What ‘Rubberband’ Reveals About Miles Davis’s Final Act

By Giovanni Russonello

The album, recorded in the mid-1980s but released this month, tells us more about the trumpeter’s fascinating final years than a new documentary does.

ImageMiles Davis onstage in 1985. “Rubberband,” a new album of work he recorded that year and the next,  was released last week.
Miles Davis onstage in 1985. “Rubberband,” a new album of work he recorded that year and the next,  was released last week.CreditCreditClayton Call/Redferns, via Getty Images
Giovanni Russonello

MTV was on constantly in Miles Davis’s Malibu home during the mid-1980s.

“He would turn the sound up when groups caught his eye,” Davis’s nephew Vince Wilburn Jr., who was living with his uncle at the time and playing drums in his band, recalled in an interview. “It could be Mr. Mister, Cyndi Lauper, Michael Jackson, Prince, Toto.” In his career’s fifth and final act — one that has yet to be fully appreciated, even by his staunchest fans — Davis remained committed to the sounds of the day alongside the wriggling, kaleidoscopic style that had become his trademark.

Davis released “You’re Under Arrest” in 1985; it was his most directly pop-adjacent album, featuring songs by Jackson and Ms. Lauper. But critics savaged it, as they did most of his work in that era, and it contributed to strife between Davis and Columbia Records; he soon jumped ship for Warner Bros.

What happened next has scarcely been documented, even though it represents a significant turn in his career — and shows how restlessly he continued to alchemize history and the present, into his last years. In 1985 and early ’86, Davis quietly recorded a full album’s worth of music with Mr. Wilburn and a cast of other young musicians. The executives at Warner Bros. eventually demanded that Davis ditch the sessions entirely, but last week — after three years of restoration work by Mr. Wilburn and his original production team — “Rubberband,” an 11-track album from those sessions, was released.

It’s a potpourri of experiments, balancing the frayed energy and funky sparring of his 1970s fusion records with layers of synthesizer and protean harmonic movement.

“He wanted a hit on radio,” Randy Hall, a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist who was part of the album’s core production team, said in an interview. At the same time, the vibe at those sessions “was street and it was funky,” Mr. Hall said. “That’s what Miles wanted to get back to, kind of like what he did with ‘Bitches Brew’ and ‘On the Corner.’

At the start of Stanley Nelson’s new documentary, “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool,” currently playing in theaters, Davis is quoted describing music as “like a curse” for him. “If anybody wants to keep creating, they have to be about change,” the actor Carl Lumbly says, reading Davis’s own words.

But the film makes clear that what really tortured Davis was everything except music: the stubborn racism he confronted, his own well-documented and often violent misogyny, his addictions, the ambient distrust he carried with him daily. Music, in fact, was his therapy. By remaining doggedly current in his art, he could stay engaged with a world that he otherwise held in suspicion.

The musicologist Tammy L. Kernodle, who dispenses some of the film’s most acute insights, explains in the documentary that music was “a way of healing.”

For Davis, she says, “it gave him an opportunity to show a vulnerability, and to show a side of him that in the real world he could not show.”

When Davis recorded “Rubberband,” he was married to the actress Cecily Tyson, whom he credited with having saved him from a near-fatal drug habit, but whom he eventually physically abused — as he had many other romantic partners. Unfortunately, the film does not tell the story of their relationship (though it wisely gives generous screen time to Frances Taylor Davis, the musician’s first wife, who had a profound impact on his work). And it skips over most of the groundbreaking music he made in the 1980s.

In the studio, making what became “Rubberband,” he kept up an avuncular demeanor with Mr. Wilburn and his team of much younger musicians, even as he sometimes behaved monstrously behind closed doors.

“If the session started at 12, he’d be there by 10:30, ready to play,” Mr. Hall said. “He would bring candy and little stuff for us to eat in bowls. He prepared the room, because we were going to be there all day.”

Many of the 11 tracks on “Rubberband” have been doctored and updated, with lush vocals and drum sounds added in an attempt to pull the album into 2019 — and to fulfill Davis’s dream of making songs friendly to the radio.

But Mr. Wilburn, Mr. Hall and their fellow producer Attala Zane Giles are now in their 50s or early 60s, roughly the age Davis was when he recorded this material. They did not draw upon younger musicians to help them update the album, as Davis certainly would have, so their attempts to modernize certain tracks with contemporary accouterments often miss the mark. Pieces like “So Emotional,” with lead vocals from the neo-soul virtuoso Lalah Hathaway, and “Rubberband of Life” — a remix of the album’s original title tune, with a beat somewhere between backpack rap and trip-hop — land in a mixed-up middle ground, straddling the ’80s and today.

But the tunes that are less touched-up offer a tantalizing glimpse down a road that Davis might well have followed further, had his label not intervened. Some of those pieces became part of his stage show, and have circulated as bootlegs and in compilations. One is “Carnival Time,” an Antillean-inflected anthem that’s equally indebted to early Weather Report and Quincy Jones’s work with Michael Jackson. “Give It Up” and the original “Rubberband” (included as the final track, bookending the album with the more heavily altered “Rubberband of Life”) intriguingly presage Davis’s hip-hop experiments on “Doo-Bop,” which would be his final LP before his death in 1991.

In Nelson’s documentary, the critic Greg Tate rightly argues that the spookily hypnotic funk-rock fusion Davis made in the early 1970s helped set the table for what was ahead in popular dance music, from house music to R&B. “Rubberband,” then, finds Davis picking up 10 years later on a pop language he had indirectly shaped, retouching it with his old springy energy. The result is music with a heavy dance beat but a textural profundity — and song forms that morphed constantly, keeping listeners on edge.

This direction differs significantly from the one Davis would soon follow, collaborating with the bassist Marcus Miller to create “Tutu” (1986) and “Amandla” (1989), widely considered his best late-era albums. On those, he used simpler chords and riffs to build understated, well-ordered grooves and a coolly Afrocentric sound.

There may be more discoveries ahead from that period, too. Mr. Wilburn said he hoped to reach an agreement soon with Prince’s estate to release never-before-heard music that Davis and Prince made together in those years.

“Our family’s talking to the estate of Prince to see if we can release it at some point,” Mr. Wilburn said. Until then, “Rubberband” should give devotees and curious new listeners plenty to listen to and ponder.