Context is everything. Positioned between the music of 808 State’s Pacific 202 and Rhythim is Rhythim’s Strings of Life, the Miles Davis’ track Tomaas took on a form of it’s own. Freed of the jazz or rock-fusion label, Tomaas became an entirely new creature; combining the heat of Miles’ electronic-funk period with the sharp, new, textured atmosphere of techno. Tomaas pushes ever closer to sound of modern electronic club music. Removed from the context of it’s rather mediocre parent album (Tutu), Tomaas reveals the possiblities of what should have been a bold new chapter for Davis. Tomaas (perhaps) even representing a lost experiment or window into what–may-have-been; a sound and music never fully realized on Tutu. Allow me to make the case;
Back in those days (89-91), it was our normal habit to listen to Detroit Public Radio (WDET) on Saturday nights between 12:00 – 4:00am. Those may seem like strange hours for tuning into your favorite radio show but our little posse’ were dedicated music fans. And it was not unusual to be traveling from one club to another or heading home during those “wee small hours” after a night of drinking, smoking and clubbing. The travel time seemed perfect for tuning in the brave new waves of the Fast Forward program. Hosted by Alan Oldham, Fast Forward was the premier outlet for those interested in music and sounds that would never be heard on commercial radio. Like myself, Oldham was a college student at Wayne State University who was hired by WDET to host a late-night/early morning “alternative radio program“. Oldham had strong ties to Detroit’s burgeoning techno music scene and Fast Forward was an extension of his considerable knowledge and grasp of electronic dance music. The show was a swirling, adventurous mix of music, beats, noises, sounds and styles; Detroit Techno, Chicago House, European Body Music all sharing the same platform with the more adventurous new wave of the day; Depeche Mode, New Order, The Cure, Ministry and Bauhaus. It didn’t matter. Fast Forward made it all work. Throw in the occasional hip-hop track and you get a pretty good picture of Oldham’s show.
Oldman formated the Fast Forward program to pull together all those adventurous sounds into the context of his show. Best of all, he would always slip in some completely left-field song/track just to keep the mix interesting. Such was the case with the Miles Davis‘ Tomass. Oldman started playing the song between the “post-industrial, acid-house noise” that dominated most of the show. Oddly enough, the electronic keyboard riffs and avant-funk of Tomaas jumped effortlessly into the Fast Forward mix. The track’s futuristic-funk providing the perfect vehicle for Davis‘ horn to take flight with his free-lance explorations; the music creating a cool yet complex of groove and atmosphere that played perfectly with the adventurous sounds of the program.
Originally released in 1986, Tutu is largely considered a mis-step in the Mile Davis oeuvre. And while it’s true that most of the tracks have a somewhat generic, overly produced sound, Tutu is worth investigating for the first two intriguing songs on the album; Tutu and Tomaas giving us about 11 minutes of prime music and a brief snapshot into the world of what-may-have-been possible for the record. Remember, Miles Davis had already created a new chapter in electronic music with his 1969/1970 albums, In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Together these records shared a vision of a hypnotic/electronic music that rewrote the rules of jazz, funk and electronic music. By the time he released the stunning album, On The Corner in 1972, there was a major audience backlash towards the record. On The Corner combines the influences of fusion, funk and free jazz with the avant-garde compositional technics of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Despite this negative reaction, Davis seemed content defining his music as experimential, complex and difficult. New York guitarist Gary Lucas, who was a member of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, considered On The Corner as Davis‘ most groundbreaking album. Calling the record a; “ominous, dense, swampy jungle of urban desperation its dub-like grooves”.
And there are further indications that electronic music could have play a significant role in the future development of Davis’ music. Bass player and producer Bill Laswell provides that unique opportunity with the brillant remix album he produced using old tapes from the In A Silent Way and On the Corner sessions. Released in 1999 (after Davis’ death) Panthalassa: The Music Of Miles Davis 1969-1974 takes the electronic influence a step further. By deleting the old-school rhythm sections of the original sessions, Laswell brings in the most obscured elements of electronic-drone music. Constructing moody atmospheric soundscapes for Davis’ horn to navigate. Creating a strange but beautiful new terrain. If you have never heard the Laswell/Davis song, He Loved Him Madly from Panthalassa, then you have some exploring to do. Highly recommended; the album mixes the sound of traditional Indian-drone music with the electronic possibilities of the modern studio. Purist be damn, the music on Panthalassa is far beyond any claim to be called jazz music. More then just a remix album, The Panthalassa provides a window into the possibilities of ways Davis could have moved forward with his music.
Unfortunately, we will never really know what Miles Davis had in mind for the future of his art. Or if a deeper embrace of the avant-garde aspect of electronic-music was ever a possiblity. We do know that Miles Davis was willing to experiment beyond any constraints or exceptions any audience or record company placed on him. Miles Davis was a genius in full bloom until the end of his life; Davis took chances and exploring his own vision even into this later period of his career. Finally, much credit goes to D.J. Allan Oldham for providing a new context and vision for the possbilities of Davis’ music. And for that I am forever grateful.