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Miles Ahead
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  • At the end of Don Cheadle's liner essay for Miles Ahead, the soundtrack for his expressionist Miles Davis biopic, he quotes Herbie Hancock from a documentary about the trumpeter's electric years: "...I couldn't pick a piece.. Because Miles is all of the pieces." That's a fine explanation for what is compiled here. Eleven of these tunes were selected from Davis' catalog, beginning with the title track cut for Prestige in 1953. There are stops all along the way to 1981's "Back Seat Betty." In presenting such a wide selection of Davis' music for a cinema audience, judicious editing was often necessitated: "Solea," "Seven Steps to Heaven," "Nefertiti," "Duran (Take 6)," "Black Satin," and "Back Seat Betty" are all presented this way. "So What," "Frelon Brun," and "Go Ahead John, Pt. 2" are presented in full. While fans may take issue with the entire idea of edits, they serve a proper purpose inside the soundtrack concept. Interspersed are bits of dialogue by Cheadle (as Davis) and others. They are so short they don't distract. The album also includes the brief "Taylor Made" by pianist Taylor Eigsti. Titled for Davis' first wife and muse Frances Taylor, it briefly recontextualizes several important themes in the trumpeter's fakebook. There are also four new compositions written or co-written by Robert Glasper. The funky "Junior's Jam" features saxophonist Marcus Strickland, trumpeter Keyon Harrold, drummer Kendrick Scott, and bassist Burniss Earl Travis. Glasper, who plays Rhodes, perfectly captures the spirit of Davis' early electric era, with riff-like basslines, funky drums, and eerie electric pianos, while the frontline horns engage and disengage from rhythm and vamp. "Francessence" is a lilting theme piece with Vicente Archer's upright bass, E.J. Strickland's brushed drums, and Elena Pinderhughes' flute. The real highlight is "What's Wrong with That?" Framed in the film as a live concert piece, it places Glasper's Rhodes in the company of Harrold (using a mute), Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Esperanza Spalding (on electric bass), Antonio Sanchez, and guitarist Gary Clark, Jr. A loose jam based on vamps, it weaves Davis' bluesy lyricism with spacy elements of fusion, harder psychedelic funk grooves, and even the tender soul pop notions from later years. The album closes with "Gone," a hip-hop tune with Pharoahe Monch rapping over a bumping bassline, slippery snare, and hi-hat beats (Dilla style), adorned by a sampled brass section, gospel piano chords, and Harrold's soaring, muted trumpet solo. It was wise to separate most of these new sounds from Davis' sides, making the album a double portrait: One of the artist and another of how he contributed to the future. Miles Ahead is not a complete representation of Davis, and that's fine. What it does accomplish is to offer an impression of essence as an artist who changed everything by his example. ~ Thom Jurek
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