Despite his deserved recognition as one of the most influential musicians of all time, Miles Davis had an uncomfortable relationship with critics. His relationship with white critics especially, for the best part of his career, was particularly sour. A black man who had grown up in an age in which overt racism was commonplace, he felt many white critics dismissed his work due to his attitude, influence and approach to music making. “They had to find a way to clip my wings,” Davis explains in his 1989 candid, no-holds-barred autobiography. “I ain’t never been no grinner, or someone who went out of his way to kiss somebody’s ass, especially a critic.”
Rubberband is an 11-track album from the famous trumpeter which was posthumously released on Friday – 33 years after the original recording sessions took place. Many unflattering things have already been written about the album, but the simple truth is Davis just wouldn’t care.
As many critics have failed to recognise, it is almost a redundant exercise writing about any Davis album at the time of its release. His incredible 1971 soundtrack album A Tribute to Jack Johnson for example, was initially considered too jazz for rock critics and too rock for jazz critics. Time and time again, retrospective reviews award additional stars on top of their original assessment – once enough time has passed to fully understand and analyse the music in the context of the socio-political and cultural landscape. In Davis’ own words: “Most (critics) are lazy and don’t want to work too hard to understand contemporary musical expression and language. That’s too much like work for them, so they just put it down every time. Dumb, insensitive critics have destroyed a lot of great music and musicians who just weren’t as strong as I was in having the ability to say “Fuck y’all.””
The producers from the original sessions, Randy Hall and Zane Giles, teamed up with Davis’ nephew, Vince Wilburn, Jr. (who also played drums in the original sessions) to complete the album. While there are some tracks here which clearly outshine others, the production team ought to be congratulated for their techniques and approach. The producers have stayed true to Davis’ vision and sound, only utilising reverb and effects which he was already using at the time. It’s a distinctive mid-1980s Davis sound which emanates from his horn and embouchure and it bears remarkable similarity at times to his 1984, John Scofield-featured album Decoy and 1985’s pop-influenced release You’re Under Arrest. It just wouldn’t make sense to try and make him sound the way he did two or three decades earlier, during his bebop, modal, rock or free jazz phases. Conceptually and sonically, this album exists squarely in the right place and time within Davis’ immense catalogue.
Introducing vocals to the mix in a similar way to that of Everything’s Beautiful, an exceptional 2016 Davis release overseen by contemporary jazz pioneer Robert Glasper, “Rubberband of Life” features 12-time Grammy nominee Ledisi. “If you wanna make a life, if you wanna win, I wanna win, you gotta make a sacrifice, put the effort in,” she sings over a deep trip-hop groove, in a multilayered style almost reminiscent of Chaka Khan. Davis’ trumpet lines also appropriately take centre stage on the opener, so as to introduce the artist to a new generation of fans.
“This Is It” features soaring electric guitar lines, dissonant synth chord stabs and tight, rounded synth bass in a precursor to what would come on his 1986 album Tutu. Next, “Paradise” takes on a calypso feel and Stevie Wonder-esque chord progressions and vocal harmonies courtesy of featured artist Medina Johnson. Initially entering the fray as somewhat of an underwhelming song, the track builds and clicks into another gear in its second half, employing a healthy multilayered arrangement.
“So Emotional” is based around a slow 90s RnB groove and features talented vocalist Lalah Hathaway, the daughter of soul legend, keyboardist, songwriter and vocalist Donny Hathaway. It’s unclear what direction the original track may have sounded like were it released bare-bones, as is. Given the benefit of the doubt and assuming that the resulting track is true to Davis’ original direction simply serves to underscore his mastery as an innovative musical figure who was capable of crossing boundaries.
“Give It Up” will serve as a definite highlight for fans – especially those who revel in his collaborations in the 80s with the caliber of artists such as saxophonist Bob Berg and bassist Darryl Jones. An upbeat number, “Give It Up” takes on a decidedly funk feel and is complete with Prince-like 9th chords and slap bass.
“Maze” continues the funky vibes with a number of chromatic runs courtesy of Berg and guitarist Mike Stern. While technically proficient and a welcome inclusion for hardcore fans, the track may prove to be too “out there” for casual listeners.
The next three tracks, “Carnival Time”, “I Love What We Make Together” and “See I See” aren’t as strong as some of the ones preceding it and perhaps could be accused of going through the motions somewhat. Fortunately, “Echoes In Time/The Wrinkle” redeems with an inspired, deep funk bassline in one of the album’s highlights. Davis’ trumpet lines here sound simultaneously meandering and sparse, but never boring, instead serving as the vital glue to the rest of the disorienting instrumental arrangement.
The album is bookended by “Rubberband”, the title track of the album which was also included on last year’s Rubberband EP release. Davis’ horn lines here are the same as album opener “Rubberband of Life”, which gives some insight into how the album may have been constructed.
Rubberband isn’t a long-lost album which many fans may have been hoping for, such as last year’s posthumous John Coltrane release Both Directions At Once. However, there are gems in there for sure, and enough here to reward with multiple repeated listens. In Davis’ absence, the production team ought to be commended for preserving his vision and philosophies, while delivering an album which may resonate with a modern listenership. But at the end of the day, does it really matter what a white critic thinks?