This September will see the release by Rhino Records of a Miles Davis album, an album that is ‘previously unheard,’ “previously unreleased’ or even ‘lost’ depending on what press release or music blog you read. The album, titled Rubberband after its most fully realized track, will hit stores September 9.
Now I’m a big Miles fan, and I’m excited to hear major unreleased music of his as well as side projects or projects by other artists that are based on some of his music. But I have a few issues with Rubberband.
First, it is not a ‘lost’ or even ‘previously unreleased’ album because it was never a completed album in the first place. Second, the long, torturous journey of these tracks at the hands of Davis’ estate, and especially his nephew Vince Wilburn Jr., makes them more of a musical project utilizing Davis source material, not unlike Davis’ final official album release Doo-Bop. Finally, the narrative that is being constructed around the release or non-release of this ‘lost album’ is not really true.
In the early 2000s, I was working on a book proposal about Miles Davis’ electric music and the influence that musicians from his bands had on popular music, jazz, hip hop, and electronic music going all the way to the present day. In the course of my research, I found out about the Rubberband sessions and the fact that Warner Brothers was making some of the tracks (two, it turned out) available on their forthcoming collection of Davis’ Warner recordings The Last Word. After promising to only listen to the discs myself and not to sell them on eBay, I was sent a set of burned copies of the proposed release.
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The Last Word never got released in that form because of a number of legal issues involving everything from the inclusion of a couple of tracks Prince and Miles had worked on to the liner notes. The project was scrapped, and when The Last Word was finally released in 2015 as an 8 CD set, it contained no music that hadn’t already been released by Warner.
My book was never finished either, but I had written several sample chapters, one of which talks extensively about the making of Miles’ first Warner release Tutu, which will be published in an edited format on New Directions In Music next week.
Miles went into the studio on October 17 with a group that included Adam Holzman, Glen Burris, Steve Reid, Neil Larsen, Wayne Linsey, and Davis’ nephew, Vince Wilburn. They recorded the track “Rubberband” at the first session, then there were breaks while Miles and Holzman were playing live dates. By mid-November, they had recorded a dozen or so tracks in a diverse set of styles, many of which remained unfinished. In addition, Miles played on some tracks but never put down anything on others.
The problem with these sessions is that they weren’t different enough from what Miles had been doing during his last few releases at Columbia Records and Warner Brothers, particularly producer Tommy LiPuma understandably wanted to make a big splash with Davis’ first release for the label.
Immediately prior to the Rubberband sessions, Miles had recorded a track called “Maze” with his regular band including Mike Stern and Bob Berg. “Maze” was more of Davis’ chromatic funk, a style he’d been playing since shortly after his 1985 comeback, but it was also influenced by the funk rock style of Frankie Beverly’s group Maze. On “Rubberband” the idea was heavily influenced by a bass-heavy funk with rock stylings favored by up and coming group Cameo. In short, Miles was definitely looking towards what was going on in the more pop-oriented black/R&B recording world more than the white pop (“Human Nature,” “Time After Time”) he’d been working with at Columbia.
The Rubberband sessions demonstrated one thing: Miles was completely open to working with drum machines, synthesizers, and using then-current musical technology like MIDI and sequencers in order to create a new sound. That was duly noted by Marcus Miller when LiPuma brought him on board to work on the album that would become Tutu, but the sound and style that he and LiPuma steered the project toward was vastly different than what had emerged from the hodge-podge of styles Miles had been working on since October.
In truth there never was a ‘Rubberband‘ album–indeed Miles never laid down anything over some of these tracks. After he died his trumpet parts were used for a couple of tracks on Doo-Bop. “Rubberband” and “See I See,” the most interesting tracks from a historical perspective, were slated for The Last Word but were later cut.
Miles did play a number of songs from the sessions live, and these numbers fit in well with his repertoire at the time, but that is what made them less than perfect for Miles’ Warner debut–they were OK, but nothing that would get people to sit up and take notice.
In 2018 Rhino released a five-track EP for Record Store Day. The disc featured the original “Rubberband” track, remixed, and a slower track entitled “Rubberband of Life” with vocals by Ledisi (Miles had planned to ask Chaka Khan and Al Jarreau to contribute vocals to his new album) in both full length and radio edit versions as well as an instrumental version and a remix by Amerigo Gazaway.
“Rubberband of Life” isn’t a bad track, and overlaid with Ledisi’s vocal work it has a nice contemporary vibe. But when people hear this, they are not hearing music that Miles envisioned, music that now sounds more organic and less ‘1980s’ than Tutu with its sometimes dated synthesizer voicings and electronic drums. What they are hearing is more or less a Vince Wilburn Jr. project along with Randy Hall and Zane Giles, who were the original producers. It’s also difficult to imagine why it took another year-plus to complete the album because the Record Store Day release of “Rubber Band” sure seemed like it was priming the pump for something to be released later last year.
To promote the impending release of the full Rubberband album, Rhino recently released a track called “Paradise,” a track with a Caribbean feel that has been completely reworked by Hall, Giles, and Wilburn. In Wilburn’s words:
“The track was dated. We wanted to give it a more carnival-like atmosphere. That’s why we reconstructed it with heavy percussion, bringing in the legendary King Errisson and session ace Munyungo Jackson (Stevie Wonder, Miles Electric Band).”https://www.stereogum.com/2052552/miles-davis-paradise/music/
There it is: the track was dated. We updated it with steel drums and we added Miles’ solos back in with some vocals singing “Come on, take a trip to paradise/Where dreams are just beyond the sea.” Very cheesy.
The problem with these sessions and the tracks they produced wasn’t a political one, as the Davis estate has tried to insinuate in their discussion of Rubberband. Tommy LiPuma wasn’t looking for greater control or to shut out certain people. The problem was that these tracks as laid down at the time were already dated in terms of Miles’ music. LiPuma realized that the avenues Davis was exploring were more transitional than anything else. People have accused LiPuma and Miller of hijacking Tutu and making Miles simply a participant in his own sessions, but there is little to suggest that he was more involved in the Rubberband sessions.