The return of Miles Davis, the leading figure in modern jazz, to performing has been accompanied by his first album in six years. "The Man With the Horn" (Columbia FC36790). It's obvious that both events are extensions of a boast he made in 1970, when he said, "I think I can put together a better rock and roll band than Jimi Hendrix." A decade later, Miles Davis is trying to put together the great jazz-funk band. (He'll be appearing at the Warner Theatre July 23.)
Although there are flashes of brilliance and provocative ideology on "The Man With the Horn," Davis comes up short of the truly invigorating music coming from bands like Joseph Bowie's Defunkt, Ornette Coleman's Prime Time, Robert Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society, Oliver Lake's Jump Up or James "Blood" Ulmer's band.
Part of the problem may come from what Davis has been listening to. When he first slid into his trend-setting fusion of jazz and rock in the late '60s, it was obvious he'd been affected by hearing fellow visionaries like Sly Stone and Hendrix. This new album seems to indicate he's been listening to Quincy Jones, the Brothers Johnson and George Benson. In fact, the most embarrassing cut on the record is the title song in which Randy Hall croons, Benson-style, such turgid lyrics as "His music set the pace/the master never had to race. . ."
Happily, it's the only vocal on the record and Davis shows that his trumpet's vocabulary is more eloquent and effective than any words could be. The opening cut, "Fat Time," moves along to a funk-bottomed march beat, over which Davis humorously sprinkles a few brisk and brittle quotes from the "Sketches of Spain" album. Throughout the album, Davis plays more trumpet than he did for most of the '70s; his style remains icy smooth and rock hard, sensual and piercing on the punched-out single-note phrases and full of escalating tensions in the less frequent note clusters.
"Back Seat Baby," the album's second cut, starts off like Judas Priest (Mike Stern's guitar work throughout is laboriously metallic) before settling down into a throbbing rhythm built upon a popping bass line and a simpilfied drum pattern. The album's shocker is "shout," which could be Davis' first hit single. Highly charged, the cut sounds a bit like a Quincy Jones television theme, a lively funk melody with a memorable hook. It has a frantic momentum, which Davis floats above, juxtaposing his moody coloration and flexible phrasing with the tight rhythmic pulse. Davis elevates the song above its repetitious vamping with terse and sophisticated statements that show he can be as impassioned as he used to be restrained.
"Shout" is Davis' most commerical cut since the days of "In a Silent Way" and "Bitches Brew" is 1969, when he made his first concerted effort to reach a wider public. The route then was rock, while the route now seems to be funk: Each represents the throb of the street at the time, and though both are miles removed from the trumpeter's cool jazz and a hard bop roots, they represent a genuine attempt to dovetail an eccentric vision into the modern dance. As he did a decade ago, Davis manages to combine the commercial with the ephemeral, blowing some blue melodies against a funk base. It's an unusual and instinctual creative logic that's validated by the carefully etched solos Davis sets against some incredibly banal rhythms. The solos, mostly unelectrified and played both open and muted, are models of compression and precision in a typically loose electronic ambiance.
"Aida" and "Ursula" save the second side from the folly of the title cut. "Aida" is propelled by drummer Al Foster, the one hold-over from earlier Davis bands, while "Ursula" is the only cut on which soprano saxophonist Bill Evans seems to muster up the courage to play against Davis, rather than behind him. Overall, the interaction is cautious, with Davis seeming to play down to his band, rather than their playing up to his level. The sound throughout the album is dense and the energy is sustained despite the frequently aimless rhythmic repetitions.
Miles Davis has traditionally been in the vanguard that only allows the public and critics to catch up with him two or three years later. "The Man With the Horn" may not fit that tradition, particularly since it seems to be looking a bit backwards, but the album, like the performances at the recent Kool Jazz Festival in New York, should put to rest any rumors about Davis' ability to still play with the fiery style and brilliant originality that's been the career-long mark of his work.