“Don’t call my music jazz,” commands Don Cheadle in a ragged whisper of a voice designed to summon the spirit of Miles Davis. “It’s social music.”
That sound bite cuts to the heart of the aural scrapbook making up the soundtrack to Cheadle’s new film Miles Ahead. This is no more a conventional film score than Miles Ahead, with all its impressionistic time traveling, is a typical biopic. The album chronicles Davis’ recordings dating back to his Prestige sessions of the 1950s and runs through his electric comeback in 1981 along with the stunning stylistic metamorphosis that occurs in between. Scattered, brief spoken-word segments of Cheadle as Davis, most laden with obscenities, pepper the journey. While the last decade of Davis’ career, a period of highly contemporary groove music is omitted, there are a few present-day remembrances and treatments of his past, mixing some of the trumpeter’s most heralded sidemen with a few immensely innovative disciples from the here and now. The result is an expansive portrait of a notoriously mercurial genius.
Despite Cheadle’s remark, much of the Miles Ahead soundtrack is undeniably jazz, especially when viewing the first dozen years of music chronicled here. The song used as the movie’s (and the album’s) title tune harkens back to 1956, ushered in initially by the bright piano stride of John Lewis before Davis’ boppish clarity kicks in.
The growth commences quickly from there. Enter the golden 1968 blues of Wayne Shorter’s Nefertiti, curiously the soundtrack’s only nod to the famed Davis Quintet that included Herbie Hancock, Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. By 1970, with electricity foremost on his mind, Davis was sparing with the sweaty guitar riffs of John McLaughlin on Duran, which de-emphasizes funk in favor of spiraling trumpet blasts over a lean yet spacious groove. Fast forward to 1981, with Davis back after an extended sabbatical, and we have the cavernous jams and resulting guitar abyss of Back Street Betty. Listen to these tracks, one after the other, and they sound like the work of four different artists, except for the remarkable bell-like clarity of tone within even Davis’ most fractured playing.
The new tracks cut for the film may trouble die-hard fans because they sound self-imitative, something Davis was never guilty of during his lifetime. There is no denying the sleek multi-generational discourse with Hancock and Shorter in one corner and young mavericks like keyboardist Robert Glasper, guitarist Gary Clark Jr. and bassist Esperanza Spalding in the other during What’s Wrong With That. But such a jam glances backward. Place it next to Davis at his groove-centric prime, as in the Eastern-induced funk of Black Satin, and you discover just how futuristic and fearless his “social music” became.