The Last Miles - the Music Of Miles Davis 1980 - 1991
the last miles
the music of Miles Davis 1980 - 1991
a book by George Cole

published by Equinox Publishing in the UK
and University of Michigan Press in the USA
Read reviews and praise for The Last Miles


Order your copy online
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New York-born Bashiri Johnson is one of the leading percussionists on the scene, having worked with many artists including, Madonna, Bob Dylan, Luther Vandross, George Benson, Donald Fagen, Roberta Flack, Al Jarreau and Scritti Politti. He also played on the title track of Miles’s album Amandla. In this exclusive interview, Bashiri talks about what it was like working on a Miles session, Miles as a musician and inspiration, life as a session musician and why it’s important to embrace new music technology.

Bashiri Johnson
© and courtesy Bashiri Johnson

The Last Miles: Can you tell us a little about your background?

Bashiri Johnson: I was born 5/12/55 in Brooklyn, New York. I played percussion because it was peer thing out of high school! I think I had it in me to be a musician and a percussionist - I think it was ingrained in my DNA - but it didn't actually reveal itself until I went to high school. I went to John Dewey High School in Coney Island, Brooklyn. I started hanging out with guys who were good at sports - I was pretty good at sport myself, I was in the track team. I was in this group called The Leaders Group, which was composed of the best athletes. The majority of the guys I was hanging out with were in a band - drummer, bass player - I went to high school with [bassist] Tom Barney, who did some work with Miles.

[Director] Spike Lee also went to John Dewey High School. The guys were rehearsing and I didn't want to be kept out of that mix! So I said "No one's playing percussion," so I started playing the congas and joined the band. After banging around on the drums for a while, I started getting serious, so I started taking lessons. Some of the first lessons were with [Nigerian percussionist Babatunde] Olatunji at his Dance Theater in Harlem. I took some lessons at Jazzmobile , which used to give free lessons. I also studied at the Dance Theater of Harlem - they had a dance/drum programme. Then I started to look for someone who could help me play in bands. I used to practice at my mom and dad's home by playing to the radio. I'd flip the channels and find some music that I could play percussion to. So my mentors were the recorded percussionists that had played on albums, people like Ralph MacDonald. I would first emulate his parts and then make up my own parts as if I was the percussionist hired to play. Practising like that got me into being a real session player.

TLM: You also studied with Mtume [percussionist in Miles's band from 1971-75].

BJ: The first person I asked was Bill Summers [percussionist with Herbie Hancock's band] but he was in the West Coast so it couldn't work out. But I spent three years studying with Mtume. I snuck backstage at a Miles Davis concert - it must have been around 1975 - and I said "Do you give lessons?" He said "no" so I asked if I could hang out with him and he invited me to his house and that began my three years stay with him, all while he was writing and producing hits Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway. My first professional record was on Stephanie Mills' "What Cha Gonna Do With My Lovin'?" That was my first Gold record too.

TLM: That got you started on the recording session scene.

BJ: I started to play gigs and get known as a session guy and people just started calling.

TLM: You once said that one of the things that helped you get so many sessions was your versatility.

BJ: It's helped me a lot. What I've noticed is that people call me when they're not looking for something specific. If they want a traditional tabla part, they'll call a tabla player and work it out with them to get exactly what they need. But I think people call me because they have a broad stroke idea that they want to have percussion that sounds a certain way on their record and they know that I will give them that broad stroke of percussion. I'll cover the things that they need and I'll bring my level of expertise to the project. During the 80s and 90s I worked with a lot of producers that would just leave me in the room [recording studio] to record and they would be on the phone! Then they'd come back and say "That's great, thanks - see you!" And that level of trust and sense of security that I'm going to give them what they need was really cool. It helped to build up my production chops because learning how to compose and produce percussion parts for people's records helepd me to grow into writing and producing my own projects, so it was a good training ground for me.

TLM: But when you're given so much freedom, it must be hard to resist the tempation to over-play?

BJ: I have to give it to people like Ralph MacDonald and Paulinho DaCosta, who I was listening to and studying, so I had a good framework to build on. Bill Summers was another of my favourites and Airto was my absolute favourite - I wanted to be him! I loved what he would do on records. So listening to him and other top guys helped me to formulate my own sound. You have to emulate first before you can innovate.

Bashiri Johnson
© and courtesy Bashiri Johnson

TLM: I must ask you about one of your early sessions and that was the late Luther Vandross's great album Never Too Much.

BJ: That was a great session. I remember it was the old Media Sound [studio] on 57th Street. That was a great room for recording. On that record my choice was to play some hand-held percussion but that wasn't sounding that great and [bassist] Marcus [Miller] said "play congas" and that's when I came up with that part on that record, which for me is a very innovative part, because it's not a typcial Latin Mambo part that you would play. Working on that record helped pave the way for a lot of future work. That was a great sesssion because there were great musicans there like [guitarist] George Wadenius, [drummer] Buddy Williams and of course Marcus. We did the rhythm tracks in like two takes and then Luther came in and in one take did the lead vocal - it was amazing. We all knew that something special and magical was happening after he sang his vocal on that track.

TLM: During your time with Mtume, did you get to meet Miles?

BJ: No. Because Mtume had just evolved into producing his own stuff and working on his own stuff. I think I caught Mtume during the tail end of his stint with Miles. My first time meeting Miles was when I was working live with Roberta Flack, some time in the 80s. She opened for Miles and I walked past Miles' dressing room and that's where I got to see him and met him - it was very brief!

TLM: Tell us about the Amandla sessions.

BJ: Marcus called me for that. He said he was producing this track for Miles's record and he wanted me to come in and play this track with [the late, great percussionist] Don Alias. [drummer] Omar [Hakim] was on that session too. So Marcus said "I want you to come in and play with these guys." I went to the [Right Track] studio and I had my set-up. I was there to do colours and flurries and light grooves and Don was doing more like drum stuff. Omar was playing traps.

TLM: So the three of you were in the studio together laying down the track?

BJ: Yes, we all played together. Marcus would run the track down and kinda tweak things. He'd say things like "I really need you to do this here and this there, and kinda change this," and so Marcus would mould it into what was working best for the track. That was it. We finished and afterwards, we listened down and we were all really happy. And Marcus was left to mix it and work it into what we know of today.

TLM: [Guitarist] Steve Khan recalls seeing you on that session.

BJ: Yes, Steve's a cool guy and a great player. Everybody who worked on that music got along really well. I think Khan basically had a rhythm track and kinda played live to it, to give it life and feel. That was a really cool session. We all just excited and jazzed over the fact that we were contributing and playing on a Miles Davis project. For most musicians coming up in my era, playing on a recording with Miles Davis was the epitome of reaching creative success. It was the point where you could say "I have arrived. The acceptance by my peers is unquestioned." You could use it as a professionalism calling card!

TLM: What made Miles so special?

BJ: Miles commanded the highest level of creativity of talent from you. He expected you to pour beyond your capabilities into his music. That why a lot of people found gifts they had working through Miles, because he was able to bring out people things that they would not normally tap into. People like Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Tony Williams, Mtume and Reggie Lucas - in fact, all the people Miles played with - somehow he was able to charge their inner talent. He somehow pushed that button to turn it on and, after leaving Miles, they were in a whole other level of performance and creativity. Even for us who did not work with Miles directly would practice hard to try and tap into that element of heightened creativity that we thought we could bring to a situation where we might work with Miles. We were always trying to better ourselves to be able to work with Miles Davis. It's different today. Today, I don't feel you have people who are trying to achieve that ultimate in personal creativity or expression, because I don't think they have an outlet like a Miles Davis to work with. You do have people like Prince, who is perhaps the ultimate that many people would strive to work with. But you don't have someone like Miles, who was breaking the boundaries between genres and fusing things together. It would be nice if we had that sort of element in today's music.

Bashiri Johnson
© and courtesy Bashiri Johnson

TLM: What was your reaction when you heard Amandla?

BJ: I was very proud and pleased. I thought "Now, I'm definitely a session guy!" All of the stuff I've done is fantastic and I'm really proud and appreciative for all the sessions I've done, but working with Miles Davis was the ultimate.

TLM: Where there any particular Miles bands, albums or musical periods that influenced you?

BJ: I loved the band with [tabla player and percussionist] Badal Roy and Don Alias. The grooves there were really happening. And of course, I loved all of the stuff Mtume did. One of my favourite records is the On The Corner album. But I loved all the periods - I loved Jack Johnson, Kind of Blue, Agharta. Even "Time After Time."

TLM: Some people felt that Miles was basically playing pop tunes in the 1980s. What are your feelings about this period of Miles's music?

BJ: I think that was a period where he was expressing himself through the genre of pop. He was putting his voice on top of the times. He wasn't trying to re-make anything as more re-inventing himself in that genre of music. That was a time where Miles was continuing to express himself using younger musicians and experimenting with sounds. He was still pushing the envelope. People still loved and respected Miles and wanted to work with him and hear what he had to say and what he had to bring to his playing. People still wanted to play and to grow with Miles. So for me, that was still a great period.

TLM: During the 1980s, Miles appeared on the Scritti Politti album Provision, playing on "Oh Patti." You also played on that record. What your memories of that album?

BJ: I was really impressed with Green [Gartside] and David Gamson. They were the epitome of microscopic producers. David Gamson would have me playing a shaker part for sixteen/thirty-two bars and then he'd tell me to take a break. Then they would dissect that part, trying to find the absolute perfect two or four bars and then use that as the basis for the song. So I would be in the lounge chilling for an hour while they dissected parts I'd played. Then I would go back in and do some overdubs and of course I would have to perform it until the feel absolutely worked perfectly. I really liked working with those guys because it helped me to hone in on a certain level of exactness in my playing -it was good for me to have that. There were few situations when working for certain people where that level of exactness had to be performed. I remember working for [the late singer/producer] Dan Hartman who was also looking for the same thing. It helped me to grow and the music Gartside and Gamson working on at the time was fantastic - the grooves were so solid, the sound was so tight and the mixes were incredible. Working with Scritti Politti was just an extension of working with Miles Davis; they were great sessions.

TLM: In the 1980s, more and more technology came into the studios and there was lots more sampling. Has that made it more challenging for the life of a session musician? Have producers been more tempted to use samples or a computer to create sounds rather than a human being?

BJ: For me, it wasn't a challenge at all. I just gravitated and evolved with what was happening. Early on in my career, I decided that I was going to continue to work and I wanted to do more sessions than anyone else! It was young ego at the time, but I also wanted to have a sound and leave a legacy behind. I was not intimidated by the onset of samplers and drum machines. I remember I would talk to other drummers and percussionists and they would say "Hey man, what do you think about this Linn 1200 drum [machine]?" And I'd say: "I got one and I'm learning how to program it!" That was my attitude. There were some guys who refused to get into drum machines and their work suffered because of that choice. But I knew that that was the wave of the future. And it's the same now: I'm not going to be intimidated by changes within the music industry or the fact that there's a lot more sampled music that has become the norm for records and music production. If that's going to be the movement then I'm going to move with things. That's why I made my first sample library [Supreme Beats], which was distributed by Spectrasonics

That was a highly acclaimed and my inspiration for doing that library was that there were a lot of producers and engineers who were putting out sample library products, so I thought "If engineers and producers are going to put out sampled music, what are we musicians going to do?" I decided to put together a sample library of percussion sounds that I would play on along with some of my peers. Another hugely successful sample library I put out was Ethno-Techno with Ilio which was my own entry into effected sounds and the grooves from that are from other worldly places and my imagination. I hear the stuff all the time in films and commercials. So I was not intimidated by sampling music - it was my calling to be an innovator. I said "I'm not going to be defeated by it; I'm going to try and master it."

TLM: What are you doing today?

BJ: I have a studio, The Lab, in Brooklyn. I'm working on a record for myself, which is a collaboration between me and my music and an artist who does neo-primitive ceramic work. So his art is inspiring my music and my music is inspiring his art. The project is called "Art Rhythm" and I'm also producing a record for Papa Suso, he's a kora player from The Gambia. And I'm also doing a children's project that I'm putting out on my own label. So yeah, I'm busy!

Many thanks to Bashiri for his time. Check out his website: www.bashirijohnson.com

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The Last Miles US edition
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The Last Miles UK edition
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‘The best Miles Davis book ever.’ Randy Hall, singer/guitarist/producer, who worked with Miles in the 1980s

‘An important book.’ Brian Priestley, co-author of ‘The Rough Guide to Jazz’, jazz pianist, critic and reviewer

‘Very moving, emotional material.’ Gordon Meltzer, Miles’s last road manager and executive producer of the ‘Doo-Bop’ album

‘George Cole’s writing, his choice of references, his descriptions of many incidents – it is all so clear and respectful, and shows a deep understanding.’ Palle Mikkelborg, composer, arranger and producer of the ‘Aura’ album

"Wow! What a great book. Finally, something that really gets it right. Thank you for capturing what was going on, the mood, everything." Adam Holzman, Milesís keyboardist and musical director 1985-1989

"Wonderful job, congratulations! An immense amount of work must have gone into it, I can't even imagine. But it was very cool to see that era of Miles treated with the same respect as every other... someone gets it!" Benny Rietveld, Miles's bassist 1988-1990

"The book is wonderful. Congratulations for your very important contribution to the historical documentation of many [musicians] who would otherwise have been overlooked!!!!" Robert Irving III Miles’s musical director 1983-1988

"I have to say that you did a marvellous job! It brought back strong memories of that time period and answered a number of questions I had, especially the chapter on the Rubberband sessions. A brilliant job!" Patrick Murray, who worked on the road with Miles from 1986-1990 and was Miles’s concert sound mixer from 1988-1990

"It is truly an excellent body of work that literally takes a reader from hearing rumours to realising truths about the Chicago group and our collective take on the Miles Davis comeback." Glenn Burris, co-writer of "Shout"

"The most immediate impact that this book had on me was to make me listen again to Miles’ later recordings with a completely regenerated ear and this really is the reason why this book works so well and is an essential read for any true Miles Davis appreciator… you will be hard pressed to find a more inspirational read, written by a man who quite simply loves Miles Davis’ music." Mike Chadwick, Ejazz.fm

"There are large chunks of fresh material here…Fill[s] in quite a few gaps and dismisses blanket condemnations of [Miles’s] pop phase." Stephen Graham, Jazzwise

"Cole does for Miles’ late work what Ian Macdonald’s ‘Revolution In The Head’ does for The Beatles, examining each album in meticulous detail." John Lewis, Time Out

"Cole’s analysis has a meticulous, forensic character… [and] is able to bring a wealth of new information to light….This book should get people talking. It should be the first rather than the last word on an intriguing chapter of the life an extraordinarily complex artist. And Davis’s vanity would surely have loved that." Kevin Le Gendre, Independent on Sunday

"The book is beautiful. I think you did a great job on covering Miles’s life and legacy." Sid Reynolds, hip-hop producer

"GREATFUCKINJOBWITDABOOK" Foley, Miles’s lead bassist 1987-1991

"Cole’s certainly produced a fascinating book." Chris Ingham, Mojo

"As with any good musical biography, Cole had made me think again about those albums such as Siesta, You’re Under Arrest, The Man with the Horn, that are now stashed in my attic."  John Bungey, The Times

"I thought it was wonderful. It’s a very detailed look at a certain part of the career and life of Miles Davis. A lot of people didn’t pay attention to this and I’m glad that George Cole took the time to focus on these final years of Miles’s life." Easy Mo Bee, co-producer of Doo-Bop

"Many people have come to me in the past about how the "last miles" bands had been overlooked and ignored by journalists. This book is a comprehensive answer to these omissions. From my discussions with musicians from the latter years with Miles it seems pretty clear they feel some vindication as a result of this book. I thank you sincerely for telling our story. Most everything I have read is as close to my memory of how things happened as any book could hope to be. I think you've done a wonderful job." Darryl Jones, bassist with Miles 1983-85, 1986-1988

"The title is likely to send most jazzbos running, with received wisdom having handed down the rule that in the 80's Miles was only good for playing live; and half of that was just the pleasure of seeing him in person.  For a single man to take on the 400-page+ task of changing popular opinion is a very tall order indeed.  For him to make you want to actively revisit the decade in question is a near-miracle. Detailing album histories and giving final verdicts, Cole has made every effort to lay the evidence out bare.  The analysis could have been a chore were it not for the presence of first-hand interviews with all the major players, making this not just a scholarly study, but a tribute to the man himself,  And for a book such as this, you learn more about Davis that could have been expected." Jason Draper, Record Collector

"There simply hasn’t been another book published on Miles Davis, in any period that has managed to obtain the wealth of interview material and cover his recorded work and various live tours in such a complete and comprehensive fashion... Engagingly written from start to finish, filled with more facts than you’ll be able to remember first time through, The Last Miles is an essential portrait of Miles’ last decade and a strong argument that his music was both valid and perfectly in keeping with a musical philosophy that would ultimately stretch over six decades." John Kelman, All About Jazz.com

"We veterans of Miles’ last bands are lucky to have such a thorough and insightful look into Miles last period...I really enjoyed the book!" John Scofield, Miles's guitarist 1982-1985

"Cole has spoken to practically everyone who worked with Miles in his final decade. He has traced the evolution of each of those final albums, cut by cut, splice by splice….[Miles] comes out of Cole’s account larger, warmer and if anything even more important than ever." Brian Morton (co-writer of The Penguin Guide to Jazz), The Wire

"Through lively analyses of all Miles’ recorded work from this period and much that went unreleased, including the ‘lost’ album Rubberband, [Cole] does enough to send readers back to the original albums." Simon Evans, Choice

"... Cole is a persuasive writer: he prompted me to go and dig out albums that I'd dismissed as inconsequential and listen again with fresh ears. ...  A rewarding read" Charles Waring, Blues & Soul

"Cole takes us on an exhaustive journey deep into the heart of Miles’ late recordings…The Last Miles needs to be covered by working musicians, producers and Miles’ fans alike." Livingstone Marquis, Straight, No Chaser

" George Cole has written a book that should be required reading for anyone with a serious interest in Davis’ life and work irrespective of which period of his music you prefer. It offers a valuable insight into this most complex of personalities, and reveals a side to Miles that many may not have known existed…for this reader it has prompted a re-examination of this decade which has revealed a fascinating area of music that I had previously overlooked." Nick Lea, Jazzviews.co.uk

"In the flurry of books since [Miles Davis's] death, none has dealt in depth with the music of this period. Music writer George Cole fills this gap. . . It is so detailed and intimate that the reader feels he is virtually living with Davis as he seeks to reinvent himself… a rich and rewarding read." Irwin Block, The Montreal Gazette

"This is a must for every Miles fan." Neal Gardner, Blogcritics.org

“A fantastic book, an amazing insight into Miles. Guy Barker, jazz trumpeter

“For Miles fans, this book is a must.” Jez Nelson, presenter BBC Radio Jazz on 3

“I really do recommend The Last Miles…it is a fine work.” John Cavanagh, presenter Radio Scotland’s Bebop to Hip-Hop

"A great book that plays a great tribute to the last years of Miles’ life.” Erik Telford, presenter Miles Radio.com

"The fact of having personally interviewed all those characters...without much recall to interviews already noted and the usual anecdotes, renders "The Last Miles" as excellent...a book that certainly is seen as a work of reference."Maurizio Comandini, All About Jazz.com Italy

"[Cole] has written a comprehensive account of the comeback and the albums it produced...He takes the reader through each of the albums, cut by cut, examining the musical choices, the musicians and their successes...Cole's book is a valuable resource on the last 11 years of a true music legend's life."Chris Smith, Winnipeg Free Press

"I've been thoroughly enjoying your book. I'm sure it'll go a long way towards rectifying some of the negative historical appraisals of  Miles' later works that have become prevalent." Kei Akagi, keyboardist in Miles's band 1989-1990.

"Cole gives an exhaustive account of every track recorded [and, it seems, every live show] in that decade and of every one of the dozens of musicians who played on them but what's most interesting is the portrait of Miles Davis that emerges from it all. Sometimes an asshole and a bully, yes, but also a very funny guy who was a good friend to many and a mentor to even more, a man with drug problems who was more often in great pain from other maladies. Through it all, Davis was obsessed with moving his music forward with anyone who could help him do it - from Prince to Public Enemy, from Scritti Politti to a violinist he saw on Johnny Carson and hired on the spot." Rock & Rap Confidential

"I thought your book was awesome and straight to the point. To tell stories the way it really happened is nothing but the truth! Congratulations and thanks!"Ricky Wellman, Miles's drummer 1987-1991

"George Cole has made a major contribution to jazz scholarship...written over a three-year period, the degree of detail is quite astonishing and the research so extensive that it becomes possible to contradict claims made by Miles himself in his autobiography. Every track on every 1981-1991 album is discussed in length …a very valuable book.” Chris Yates, The Jazz Rag

“This book is a model of how these types of books should be…If late period Miles is in the readers’ interest, the reader should rush out and purchase this volume. It is invaluable.” Robert Iannapollo, ARSC Journal

The Last Miles was voted one of the top ten music books of 2005 by Record Collector magazine.

The Last Miles was joint winner of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections’ Best Jazz History Book 2006 award.

 

the last miles:
the music of Miles Davis1980 to 1991 a book by George Cole
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