Miles Davis: The Making of ‘Tutu’ (Part 2 of 2)

This is Part Two of 2 Parts | Read Part 1

Re-enter Marcus Miller, the brilliant young electric bassist who had worked with Miles on Man With the Horn and We Want Miles, and who had left primarily because he was so in demand as a session bassist that to stay with Miles meant losing money.

Marcus Miller, producer of the Miles Davis album Tutu.
Marcus Miller

During his time away he had worked with Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin, Grover Washington, Jr., David Sanborn, and Bob James. His track record demonstrated his ability to move easily between jazz, R&B, and other pop music forms.

Miller is completely comfortable with the intersection between jazz, R&B, rock, hip-hop, and electronica as well as the dichotomy between commercially viable and highly creative music because he grew up at a time when many artists, including Miles Davis, were living comfortably in that intersection.

As a session musician, Miller had seen that drum programming and synthesized bass lines could be used to replace working musicians. As hip-hop grew from its infancy in the shadow of the Bronx projects to fully produced studio music, machines and editing were used to recreate the sounds that DJs had created by hand in the playground with nothing more than a couple of turntables and some 12-inch discs.

Yet he still saw the opportunity for a sharp musician to use the machines creatively. “I don’t ever blame bad music on the tools. Put a drum machine in Prince’s hands and you got something else. You can’t blame synthesizers and overdubbing for a lack of soul in music. Listen to Songs In the Key of Life. Stevie overdubbed that whole record and that thing is just bad.”vi
The Jamaica Boys-“Spend Some Time With Me”

In 1984, Miller started the group The Jamaica Boys with drummer Lenny White and keyboard player Bernard Wright. White had been known as the drummer with the most popular lineup of Chick Corea’s Return to Forever, and Wright had joined Lenny’s band at the age of 13. He had also played with trumpeter Tom Browne, who scored a huge fusion/funk hit in 1980 called “Funkin’ for Jamaica.”

Wright also recorded with Cameo, a synthesizer funk outfit that had probably served as a model for some of the Rubber Band Session material, perhaps including “Rubber Band” itself. The Jamaica Boys were doing things that sounded fairly similar to what Miller ended up doing for his demo tracks on Tutu, working what was something of a synth-created dub bassline into what was otherwise a funk track, creating a great deal of space for whatever would go around it. It made Marcus the perfect candidate to create a modern setting in which Miles Davis’s trumpet could be the star attraction.

Miller didn’t expect the demos he put together for LiPuma and Davis to be used on the actual album; he thought they’d be fleshed out by additional musicians. But LiPuma liked the sound and the feel of the demos, and he asked Miller to go ahead and reproduce them as multitrack recordings in the studio.

In order to do this Miller used drum machine programs as well as MIDI. MIDI does not record the actual music itself, as a digital sample would. Instead, it records the information required to produce the music: note-on, note-off, pitch blend, etc. The sounds that are played are sounds that are already stored in a library of digitized samples of recorded sound contained in the receiving instrument or the soundcard of the receiving computer.

Davis could reproduce the sounds he and Miller created in the studio by supplementing his working band with programmed synthesizers to provide the additional tonal colors, making his band sound larger. This meant that the live working groups Davis led from 1986 on were a combination of live musicians with pre-programmed synthesizer parts, a remarkable precursor of the live-musician-with-DJ music that started to be produced in the late 1990s.

Davis’s live bands during these years were exceptional bands playing well beyond the parameters of what could be heard on recordings. Davis concentrated on directing the band, deciding what soloists should play when, for how long, and when the group would segue into the next number, all while adding his unique trumpet sound to the mix.

It is not at all far-fetched to see Davis operating as a DJ in these groups, adding, mixing, and manipulating the various elements of his band to provide listeners with a unique emotional experience at each live performance.

Miller also worked with producer/keyboardist Jason Miles on the programming for Tutu. Jason had definitely become known for his synthesizer programming skills and his ability to create new, unusual sounds that created perfect settings for the performers he was working with, which included Vandross, Michael Jackson, the Jamaica Boys, and Whitney Houston.

By the time Tutu came up, Miles and Miller had been working together for some time. In addition, LiPuma’s emphasis on pre-production enabled him to focus on the development of the settings Miller was putting together, since there wasn’t going to be much “working it out, through rehearsals with the act.” In fact, Miller tried to have things set up and ready to go with his programming in the studio so that when Miles arrived they could get going and get his first take or two down on tape, as both Miller and Davis felt that was where the magic happened.

This is a far different approach to making records than the one Davis had used from the Bitches Brew sessions until his retirement in 1975, when Teo Macero had simply let the tapes roll and the emphasis was on allowing the musicians to explore certain areas of the music without worrying about whether the results would be part of a master take. The change reflected changes in the recording industry itself as well as in the way music was being composed and produced.

Miles Davis-“TuTu”

Tutu is very much like the electronic popular music being produced today, in which a single musician or DJ, or sometimes a duo, works in a home studio to create, produce, and record their musical vision, then send it off to the record company. Ultimately, Davis saw the advantages of working this way in much the same terms as any DJ or synthesizer programmer sees it—as a question of control:

“Doing it the old way, recording like we used to, is just too much trouble and takes too much time. Some people say they miss that spontaneity and spark that comes out of recording with a band right there in the studio. Maybe that’s true; I don’t know. All I know is that the new recording technology makes it easier to do it the way we have been doing it.” viii

Davis and Miller continued to work this way on Siesta and Amandla, though the latter album did bring in a number of musicians from Davis’s touring band, but again, they were adding to and playing against what had already been committed to tape.

Miles Davis was not primarily producing music for the dance club, and so Tutu, while utilizing the fusion of live musician and technology that has become the hallmark of music production, is still primarily a jazz-based album aimed at the listener. Miller’s use of drum programs is very loose and organic for the time in which it was done, and the cool colors and harmonies he uses on tracks like “Tutu” and “Tomaas” have been called reminiscent of Gil Evans, though Miller was actually aiming for chord voicings like those used by Herbie Hancock in the second great quintet.

“The harmonies and layers were directly influenced by Herbie Hancock but I came to find that Herbie was very influenced by Gil Evans”, Miller has said. What’s interesting to note is that black music, which had been carefully separated into a variety of mutually-exclusive genres by the record companies, seemed to have found a way to bring them all back together as well as to become part of the mainstream musical culture. If bebop was, as someone once said, jazz with the soul removed, it had taken the better part of the next thirty years for jazz to get that soul back.

Likewise, dance music, which had taken a long, slow route from funk to disco to hip-hop to electro, techno, and house to acid jazz, drum ‘n’ bass, trance, and other electronic hybrids, was finally finding its way back into the mainstream after years underground. But much of this was momentum from the seventies. By the mid-eighties, the social divisions between black and white (as well as the musical divisions) were beginning to reassert themselves.

According to Miller:“…Things started to polarise again. ‘The jazz guys ran back to the real far end of jazz. They’re all wearing suits and doing the jazz of the sixties. And I don’t just blame Wynton Marsalis. The thing is a lot of people followed him because they were getting uncomfortable with not being able to define things…’Musically everybody ran to the edges. R&B got really hard and primal. Hip hop took over, then classicist jazz took over, then all of a sudden people weren’t interacting anymore. And that was always my thing. You know E, W&F (Earth, Wind & Fire) and Herbie (Hancock). I grew up loving that music and I refused to let that go.”ix

One of the charges made against Tutu is that there is no give and take between the musicians because one of the musicians is not a musician per se, but rather the programs set up by Marcus Miller. The argument is rather similar to the objection of some critics to the use of drum loops on On the Corner.

Miller played soprano sax, bass, and bass clarinet on the album, at times playing in the studio right along with Miles. His bass work helps to create an illusion of a real drummer, as does Miles’s trumpet work, weaving in and out of the landscape, sometimes playing a brief ensemble passage along with the programmed synthesizers, and then taking off into a chromatic flurry. There’s an illusion studio bassist Carol Kaye shows her students called the “syncopated metronome” which allows her to make a metronome appear to be “swinging” while she is playing along with it—this is the kind of skilled work a real musician can bring to the studio and Marcus Miller certainly brought it on the Tutu sessions.

To those who say that Tutu is like a tennis pro playing against a serving machine, Davis replied: “If a musician is really professional he will give you what you want in terms of performance in the studio by playing off and against the band that’s already down on tape. I mean, the motherfucker can hear what is being played, can’t he?”x

Miles took it as a challenge to weave his trumpet sound and feel for the music into the tracks laid down by Miller, Jason Miles, and George Duke, and the result is an album that is beautiful, completely of its time, and yet completely Miles.

At the 1986 Grammy Awards, Miles won Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Soloist for Tutu. Prince won Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal for the song “Kiss.” Wynton Marsalis took home Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Group for his album J Mood.

This is Part Two of 2 Parts | Read Part 1


i Nick Kent, “Lightening Up With the Prince of Darkness”
ii Kent
iii Davis, The Autobiography, pp. 334
iv Paul Elliot, Q Magazine, October 2002
v Eric Rudolph, Producer Tommy LiPuma: Making Magic with Diana Kral, Mix Magazine,
vi Marcus Miller, exclusive interview by Kevin Le Gendre, from Jazzwise
vii Excerpts from the keynote address at the Retail Music Expo, Chicago, IL June 3, 2001
viiiMiles Davis & Quincy Troup, Miles: The Autobiography, pp.371
ix Kevin Le Gendre, exclusive interview with Marcus Miller,
x Miles Davis & Quincy Troup, Miles: The Autobiography, pp.371

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