Miles Davis’ ‘Rubberband’ Finally Arrives


Miles Davis in 1986, around the time he recorded the album Rubberband

(Photo: Suzanne Rault Balet)

The phenomenon of “lost” jazz recordings finally emerging has caused waves throughout the jazz world. In addition to their entertainment value, these albums—which typically have been in storage for decades—can deepen fans’ and critics’ understanding of a musician’s artistic arc.

A new, reworked version of Miles Davis’ Rubberband (Rhino) sheds light on the trumpeter’s mindset and aesthetic in the mid-1980s, a period that would yield his acclaimed 1986 album, Tutu, produced by Marcus Miller.

Rubberband, which uses one of Davis’ paintings for its cover art, chronicles sessions that the trumpeter recorded in 1985–’86. The sessions were designed to generate his first album for Warner Bros., following his departure from the Columbia label, his home for 30 years. Davis, now working far outside the pure jazz realm, might have taken an artistic turn that befuddled Warner Bros. executives, including Tommy LiPuma, who had been named vice president of Jazz and Progressive Music at Warner Bros. in 1979.

According to a recent press release from Rhino, Davis intended to recruit guest vocalists for the project, including Al Jarreau and Chaka Khan. But those sessions never materialized.

DownBeat recently caught up with Vince Wilburn Jr.—Davis’ nephew, the drummer for the original Rubberband sessions and the executive producer of the new release—while he was on a national tour to promote Stanley Nelson’s documentary Miles Davis: Birth Of The Cool. The drummer said he believes there was a major disconnect between the bandleader and company brass.

“Uncle Miles wanted to record a pop hit that was radio friendly,” Wilburn said over the phone, while adding that the premise for his uncle’s embrace of commercial sounds was steeped in the vibrancy of ’80s funk and rock music. “He was watching MTV with the sound down and seeing people like Prince, Toto, Scritti Politti and Herbie Hancock’s ‘Rockit.’ He loved melodies and loved funk. He was so excited with the Rubberband music when we went on the road. He dug it so much, and the audience was digging it.”

Despite the positive reaction of concertgoers, executives at Warner Bros. apparently didn’t have faith in the new material. It’s unclear exactly why the album got nixed and the degree to which Davis felt wronged by the decision. “No one will ever know what really happened,” Wilburn said.

Mystery has surrounded the Rubberband sessions ever since. When Warner Bros. was assembling the compilation The Last Word: The Warner Bros. Years, two tracks from the sessions—“Rubberband” and “Maze”—were, at one point, slated for inclusion. After several delays, when the 8-CD package finally arrived in 2015, both Rubberband session tracks were omitted. But the set does include a live rendition of “Maze,” recorded in Nice, France.

When Wilburn was approached in 2017 to take another listen to the Rubberband recordings, he discovered that the tapes were deteriorating. He contacted the original producers, Randy Hall and Attala Zane Giles, who were thrilled at the chance to complete a new version of the album, and embarked on the painstaking process of creating digital transfers.

“We listened to what had been recorded and agreed to rewrite some of the tracks, to make them sound modern but respectful of who Uncle Miles was,” Wilburn explained. “We didn’t recreate. We revisited and added a few new sprinkles, like calypso and go-go. In our listening sessions, Randy, Zane and I would tweak the originals back and forth until we were satisfied we had the basics of Uncle Miles. It had life, and the more we added, it came to have a new life on its own. It blossomed. Chief was there all the way.”

The revitalized album captures Davis’ muscular, enchanting trumpet work at its best as he led his spirited band—including guitarist Mike Stern and keyboardist Adam Holzman—on a rollicking ride through an unpredictable kaleidoscope of soul, funk, rock and jazz. The music jumps and dances out of the speakers in a way that Davis would have embraced. Kept intact were the bandleader’s exuberant shouts of “rubberband” amid his trumpet solos. To complete the album, producers invited contemporary performers to contribute vocals, including r&b stars Ledisi and Lalah Hathaway.

Ledisi leads off the funky affair with a soul/gospel groove on “Rubberband Of Life.” Hathaway hits the soulful balladic mark on “So Emotional,” which originally was an instrumental track, and Hall and Giles embellished Davis’ supple horn flavors with lyrics.

“Friends of Vince called me to see if I could wrap my voice around the song,” Hathaway said recently. “I felt like I could feel the classic Miles tinges. Even though I was wary about taking this on, I felt comfortable. I never met Miles, but he was a huge influence. I see myself as a vocalist who improvises, which I got from Miles. Kind Of Blue is at the top of my [list of] 10 Desert Island albums. Miles plays pure. It was a great experience recording this song with Miles, even though we couldn’t have a real conversation. I conversed with him in another way.” DB

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On Sale Now
May 2024
Stefon Harris
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