Music – 1986: The year of Tutu

2012-03-30 11:56

In 1986, at the height of South Africa’s Orwellian years, Miles Davis released Tutu, the last game-changer album of his career. It was dedicated to Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

That was a highly charged year in the global African experience, not least for the famously restless jazz innovator.

As he went into studio to make this album with Marcus Miller, the bassist and producer who headlined this weekend’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival, Davis must have had a lot on his mind.

The prince of darkness had recently returned to performing in 1981 following a five-year hiatus that became known as the five dark years of silence.

Drug use, fast living and a medical operation to get an artificial hip implant in 1975 had slowed him down.

So the 60-year-old master had teamed up with the young bassist to dispel rumours that he was a spent force. They chose a political theme to do it.

Speaking on the phone from Los Angeles, Miller remembers that at the time, South Africa was the foremost thing on his mind.
“All our eyes were on the struggle against apartheid,” he says.

“I wrote the (title) song because I was reading about Desmond Tutu and his work, and at the time we were mostly hearing only about Nelson Mandela. So I wanted to highlight Bishop Tutu too because my grandfather was also an Episcopal bishop.”

The two musicians found themselves at the heart of a tumultuous world.

Oppressed South Africans were even bolder in their pursuit of freedom.

President PW Botha had given his racist Crossing the Rubicon speech the previous year, and had announced a national state of emergency in May 1986.

He’d ordered air strikes against ANC bases in neighbouring African countries.

In the US the Congressional Black Caucus, a political lobby platform organised by African-American politicians and civil society bodies, were also engaged in struggles against the evil-enabling financial relationship between the US and apartheid South Africa.

They won the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which became public law on October 2 1986.

In the world of music, Paul Simon’s superhit project, Graceland, focused the world’s attention on South Africa and its artists.

As Botha’s bombs fell on Lusaka and Gaborone, and Davis’s fans were still digesting his takes on Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time and Michael Jackson’s Human Nature, the musical world needed a real reminder that the king of cool was back in the game.

Musically, Tutu was first dreamed up as a collaboration between Davis and Prince. The two had been jamming and sharing musical ideas for a while. All the more convenient since they both belonged to the same record label.

However, fate had other plans. Record producer Tommy LiPuma remarks in Tutu’s liner notes: “I don’t know why the idea fell through, other than Prince being up to his ass in his own career at the time.”

This placed Miller in the line of destiny. He had worked as a session bassist for Davis on Man With The Horn in 1981, plus he was related to Wynton Kelly, the pianist from Davis’s 60s band.

That aside, Miller, only 27 years old at the time, had already built himself a name both in jazz and popular music.

He had also worked with pianist McCoy Tyner, Luther Vandross, The Temptations and Groover Washington.

So beyond already having a great rapport with Davis, as Ashley Khan writes in the liner notes, “Miller was equally at home in the studio and on stage playing funk or rock, bebop or hip-hop.”

All this made for a controversial creative cocktail for the production of an album worthy of a Miles Davis comeback.

Tutu would feature Miller’s electronically arranged tracks with Davis only laying in his solo horn – a first for Davis, because though he had used synthesisers and other electric instruments in earlier campaigns like Bitches Brew, his process retained the participation of other players in studio.

Tutu has often been compared with Davis’s other collaborative gems like Miles Ahead and Sketches of Spain.

They are seen as the acoustic parallels to Tutu’s digital technological approach.

In the earlier work, Davis had Gil Evans arrange an orchestra to lay down the music over which Davis laid his solo statements.

“The obvious difference was the simple fact that Evans was not an instrumentalist,” as Khan points out. Miller played some bass guitar, synthesisers, soprano sax and bass clarinet.

The compositions are largely composed by Miller. Including an updated version of Davis’s Half Nelson, originally released in 1956 on the album Workin’. Only now it’s called Full Nelson, an ode to Madiba.
Tomaas is a collaborative write-up between the two principals. Though it was a gift to LiPuma, it sounds like it could have been written by Prince. The only piece penned by a third party is Backyard Ritual, by George Duke.

Tutu’s electroacoustic blend and pop leanings augmented by Davis’s brooding brass whispers were an instant controversy. Some jazz purists, critics and fans were scandalised while others were riveted, but no response was passive.

Miller says, in the biodoccie directed by Mike Dibb: “Tutu forced people to take sides. I had people come up to me to say: ‘Man, I loved that album. It changed my life.’ Other people would say: ‘Man, You ruined Miles Davis’s career!’ It was fantastic to me because that’s how it was supposed to be.”

Responding to the stir the album was causing, Davis reportedly looked at Miller, during the bassist’s visit at his Malibu home, mastered his raspy voice and said: “Thanks man, you brought me back.” Now that’s a rare thing for the famously caustic maestro.

In 2010 on the 25th anniversary of his contribution to the Davis masterworks index, Miller went back into studio.

The mission was Tutu Revisited. It features the heir apparent to the trumpet thrown, Christian Scott, channelling the spirit of the late Davis. In fact, Scott also headlined the Cape Town International Jazz Festival last year.

About using Scott to do what Davis did in the first album, Miller says: “Scott is very strongly aware of history and has his eye on the future and getting his own thing. He comes from New Orleans with a great trumpet tradition. So he was ideal.”

Miller then reminds me that “whenever Miles played, you could hear all of his heritage in there. You heard everything from the Blues and Gospel to Michael Jackson.”

Scott has a similar quality. About the revisited Tutu, Miller says it’s free of the drum machine and electro effects of the original.

“Now I have a chance to highlight the musical aspect of the material – like the cool melodies and rhythms. Unlike in the original, where a lot people generally only heard and listened to the technical programming.

“So, it’s like in the original I was like a scientist working alone in the studio. Now there are musicians playing the stuff,”
Miller says.

A quarter of a century since the history that forged Tutu, Miller’s music remains as fresh as when he joined the prince of darkness
in the studio.

Just like the Arch who inspired him, Miller has evolved and found a new musical cause that pays homage to his roots.

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