particularly when he chooses to play them along with the trumpet at the same time. The trumpet centers the sound of Miles’s unique chords, giving everything his signature lyrical quality. The Star People attitude continued into Decoy, a solid albeit less spectacular album that also signified the end of a musical era of sorts.

Given the opportunity, I would have made Disc 3 of this set the second disc, as it entails a live performance of the Decoy band (now featuring John Scofield on guitar and Darryl Jones on bass) ripping through a set in Montreal during July of ‘83. This disc is reviewed in an earlier post from this site. Here, it will be put simply: this band SMOKES. It puts a fantastic cap on this musical period. But, given the nature of the music on Disc 2, the box’s sequencing makes sense.

While the You’re Under Arrest sessions do contain a good moment or two of fusion (one of which was actually nicked from 1970), Miles took a hard turn toward Top 40 pop music. He was trying to do the most “jazz” thing in this set: take hit songs and turn them into standards. How successful he was varies from fan to fan. More than a few hopped off the Miles bandwagon, saying their hero has finally gone “too far.” But others were helping fill up amphitheaters and festivals to hear Miles play the songs they heard sung on the radio every day. The addition of keyboardist Robert Irving III takes the instrument into lyrical directions Miles’s playing didn’t go. Thus, the music’s sound was significantly altered.

The evidence is provided in Miles’s take on Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature,” which became live staples. Also swung at is “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” the song Tina Turner made famous. Within this set, it plays but doesn’t really gel. “Never Loved Like This” is a shot at power balladry by Miles and Irving. A nation shrugs, and we move forward. “Hopscotch,” a Miles original, gets a lot more mileage out of this period.

Miles left Columbia for Warner Brothers in ‘86, where he remained until he passed away in ‘91. The music from that era can be debated another day. For now, the music of That’s What Happened provides a good series of snapshots of what Miles was from the day he came back until he ended his 30-year run with Columbia. Those hesitant to explore the music of this era should, at the very minimum, check out the live set. That should offer up more than enough reasons to dig deeper.


Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (cirdecsongs) My book, I Can’t Be the Only One Hearing This: A Lifetime of Music Through Eclectic Ears, is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine book dealers. I’m currently working on my next book, The Wizard of WOO: The Life and Music of Bernie Worrell.

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