Miles Ahead – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
(Columbia/Legacy) 2016. CD Review by John L Walters
At first glance, the track listing of the Miles Ahead soundtrack album looks like a greatest hits package, with So What, Seven Steps to Heaven, Nefertiti, Black Satin, and so on (information below from milesdavis.com). Many tracks are interspersed with snippets of dialogue from Don Cheadle’s movie, which was released in the UK last April.
As LondonJazz News readers may know already (e.g. from Dan Bergsagel’s review of the film), this is not so much biopic as fantasy action comedy drama, freely improvised over Miles Davis’s actual life and musical career. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Miles Ahead was an ok Saturday night movie – with a dynamite soundtrack. Both movie and soundtrack album demonstrate how utterly cinematic Davis’s music was. Mike Figgis argued (in Digital Film-Making, published 2007) that Davis’s experience of improvising the score to Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’échafaud late in 1957 made a deep impression on Miles’s subsequent musical practice, particularly in the use of modes.
However you can hear that widescreen vision – the sensation of waking up to Technicolor daylight or plunging deep into celluloid noir – in his first Columbia recording with Gil Evans, also called Miles Ahead, made earlier in 1957.
Whatever your response to the new movie, which entangles real-life incidents with a Blaxploitation- style chase involving a stolen master tape (shades of Diva, whose McGuffin was a stolen tape of an opera singer), few people would deny that Miles’s music is more dramatic, emotional and mood- enhancing than the majority of soundtracks created for contemporary movies. (This is not a great era for movie music, when even the best composers are required to repeat themselves or churn out competent pastiches.)
In Miles Ahead, whether it’s Frelon Brun to underscore Davis’s personal demons or Back Seat Betty (actually an 1981 comeback track) to freshen up the hoariest of movie clichés – mis-matched male frenemies on a mission – the music works incredibly well. The fictional elements serve as metaphors for the real story. In Miles Davis, A Critical Biography, Ian Carr tells the more depressing (though dramatic) facts of his dark days in the wilderness, when Davis was sequestered in his increasingly squalid 77 th St town house, never opening the curtains. Lydia DeJohnette is quoted in Carr’s biography as saying: ‘When we went to visit him during that period, I compared it to seeing a bad B movie of a has-been movie star. That sort of lost star living in their dreams and memories.’
Even if Miles Ahead is neither mere B movie nor Sunset Boulevard, with a nerdy Tarantino-esque fantasy at its core, it contains elements that ring true. Davis did often call on young musicians, and take them under his wing in a way that changed their lives. When I shared a house with a fellow musician in the 70s and the phone rang late at night we would whisper jokingly, dramatically: ‘It must be Miles!’
And there is a spine-chilling moment when the wall of the Columbia building’s lift [elevator] gives way like the back of a wardrobe so that Cheadle (who directs as well as playing Miles) leads us into jazz Narnia – a 1958 recording session for Porgy & Bess, with Gil Evans and Davis working on some late revisions to the score. Magical.
On close listening, the soundtrack is not quite the greatest hits bundle it seemed: several tracks are edited or, in the case of Solea (from Sketches of Spain) faded out. Cheadle’s spoken interjections are reminiscent of Davis’s own – such as ‘see how that sounds, Teo’ at the end of Circle on Miles Smiles – and add to the mood.
Five tracks in the soundtrack album are not by Miles. Taylor Made by Taylor Eigsti and Franscessence by Robert Glasper are effective mood pieces. Fine trumpeter Keyon Harrold takes on several tough jobs: coasting Miles-ishly over the obligatory rap track for the credit sequence; playing Davis’s rival Junior for the fidgety fusion of Junior’s Jam; and impersonating post-rehab Davis for What’s Wrong With That.
This tune, by Cheadle, Glasper and Marcus Strickland, imagines the trumpeter’s triumphant comeback with a deliberately anachronistic all-star band that includes Glasper, Harrold, Cheadle, bassist Esperanza Spalding, drummer Antonio Sanchez, guitarist Gary Clark Jr, with Davis alumni Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. It’s an odd but effective ending to an oddly endearing film.
Ian Carr wrote that Davis ‘played with fire all his life and courted the flame.’ As a movie, Miles Ahead burns with more of the same. New listeners will always want to discover the music of Miles Davis. This soundtrack might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
MILES AHEAD – ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK TRACK LISTING
1. Miles Ahead
2. Dialogue: “It takes a long time…” (*)
3. So What
4. Taylor Made – Taylor Eigisti
5. Dialogue: “Listen, you talk too goddam much…” (*)
6. Solea (excerpt)
7. Seven Steps To Heaven (edit)
8. Dialogue: “If you gonna tell a story…”(*)
9. Nefertiti (edit)
10. Frelon Brun
11. Dialogue: “Sometimes you have these thoughts…”(*)
12. Duran (take 6) (edit)
13. Dialogue: “You own my music…”(*)
14. Go Ahead John (part two C)
15. Black Satin (edit)
16. Dialogue: “Be musical about this shit…”(*)
17. Prelude #II
18. Dialogue: “Y’all listening to them…?”(*)
19. Junior’s Jam – Robert Glasper, Keyon Harrold, Marcus Strickland
20. Francessence – Robert Glasper, Keyon Harrold, Elena Pinderhughes
21. Back Seat Betty (excerpt)
22. Dialogue: “I don’t like the word jazz…” (*)
23. What’s Wrong With That? – Don Cheadle, Robert Glasper, Gary Clark, Jr., Herbie Hancock, Keyon Harrold, Antonio Sanchez, Esperanza Spaulding, Wayne Shorter
24. Gone 2015 – Robert Glasper, Keyon Harrold, Pharoahe Monch
(*) from the soundtrack of the film, Don Cheadle as Miles Davis
All other tracks performed by Miles Davis, except where noted
LINK: John L Walters wrote a feature about Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography by Ian Carr, for the Independent in 1998
Mike Figgis in his book wasn't that specific. First he got the date wrong (1955 he wrote), then he only talks about how the music stays in one key and how “from this point onwards his music immediately becomes much simpler”, which is in itself a gross simplification, and doesn't mention modes. I would argue that a stripped down harmonic structure doesn't mean that the music gets simpler. The complexity is shifted to other parameters. However I agree with saying that this soundtrack has had a huge influence on Davis' following studio recordings, even though I think that this was an opportunity for him to work on already-formed ideas, and he jumped on it, rather than a complete discovery.
For more interesting discussions about Ascenseur Pour l'Échafaud and Miles Davis, I would recommend this thesis: The origins of modal jazz in the music of Miles Davis: A complete transcription and a linear /harmonic analysis of Ascenseur pour l'Échafaud (Lift to the Scaffold), 1957, by Pejrolo, Andrea, New York University, 2001; as well as pages 13,14 and 41 of Keith Waters' book, The Studio Recordings of the Miles Davis Quintet, 1965-1968.
On page 41 there's an informative note with further references on the subject.
His Soundtrack to Jack Johnson's documentary is another one that had a big influence on his music. I'm surprised it's not there.
I haven't seen the film yet, I'm afraid I will have to wait for the Blu Ray, as it is not shown in my area, but it seems to be close to Miles Davis' spirit if not to the historical facts which are not very important for a film like that. Davis had so much fun acting like a hard-core criminal for the cover of “You're Under Arrest” and in Miami Vice that it makes little doubt that he would have appreciated Cheadle's version of his personality.