Album of the Week \\ Miles Davis’ ‘Rubberband’ isn’t a classic album to dissect – but it’s a lot of fun

30th August 2019
Miles Davis’ ‘Rubberband’, his lost album from 1985 which is only now getting a first release, shows the old trumpeter having fun and returning to form, albeit in an entirely different musical realm.

Words: Harry Stott

The past couple of years have been good to fans of Jazz titans. Last year saw the release of John Coltrane’s ‘Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album’, released to great acclaim on Impulse! Records, and this year we’ve been treated to another unreleased gem by one of the genre’s undisputed colossuses, as Miles Davis’ own forgotten work, the lost album ‘Rubberband’, comes out on Rhino. At this point, it might be interesting to start drawing comparisons between the two (Davis and Coltrane did of course have a profoundly fruitful musical relationship as part of the former’s Second Great Quintet), however, the sound of each record, and indeed the circumstances surrounding each of their recordings – which both stand up as stellar records in their own ways -couldn’t be more different.

Coltrane’s lost work was recorded at the peak of his powers, during a frenzy of creation in the early sixties that saw the great saxophonist mercilessly rip up the rule book on harmony, writing some of the most intelligent and difficult but ultimately compelling music that has probably ever been, or perhaps will be, written. On ‘Rubberband’, however, we meet Davis towards the end of his career, following a split with Columbia Records and subsequently a five years hiatus from music: the omens of a quality album are not so great.

The 70s saw Davis release some fine music (see the iconic electronic fusion of ‘Bitches Brew’, or the blistering funk of ‘Get Up With It’), but drink, drugs and chronic hip pain had by the 1980s addled the mind that had invented cool Jazz. But remove comparisons with the Miles of the late 50s and 60s, with ‘Birth of the Cool’ and ‘Sketches of Spain’, and then in ‘Rubberband’ you’ll find a really fun album, filled with smart keyboard lines, basses slapped with delicious venom and small snippets of the trumpeter of old.

‘Rubberband’ was recorded in 1985, and has hallmarks of the era littered throughout it, not least in that it features vocalists Al Jarreau and Chaka Khan. It’s a radical break with his previous work, favouring instead uber-crisp 80s production and beats which you would probably associate with hip-hop (a genre which was at that point, foetal in its development). The third track, ‘Paradise’, has both these elements. It starts with Davis whispering in his inimitable rasp, “If you don’t mind, we’d like to play something for you”. You’d assume what follows would be a cool acoustic number – Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Ron Carter and Wayne Shorter appearing from thin air to join him. Instead, we get an electrified track which is pretty typical of the whole album: thumping electronic beats, a fleet of soul singers backing him up, and an effect laden Miles jumping in and out as he pleases. ‘Paradise’ actually sounds more like a Pharell produced track of the noughties, so feel good and simple are its tunes, and catchy its lyrics: “come on take a trip to Paradise … This is where you wanna be”.

Elsewhere, the sound is a little less straightforward. ‘Maze’ is an especially cryptic track, a sign, perhaps, that Davis – the old innovator, inventor of myriad styles and leader of so many great lineups – had not yet been killed off by decades of decadence and debauchery. The bass and keys tumble out contrasting riffs, switching between measured trots and languid funk, before Davis comes in, playing jarring, odd lines, the harmony of which seems completely at odds with the prevailing tune.

The standout song is undoubtedly the opener, ‘Rubberband of Life’, a floor filling, busy song which came out in a single last year. It features vocals from singer Ledisi who, along with Lalah Hathaway, last year recorded some new lines for the album to compliment the rest of the recording. It’s a true earworm, one ripe for sampling: all stomps, thumps and bass grooves that would have even the free Jazz purists gyrating.

For this is what ‘Rubberband’ is: not some classic Davis record to be analysed at length, taken apart to see what harmonic innovations lie within. It’s a lot of fun, both for the listener and you’d guess – after the stagnance of Davis’ life during the late 70s – for the old genius as well.

Check out Judi Jackson’s bumper Spotify playlist with plenty of Jazz greats

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