Acoustic Sounds

Miles Davis

The Bootleg Series, Vol. 7: That’s What Happened, 1982-1985



Label: Columbia Legacy

Produced By: Box set produced By Steve Berkowitz, Michael Cuscuna, Richard Seidel

Engineered By: Don Puluce, Ken Robertson, Jay Messina, Ron Larman, Guy Charbonneau

Mixed By: Steve Berkowitz, Dave Darlington

Mastered By: Mark Wilder

By: Fred Kaplan

December 2nd, 2022


Jazz Jazz Fusion



The Last (and Least) of Columbia Legacy’s Miles Davis “Bootleg Series”

Miles Gets Freaky Deaky

I saw Miles Davis’ pop-rock band a half dozen times in the 1980s and loved the music each time. The concert-recordings from that period—"Miles Live Around the World" and the relevant discs from the 20-CD "Complete Miles Davis at Montreux", both released posthumously on Warner Brothers—were also wondrous, a departure from his discography (as every new phase of his was from the phase before) but still ranking high. His famous covers of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” could stand up to his classic takes on “My Funny Valentine” or “Stella Starlight,” which, after all, were pop hits of an earlier era. These songs, these albums, these concerts—Miles as a soloist and the young musicians backing him up—simmered, cooked, sizzled, swung, and yes, they rocked. 

In other words, I do not align myself with the purist critics, notably the late Stanley Crouch, who dismissed this chapter of his career—in fact, the entire period, beginning in the 1970s, when Miles went electric—as a sordid spectacle of a great artist selling out. However, Miles’ studio albums from this era—Star People, Decoy and You’re Under Arrest—are, let us say, less memorable. For many songs, the band laid down their rhythm tracks, in some cases tentatively; Miles, rarely showing up for rehearsals or rundowns, came in later to overdub his solos. Predictably, there was a mechanical quality to many of these sessions; the early digital recorders, or the era’s crummy vinyl, didn’t help matters.

 I was excited when I heard that Columbia Legacy was focusing Vol. 7 of its “Miles Davis Bootleg Series” on the early-to-mid ‘80s, the last few years before he left his label of three decades for Warner Bros. (where he would continue recording until his death in 1991 at the age of 65). Five of the six previous volumes presented live recordings from various venues or periods, many previously unissued or available only on bad-sounding un authorized bootlegs. The most remarkable were Vol. 1: Live in Europe 1967 (in which the Second Great Quintet—Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams—transformed the Miles songbook in harmony, rhythm, and speed) and Vol. 6: Final Tour 1960  (in which Coltrane, on the verge of going his own way and revolutionizing jazz, snapped Miles & Co. into the avant-garde future). As noted above, Miles’ live concerts in the ’80s were terrific, leagues above the often-rote studio renditions.

And so it was hugely disappointing to discover that two of this set’s three discs (a thin volume to begin with, as the others each had four discs) are devoted to outtakes, extended takes, and remixes from studio sessions—and, with few exceptions (more about which, below), the discards hold no advantage over the original albums (though the new mixes sound better). Disc 3 does capture a live concert, from Montreal in 1983, but it’s no revelation: Legacy put it out as a double-LP on Record Sale Day just this past summer. 

Much of Disc 1 is material that was left off the albums entirely. The first track, “Santana,” opens with Miles sounding a chord on a synthesizer before sputtering jangly phrases on his trumpet against a bass-heavy rock backdrop, and this is a lot of fun. Next up, “Minor Ninths,” is a surprise: Miles on the synth in duet with J.J. Johnson on trombone. Johnson, of course, played with Miles (and Charlie Parker, among others) in the early 1950s. It’s startling to see his name on the credits; I’d never heard of this session before. Alas, it doesn’t amount to much. Then comes “Celestial Blues,” a septet that, again, includes Johnson. This too is pretty lively, and previously unknown. Steven Berkowitz, a co-producer of this and other bootleg volumes, tells me that portions of this piece were grafted onto “Star on Cicely,” which is on the Star People  album, but that Johnson’s parts were deleted. The rest of this disc—“Remake of Oak Ballad” and a two-part “Freaky Deaky”—are monotonous.

Disc 2, from the You’re Under Arrest session, is where I found myself sighing a lot, and not in a good way. It starts with two takes of “Time After Time,” neither any better than the soulless version on the album. Then comes “Theme from Jack Johnson,” which isn’t as good as the one on the album called Jack Johnson. This is followed by a dreary ballad, “Never Loved Like This,” written by Miles and Robert Irving III, one of his bandmembers. Then two versions of “Hopscotch,” both lame. (The live version on Disc 3 is much better.) Then comes—and this made me gulp—“What’s Love Got to Do with It?” Miles was shrewd in picking the Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper tunes from his stack of new pop albums; nobody likes to point out (I hadn’t known it before now) that he also chose this one. The rendition here is embarrassingly bad. He never played it in any of the live concerts I saw, and good for that.

The disc finishes on two up notes: a version of “Human Nature” that’s very good—lively, engaged, rhythmically imaginative, almost as captivating as his better concert versions, much better than the one on the studio album. Berkowitz said he strung it together—the way that Miles’ producer of the time, Teo Macero used to do with some tracks—from bits and pieces of several takes. He did a great job. The disc ends with a blazing extended take of “Katia.”

Disc 3 is the live concert from July 1983 with a hot band that includes John Scofield on guitar and Al Foster on drums. It might as well be called the Miles Davis-John Scofield band, they share so much shredding space and solo spotlight; the improvisations are fierce and flowing. Foster is an old-school drummer who’d played with many jazz stars, including Miles in the 1970s; he keeps the beat going and propels the variations. (Disc 3 is why I’m scoring the set 6 for Music instead of 5.) Foster, it’s worth noting, left Miles for good —just walked out of the studio—a year-and-a-half later, during the “Human Nature” session. Miles put his nephew, Vince Wilburn Jr., behind the drum set as a substitute and kept him there for a while. The decline was noticeable.

At least the sound throughout the first two discs is vivid, dynamic, upfront. The sound on Disc 3 is thinner, less palpable, but not bad for a live recording of a large-ish electric band. Vol. 7, then, is a mixed bag, but it could have been much more. There are certainly plenty of live recordings from this period in the Sony vaults. I asked Berkowitz why this last volume didn’t draw on more of them. First, he wanted to emphasize that he thinks the ‘80s studio sessions are criminally underrated; to his mind, there are no lame Miles Davis sessions, any more than there are lame Picasso paintings. (We agreed to disagree.) But yes, he and his co-producers—Michael Cuscuna and Richard Seidel, also veterans of this and other reissues—would have preferred a bigger box with more live material. But, he said, Sony is a commercial enterprise; they need to make money (not that there’s anything wrong with that); and, as he put it, “There is no more retail.” Plenty of live Miles concerts can be heard for free on YouTube. Yes, they sound like shit, but it costs money to obtain license fees for the original tapes (some of which were not recorded by Columbia) and to pay royalties to artists and composers—and there’s no guarantee that enough people will pay money for such things. The corporate masters (whose views he completely understands) figure it’s better, then, to dip into their own vaults and fiddle with the tapes on their own mixing machines.

Berkowitz, Cuscuna, and Seidel spent a few years plowing through the archives for this volume. Many tape-boxes were unmarked or mismarked; documentation was meager. These three men are experienced at this sort of detective work. It’s just a shame that the trove held so few brilliant jewels.

A warning: Sony has also put out a two-LP edition of Vol. 7, but it contains only a little more than half of the music on the first two discs of the CD version—and none of what’s on Disc 3. It’s also stamped on thin hard white vinyl and doesn’t sound much, or any, better than the CDs.

Miles completists, especially those unfamiliar with this period, may want this box. But Miles’ rock era is better covered by the two Warner Bros. albums noted earlier. The band is tighter, and Miles is in better shape. This is especially true on Miles Live Around the World, the result of his producers scouring hundreds of hours of concert tapes to come up with the best versions of each song. Listen to his rubato on “Time After Time,” his prowling phrases on “Mr. Pastorius,” and the sheer heartbreak he invokes on “Human Nature.” And the sound—on both CD and vinyl—is superb. 

Music Specifications

Catalog No: 1-94398-63852


Channels: Stereo

Presentation: Box Set