The Man with the Horn
[Columbia FC J6790]
Miles Davis participated, or was a seminal figure in, most of the major jazz movements from the postwar bop era to the fusion experiments of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. He was father to the birth of cool, pointed the way to modal improvisation in the late ‘50s, and gave a sizable portion of the important jazz figures of the past ten years a launchpad from which to blast off.
Davis’ last record of new music came out in 1975, and jazz fans have eagerly awaited the latest proclamation from a living legend. To this day, Miles’ inimitable style, his vast accomplishments and numerous awards, and his undeniable talent for playing the loneliest trumpet in the universe have assured him of a permanent and crucially important position in the history of jazz. This position is not seriously threatened by the release of The Man with the Horn, yet, significantly, the disc does not signal any sort of directional progress from the music Miles was recording ten years ago. In fact, the glaring inadequacies of the new album demand an examination of the problems encountered along the direction in which Miles was headed at the time of his last recordings. After all, he was going somewhere, wasn’t he?
The path of fusion blazed by Miles and his boys a decade ago ended up going almost nowhere. With few exceptions, the music that evolved from the experiments of In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew degenerated into either virtuosic self-indulgence (“I can play faster than anybody”), technical overkill (“I can list more keyboards in my instrument credits than anybody”), or crass commercialism (“I can fool more listeners than anybody, no matter who they are”). The important contributions of the Miles Davis bands of the early seventies, including the introduction of electric instruments and multi-textured collective improvisations, were assimilated with some degree of success by such groups as the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report and more recently, the Arthur Blythe-James Ulmer collaborations. But fusion didn’t open any new doors, it just .put a few cracks in some old ones.
This is a lesson Davis does not seem to have grasped. The Man with the Horn is another fusion album, and if it had been recorded by anyone but “the man” himself, it would be dismissed as such, and probably ignored by most reputable, sensible jazz aficionados.
The album consists of six tunes, all slickly produced on Columbia’s Discomputer System, which gives the selections a smooth, processed sound. The compositions are not overwhelmingly original or memorable (in a pleasant sense at any rate), and they all contain an underlying “funky” beat just right for groovin’ the guests at your next party, just wrong for proposing an interesting challenge to soloists and listeners alike. The snappy rhythms and crisp, clean sound of the record will agree with many tastes, to others it will indicate a disappointing stagnation, a decline even, in the work of one of jazz’s master musicians. It may be a nice album, but since when does Miles Davis make “nice” albums? I’ll take the gritty guitar and manic organ work on Jack Johnson over the nice zooming synthesizer and sweet Stevie Wonder-ish vocals by Randy Hall on the title cut any day. I prefer my Miles “bad,” or at least beautiful, but not nice.
The occasionally inspired guitar of Barry Finnerty, especially on “Back Seat Betty,” is more often a poor amalgamation of a Hendrix-McLaughlin style gone stark raving Benson. Mike Stern assumes the fret(ful) chores on one tune, “Fat Time,” with no discernible improvement. Marcus Miller, who also plays bass guitar with other fusionists such as Dave Liebman, is a fine example of a graduate from the Stanley Clarke School of Plucking as Playing. Adequate support from the percussion end of the group is provided by the capable but undistinguished work of drummer Vincent Wilburn and miscellaneous percussionist Sammy Figueroa. The only consistently vital instrumentalizing on the album is Bill Evans’ soprano sax work. Recalling early Wayne Shorter, Evans’ solos on “Back Seat Betty” and “Fat Time” are lyrical and loose, dynamic and aggressive - never overbearing or flippant. Miles’ playing is, well, basic Miles. His solos are the usual stark, muted echo runs punctuated by a spurt-spurt here and a wah-wah there. There’s just no way to enjoy hearing Miles’ solitary touch, the softly held notes, or to appreciate his economy and understatement within the context of this discombobulated electro-drizzle.
Evans’ efforts aside, the general mediocrity comes to a head of sorts on the tune “Shout,” something you may find yourself doing once you hear the song, and not for joy, either. I never thought Miles could sound like Doc Severinsen, but here it is. Complete with a team of three writers, a mini-moog synthesizer, a Yamaha CP30 (clever name, eh, R2?), a Tonight Show Orchestra arrangement and a rhythm guitar accompaniment that should have been abandoned in Detroit about 15 years ago, “Shout” is as close to an embarrassment on record as anything Ray Stevens ever attempted.
The remaining two cuts, “Aida” and “Ursula,” fall into a swinging, space-funk type of groove with the former employing a Santana-like rhythm to give the soloists a solid bottom over which to improvise, and the latter (the highlight of the album) setting up a fine walking tempo that finally gives the musicians and Miles a chance to stretch out. Loose and simple, “Ursula” features some exciting solo work by Miles, along with a relaxed, poignant percussion section and unpretentious guitar rhythms laid down by Finnerty.
On his unique jazz journey, Miles Davis remains a strong structural support element in the matrix of jazz history, but The Man with the Horn does not place him in the forefront of today’s best music. He is behind the lines now, lending strength to the revolutionary sounds and youthful players of the new music of the ‘80s, instead of strutting ahead into the vanguard with the ideas and the chops to make good things happen.