Miles led the way up to the end
From be-bop to hip hop, the late Miles Davis was continually on the prowl for new musical territory to conquer. On "doo-bop," which he was finishing up when he died last fall, Miles took his famed horn into rap and hip hop with rapper Easy Mo Bee (Bee finished up this album after Miles' untimely death).
While jazz traditionalists who hated most of what Miles recorded in the '80s won't find much to like here either, those who enjoyed "Tutu" will probably admire his last effort as well.
Actually, while "Tutu" was Miles' first attempt at marrying his sweet horn playing to the electronic keyboards and dance rhythms of '80s-style Top-40 music, it was a fairly tame album by contemporary standards. "doo-bop" is not, and comes close to achieving for a fusion of rap and jazz what "Bitches' Brew" did for rock-and-jazz fusion almost a quarter century ago.
On several songs, the multilayered Afro-based rhythms and American jazz instrumental melodies combine for a sound very near what African highlife musician Fela Kuti and American jazz vibraphonist Roy Ayers achieved in a collaboration in the late '80s. This is especially true of "The Doo Bop Song."
Despite this being a rap-jazz fusion album, only three of the songs have lyrics. On these three songs, Easy Mo Bee and fellow rappers J.R. and A.B. Money show excellent musical judgement and timing, with near-perfect interplay between vocals and trumpet. On each, the lyrics are kept short to give Miles plenty of solo room.
And each of the lyrics serves as an ode to Miles; the younger generation giving a nod of thanks and acknowledgement of debt to an established master.
For instance, the lyrics on "Blow":
Here I am Easy Mo Bee, kickin' it live
What makes "doo-bop" work so well is not only Easy Mo Bee's obvious knowledge of and respect for Miles' work, but Miles' ability to play over any rhythm, to sustain any groove. Too, it is obvious that Miles was having fun here; that sense of adventure shines through in his playing, which was as sharp and focused as when he first started out some four decades ago.
It is likely that "doo-bop" will help redefine rap and jazz in the post-Miles world. By not only associating his name with rap, but producing a stellar album of vision and taste, Miles will bring mainstream critical attention to a music form too often defined in terms of its most crass and base practitioners. (Of course, those critics who have been listening with an open mind to artists such as Tone Loc, Trouble Funk and Run DMC rather than hatemongers such as Sister Souljah or Ice T needed no convincing of the value of rap in the first place.)
Just as importantly, Miles may have given mainstream jazz the nudge it needed to begin exploring again. While the neo-traditionalists people such as Wynton Marsalis, Harry Connick Jr. and Ray Anderson have to now dominated the latest generation of jazz musicians, Miles' foray into rap should provide the rebels of this generation the wedge they need to get the recording companies to give them a shot.
Perhaps jazz should revert to its big band roots and become, once again, the dance music of a generation. Were the Basie and Ellington bands inferior to the dry esoterica of the cool and be-bop bands simply because the audience could dance to the swing of their music? By adopting the exciting rhythms of rap and contemporary Latin and African musics (which Dizzy Gillespie has spent the last 20 years doing), jazz can once again make itself relevant to youth without sacrificing any of the artistic idealism represented by the tradition of improvisational solos.
If our choices in jazz are, and lately they have seemed to be, the brilliant but timeworn playing of the neo-traditionalists or the shallow pseudo-jazz pop sounds of charlatans such as Kenny G, Spyro Gyra and David Sanborn, then jazz needs every infusion of originality and daring it can get. "doo-bop" is a very much needed kick in the rear for jazz.
For the last decade, jazz has been focused on its past. Once again, Miles has, through a combination of sheer force of talent and artistic courage, forced our attention to the future.
Even from the grave, Miles Davis is on the forefront of jazz, showing us the way.
© Copyright Jim Trageser
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