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Matthew Ruddick

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Author of Funny Valentine, an acclaimed new biography of the jazz trumpet player and singer, Chet Baker.
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Friday, 16 August 2019 22:23

Miles Davis - Rubberband

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Rubberband man.

Jazz fans first got the chance to hear part of this ‘lost’ Miles Davis LP, Rubberband, last year, with the release of a four-track Rubberband EP, which was made available for Record Store Day.

At that time, it was rumoured that it must have been part of the somewhat patchy Doo-Bop sessions from 1991 – recorded with hip hop producer, Easy Mo Bee. But the Rubberband sessions were recorded several years earlier, in late 1985, and early 1986, shortly after Miles had left Columbia Records, and signed with Warner Brothers.

Miles was attracted to the drum-machine driven, digital funk sound that was popular at that time; Prince’s Purple Rain had been released in late 1984, Scritti Politti’s Cupid & Psyche in June 1985, and Janet Jackson’s Control in February 1986 – and the influence of all three can be heard clearly here.

In early 1986, Miles contacted several potential collaborators, including Prince himself, producer Bill Laswell, pianist George Duke and Toto’s keyboard player, Steve Porcaro. Several sent tracks for Miles to consider, but none made the final cut.

In the event, Miles opted to work with producers Randy Hall and Zane Giles, who helped to assemble a studio band comprised of  keyboardists Adam Holzman, Neil Larsen and Wayne Linsey, saxophonist Glen Burris, percussionist Steve Reid and Vince Wilburn, Jr. on drums. 

The album itself was very much a studio creation, with Hall and Giles laying down drum grooves, Miles suggesting basslines and chords, and tunes gradually being built, layer by layer. The producers hoped to hire Chaka Khan to sing on the title track, and Al Jarreau on I Love What We Make Together, but it was not to be.

Tommy LiPuma, one of the mainstay producers at Warner Brothers, was less convinced of the direction Miles was heading in, and suggested hiring bass player, producer and arranger, Marcus Miller, who started working with Miles on Tutu around the same time.

Miles was not convinced. In his autobiography, he suggested he preferred the “raw shit, raunchy, get-down, get-back-to-the-alley shit” of Rubberband. So why go along with LiPuma, and scrap the Rubberband sessions? We’ll never know for sure. Time may have been issue; Tutu had been masterminded by Miller, and evidently recorded quite quickly. Meanwhile, the Rubberband sessions were dragging on, and had not yet been finalised. And time meant money, which must have mattered to both LiPuma and the record label.

So what do we have here? The album was essentially completed the original producers Hall and Giles, and Davis’ nephew Vince Wilburn Jr., who played the drums on the original sessions. They re-recorded some of the 80s-sounding drums, to give the sessions a more modern feel, whilst keeping the original basslines, which keep the original funk vibe. Soul singers Ledisi and Lalah Hathaway were brought in on vocals for one song each, whilst Randy Hall himself does his best Al Jarreau impression on I Love What We Make Together.

At its best, Davis had a fair point about Rubberband. The title track has an acid-jazz vibe, and features the formidable Ledisi – and one can only imagine how Chaka might have sounded. This Is It has a distinctive Scritti Politti feel to its polished funk, whilst Give It Up has a mid-80s Prince groove, which is no bad thing. 

Listen to Rubberband Of Life here:

Echoes In Time is another highlight; try to imagine late Miles playing over a funky Jam and Lewis beat, and you get a fair idea.

The ballads are less impressive. So Emotional, which features Lalah Hathaway, sounds a bit too close to the slick, bland R&B that was prominent at that time, whilst Caribbean-tinged Paradise, complete with steel drums, is fairly grim.

Miles’s playing is excellent throughout, and it’s clear that he was highly engaged in the new direction he was potentially heading in. In the event, Tutu took him in another direction altogether, and given its success, he never really looked back. 

Like most of Miles’s later output, Rubberband is patchy. It’s certainly less cohesive than Tutu and Amandla – but when it’s good, it’s really good. The album is out on September 6th, and features liner notes from George Cole, writer of The Last Miles, and features an original painting by Miles Davis as the cover art.

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