Jazz’s most famous son is given godly status for his work in the 50s – as in Kind of Blue – and the 70s – as in Bitches Brew. The 80s remains a dubious period of his discography. Tutu casts doubt on that received wisdom. Although it is still dismissed by many as ‘lightweight’ or, worse still, ‘pop-fusion’, the album, whose striking monochrome sleeve stylized the trumpeter’s austere, sculptural, late-years beauty, had something that captured the imagination of many outside of the world of jazz.
And it wasn’t just the romance of Davis coming back to the fray, like some of the boxers from whom he drew inspiration, after several years on the ropes. If 1982’s We Want Miles was a clarion call for the idea that he was still relevant to music, specifically, and culture, generally, then 1986’s Tutu was proof positive that he could touch people without sounding dated. That was the whole point. The record reflected the 80s, just as Herbie’s Rockit did. That meant keyboards, sequencing, dub effects, drum machines and tonalities that often had the brightness and sharpness of the Fairlight era, something that is made all the more evident by the crisp sound of this re-issue.
Marcus Miller was the architect who built the sonic edifice for Davis, and the key thing was that he was a producer who could play as well as a player who could produce. Amid the tapestry of electronics, his bass guitar and bass clarinet make their presence felt, as does Michael Urbaniak’s electric violin, Paulinho Da Costa’s percussion, and Adam Holzman and Jason Miles’ synths. These elements cohere in backdrops that had strong echoes of black popular music of the day – Cameo’s sparkling, day-glow funk, Prince or Jam & Lewis’ fizzing electro-acoustic cocktails and, to a lesser degree, the angsty soul-reggae that Wally Badarou and Sly & Robbie laid down for Grace Jones. But Miller brought more crystalline harmonic subtleties to the table. Combined with Davis’ brooding brass whispers, the result was a work of engrossingly fraught atmospheres. And great tunes. None are light. Some are positively heavy.
--Kevin Le Gendre
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