Miles Davis: Tutu

Miles Davis. What does that name mean to you? To most folks who are into music it is a name to be revered and reckoned with. Saying that his name may spur one to reflect upon monikers such as legend, master, and virtuoso may be an understatement. Suffice it to say the man helped drive and define jazz for several key decades in its history and is remembered by many as a genius and an innovator.


Say the word, let it roll around on your tongue for a moment, and think about true innovation. What is innovation? Well, I can tell you what it is not. Innovation is not rage against the machine hyper-stylizing an image or a ’cause’ with their music. That my friends is marketing.

Big difference.

Innovation is not The Strokes, a band considered by some to have started a ‘movement’ (ugh, there’s that word) when really all they did was re-hash an old familiar formula at just the right time and in front of just the right set of A&R people. They’re good at what they do, it’s just not innovation because it’s not anything new.

I seem to be really good at telling you what innovation is not, but that doesn’t help us define what it is right? Weeeellllllll… let me try your patience for but a moment longer, a moment in which I need to invoke just more ‘not’ in order to segue into the concept of what exactly innovation is, so bear with me please.

Innovation is not always ‘good’ or likeable. In fact, true innovation often stinks to high heaven when seen from a short enough distance of retrospection. Innovation is new ideas and new ways of looking at old things. Merriam Webster online defines Innovation as:

Date: 15th century
1 : the introduction of something new2 : a new idea, method, or device : novelty

And what happens when someone brings something new to an old standard or formula? Quite often, people do not like it, that’s what happens. Even though everyone you ask will go out of their way to make you believe they want something different I can assure you, that is not the case. To quote the Streets: ‘You say that everything sounds the same – then you go buy them‘ – about the masses, truer words were never spoken.

So in 1986 when Miles Davis hooked up with Tommy LiPuma and Marcus Miller to make an album that for all intensive purposes gave birth to Smooth Jazz, the future bane of the Jazz world, I’m sure not everyone was happy. Of course Davis and his collaborators did not know what would follow when they recorded Tutu, so it’s hard to say whether the album was received with animosity at the time for it’s texture or if it wasn’t until all of the Smooth Elevator stations set in and became their own self-fulfilling prophecies that people did the detective work and traced it’s dark origins back to Davis’ mid-80’s album. But whether it was instantaneous or a slow burn, I know that, from the mouths of a lot of old Jazz hounds I’ve met, this one is particularly hated.

So I’d heard a lot about this record but it wasn’t until I found a $.99 copy of Tutu on cassette at a Goodwill recently that I actually heard the album first hand for myself. My reaction?

Wow. In both good and bad perspectives, wow.

Okay, it’s pretty bad, in that new-age-salon kinda way that smooth Jazz banks on. The basslines are Night-Courtish with their constantly stilted slap/pop. The keyboards waft and dawdle, their textures often similar to the unwanted traces of lavender bubble bath that might choke an otherwise refreshing gulp of water taken from the wrong tap. But the trumpet… it’s not my favorite production on Miles’ instrument of choice – not even close – but there is something to it. The sound is over-produced and a bit tinny perhaps, but it si those exact elements that so perfectly conjure a strange other-worldliness. And there’s more throat than horn, so the sound comes across more like a voice than the instrument we’re maybe used to hearing from a Jazz legend like this. If you can try and put yourself in the mental context of what was going on in the world and it’s various artistic ventures – especially film – you might see how this vocal quality gave a strange, precognitive quality to the instrument at that time. It is while keeping this quality in mind that we are most reminded of the innovation at work on Tutu. Not an easy innovation to listen to, but the fact remains that nothing had ever sounded like this before. Tangerine Dream would later get close to a similar tone on one end of the electronic music spectrum, but that was wasn’t for some time. Tutu was Jazz’s logical integration of the continued fallout of 60’s idealism – itself a dangerous thing by the middle of the decade defined by nuclear fear and ronnie reagan and his wacky tomfoolery at the expense of the free world. I’m not necessarily saying this is where Davis was was coming from, or that he ever could have guessed at the saturation point such a non-obtrusive form of jazz might provide if slipped into the hands of the right person with leverage to understand they could sell it to EVERY public place that pipes in music (post Tutu known as Muzak), but like I did say, it fit with the time and the place.

Along with these relative areas of interest there are also places where Tutu made me want to give myself papercuts in the webbing between my toes. Bland, presumptuous and contrived are all adjectives that spring to mind. However that may very well be the historical reaction of someone who discovered jazz after the existence of Muzak was already a frightening reality. And yet you could also say that, to the ears of that same person, someone having grown up absorbing and inherently understanding the cliches and pop-culture connotations of Smooth Jazz*, that even while godawful to listen to in theory, sometimes Tutu is maybe just nice and, well… smooth. Smooth and actually – even though I don’t want to say it – quite mystical. And that is what they were hoping for anyway, right? If Smooth Jazz was the terminus point of a two-and-a-half decade romp with consciousness expansion musicians embraced, from the pot and acid of the 60’s, to the coke and heroin of thee 70’s and early 80’s, on into, recovery and, honestly banality**, Tutu was the crowning achievement of it, for good or bad. Hippies moved to the burbs, took out business loans and opened those New Age shops that thrive on Eckert Tolle, Sylvia Browne and the musicians who created Smooth Jazz. Not on Davis’ musical directly, but upon the legions he inspired.

Same thing.

With his own drug romps Davis flirted with and produced some incredible Innovations. Bitches’ Brew – C’mon, if you look at the footage from them playing that live at the Filmore West it just looks (and sounds for that matter) like Acid. That was innovation – and it was spiritual in a way that I believe both led to and is betrayed by some of what Davis did later. Tutu… yes, it was innovation, it just sounds a little bit lamer now that it’s a couple decades under our social belt and it helped pave the way for guys like Kenny G. But again, innovation is like anything else in life – sometimes you gotta take the good with the bad. I don’t know that I’d call Tutu ‘good’ perse, but if you’re into Jazz and it’s evolution it’s worth $.99 at a thrift store for sures.


* I don’t understand it either and it’s a recent development. When I go home to visit in Chicago and stay at my parents’ house there is a small room above our garage and in it my Dad keeps a radio playing Smooth Jazz 24/7. He says it keeps raccoons away (there’s a hole in the roof that everytime he fixes the raccoons re-open). I’m usually there drinking with friends into the wee hours of the morning and the last couple times, stumbling around in the dark, some of it actually worked for me. I know, I know. I can’t determine if this is a sure fire sign that I’m ‘Thirty Something’ or what, but in my defense I’ll just say if you want to lambast all things smooth I’ve got just one thing to say, Sade. She’s always ruled and always will. So there.

** Look at Aerosmith. Perfect example. Drugs = great albums, sober = shite. Sorry guys, just how it is…

Shawn C Baker

Shawn C Baker

Shawn lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts Drinking w/ Comics, writes screenplays and fiction and has been known to drink quite a bit of beer. Good beer.