Due to his adaptability to any musical situation he finds himself in, Jason Miles is an artist that one could easily describe as a chameleon. While some may view this as a negative, in the case of Jason Miles, the opposite is true. No matter what the project or genre, Jason fits in seamlessly, yet always brings his distinctive sound and touch. Jason himself describes himself as a “hybrid producer and artist” and we believe this is right on the mark. With his latest album, Black Magic just released, Jan Veldman sat down with Jason to discuss this and more.
During his career Jason has worked with most of the giants of the music industry including Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Michael Brecker, The Crusaders, George Benson, Joe Sample, Grover Washington Jr., David Sanborn, Marcus Miller and this is just the tip of the iceberg. None other than Roberta Flack said, “Jason Miles has raised the level of excellence for the musicians who have had the good fortune of working with him, myself included. He has enriched the lives of the millions of people who have listened to the music he plays, the recordings he produces and the countless musicians he mentors and inspires.”
This aside, it’s Jason’s work with Miles Davis that he is best known for. Responsible for the bulk of the Synth work on the album Tutu and playing a prominent role on Davis’ follow-up albums, Siesta and Amandla, Jason has been called the “third major element behind the sound of that album”, of course meaning Miles Davis, Marcus Miller and Jason Miles. Jason’s relationship with Miles Davis was not limited to the studio. He became close friends with Davis, often visiting him at home and helping him get to grips with electronic instruments, as well as co-writing some tunes with Miles.
In 2015, Jason released an album of music reflecting on his work with Davis titled “Kind of New”. A year or so later, he continued the project releasing “Kind of New 2: Blue is Paris”. In February 2018 Jason toured the project in Europe, hitting most of the continent’s leading venues and last month he released the third album in the series, titled “Black Magic”. So what better time to sit down with Jason and talk about the project.
Jan Veldman: First of all Jason, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Let’s start by talking about the Kind of New project. In 2015 you released the first album in what has become a series, titled simply Kind of New. The name certainly seems to link with Miles Davis. Can you tell us about the origins of this project and the motivation behind it?
Jason Miles: I was at Miles Davis’ apartment in 1988, and we were doing the usual, talking music, watching TV, working on music. I asked, “Miles, I listened to Bitches Brew last weekend and, man, it’s still really happening. You had all the cutting edge keyboard players on the Rhodes – Zawinul, Chick, Larry Young – and then you had Herbie playing on “In A Silent Way”. Who did you like the best on Rhodes?” He immediately said, “Keith Jarrett. He’s one funky motherfucker.” I thought to myself, wow, Keith wasn’t on any of these albums and hated playing electric piano!
Let’s jump to 2005. At the IAJE Conference in NYC, I ran into the late Bob Beldon, and he said: “Hey Jason, come back tomorrow, I have something for you.” Returning the following day, Bob hands me a boxed set of CDs titled “Miles Davis: The Cellar Door Sessions”. I had heard he’d found these legendary lost tapes and was working on them with the plan of having them released. So, what a great surprise it was to see them in the flesh. I listened to all six discs and there was Keith on Fender Rhodes just killing it. I said to myself, why have we been ignoring the small electric ensembles? They played a big part of bringing new audiences to jazz in the 90s and beyond.
I decided then that I wanted to do something to re-visit that vibe and concept I loved so much. I started to write music that reflected that vibe and also thought to pay tribute to the Cellar Door Band and maybe do some live tracks as well.
JV: Let’s fast forward a year or two. You followed Kind of New up with the release of Kind of New 2: Blue is Paris, in response to the 2015 Paris terror attack. Back in 2015, you were in Paris during the immediate aftermath of the attack. How did it feel being in Paris at that time and how did this affect the music on the Kind of New 2?
JM: It was very different than being in the US, here we’ve been programmed to live in fear. As you mentioned, I was in Paris after that devastating attack and the city still had a vibrancy and attitude, that affected me. I came home and wrote the track “Blue is Paris”, sent it to Russell Gunn and he came up with a great melody. I then remembered an album my father gave me called “Lullaby of Birdland” from 1954. On the album this great song was done 12 different ways by 12 different artists. I thought, wow, wouldn’t it be cool to give “Blue is Paris” to some different artists and see what they can do with it? That’s how the album concept came about. Paris is a very inspiring city.
JV: Your new album “Black Magic” is the next in the Kind of New series. Having heard a pre-release version, it strikes me as being somewhat different from the previous two. Was this a conscious decision?
JM: Hopefully Kind of New will always be evolving. I wanted everything on this record to be different from the previous two. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, after our European tour, I realized the real strength of the music was in the band and I wanted to keep it that way. I always record our sets. When I heard the recordings from the various venues, it just highlighted to me what the capabilities of these amazing musicians are and how far I could push it. Secondly, this album was also meant to show that to be at the top of your game, you need to have multiple skill sets. In this case, it’s the musicians’ ability to understand that there’s a difference between playing live and playing in the studio. I believe this album nails that, I have the same people on the album, both in the studio and the live tracks. The execution of the material by the musicians is flawless.
Also, I try to learn from my past mistakes. What I realized during this process was that the strength is within. I don’t have to depend on other people to be able to make the strong musical statement I always strive to make. This one took a lot of soul-searching.
JV: In early 2018 you did an extensive European tour where you played material from the first two albums as well as road-testing some of the new material. How did those live shows impact the material on this album? I ask because the album includes four live tracks recorded at NuBlu just after that tour ended and the band was almost identical to that on the European dates.
JM: The European live shows had a great impact on how I viewed the project. Sometimes fate takes a hand and, as fate would have it, Reggie Washington was going to be in New York in December 2018. That gave me the ability to get the band we had in Europe back together and do a live recording.
Somemonths later, after an amazing concert by Herbie Hancock and our subsequent encounter after the show, I knew I had to write some very special material to take the project over the top and make it unique. After seeing Herbie live again, I realized you have a choice when great things happen in front of you. You can pay attention and learn, or you can ignore it, thinking you have nothing more to learn. I am forever a student, and I always learn!
JV: I thought it an interesting choice starting the album off with the studio material and closing with the live tracks. There’s no doubt there is a different energy between the two, what was your concept behind marrying the studio tracks with the live?
I wanted to send a message. As I mentioned earlier, you need two separate skill sets to make music and I wanted to show that on this album. You have to know how to perform live, understand how to build the music, the set and the performance so the audience stays interested and the music keeps flowing. Then there is the ability to understand how to craft music in the studio, how to create parts, how to meld with the other musicians you are playing with to give the track that magic we all look for.
The best example I have for this on the album is Gene Lake. Take a listen to his live performance on the album and then listen to his studio performances. You can see how each one requires a unique focus to make the track believable. The art of creating an album in the studio and understanding the craftsmanship that goes with it from musician to producer, engineer and arranger is an art form that is disappearing. It’s tough, there’s just no budget to go into the studio and do things in that way any more.
JV: On All About Jazz, Jeff Winbush said: “When your first or last name is Miles and you play jazz and you make an album dueting with a trumpet player and you call it Kind of New, you’re opening yourself up to all sorts of assumptions and expectations.” Jeff was, of course, alluding to the inevitable comparisons that would be drawn based on your work with Miles Davis. Was this in the back of your mind when you conceived the project?
JM: Well, I don’t care who you are, if you’re doing something related to Miles, either covering the songs or creating something in his spirit, you are going to be judged on another level. I know enough about Miles and spent enough time with him to know that I would never try to copy anything he did. I’ve always be conscious of what I was doing when it came to honouring him. I spent a lot of time making sure the music was fresh and Kind of New! If you’ve heard my album “Miles to Miles”, you’ll hear how it reflected the influence I got from him. I can live with the comparisons because it’s your actions and the result that countin the end.
JV: When we spoke before the interview, you suggested how Miles Davis saved jazz from dying as a topic. We all know you played a prominent role in the production of his albums Tutu, Music From Siesta and Amandla, so I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
JM: In 1967 jazz was still a vital force. But, in my opinion, it was dying in many ways. The musicians were great, but there was no real seismic events going on to leap it into the future. Then we got a hint of the future with Miles and “In a Silent Way”. Eyebrows were raised and then Boom! – Bitches Brew. That album that was so fresh and different. All of a sudden the baby boomers were checking it out. It was the first jazz gold record and a new generation discovered jazz.
Bitches Brew was “the” album that shook up the jazz world, It had some amazing musical conversations going on. For me, as a keyboard player, hearing the effect that the Fender Rhodes had on that album (and, of course, who was playing it) just puts me in musical nirvana.
Then, here comes Miles’ musical children. Weather Report, Mahavishnu, Return to Forever, Headhunters and all the other offshoots. Add The Crusaders in there for a different vibe and a whole new market for jazz was born. It was then that the boomers started to discover real jazz, Monk, Bill Evans, etc. It all started with Miles. I truly believe he literally saved jazz and expanded the market.
JV: Speaking of Miles’s Musical Children. I wanted to ask you about the project you put together that revisits the music of Weather Report. How did the project come about?
JM: Well, the origins of the project go back to the album I did in 1999, titled “Celebrating the music of Weather Report”. I’ve always been a huge fan of Weather Report, and back in the late 90s, I had a call from Jay Beckenstein from Spyro Gyra. They’d just signed a new record deal and as part of it, Jay was given the opportunity to record a solo album. He asked me if I wanted to do a track on the album but, the funny thing was, it had to be a version of “Black Market”. Anyway, I decided to do it, and it came out crazy good. I had Marcus (Miller) and Omar (Hakim) along with Jay, Mino Cinélu and myself on it. So, to make a long story short, we ended up doing a whole album’s worth of material and ended up with a deal on Telarc.
JV: When the album came out it featured an amazing line-up of players, including Victor Bailey, Randy and Michael Brecker, Steve Gadd, Marcus Miller and David Sanborn, to mention just a few. How was the album received?
JM: We mostly had good reviews but, you know, you have the Weather Report police and they just hated it. There were even some reviews on Amazon that said basically – die Jason Miles, but all in all, most people liked the album.
JV: You mentioned the Weather Report police. Did they see the music as holy ground and how did you approach the music?
JM: Well, we were not just looking to play this music in the way Weather Report played it. For me, it’s all about the melody. We rearranged it, added some modern grooves and just took it where it wanted to go. I think that’s why it works.
JV: Let’s change the subject. You’re not only known as a performer but also for your studio work. You mentioned earlier that these are two different beasts. But how do you keep a consistent vision between these separate two centres of creation? I know this sounds a little esoteric but, can you expand a little on your earlier thoughts?
JM: Early on I was told “Live is Live and Studio is Studio”. It’s true. These are two totally different centres of creation. When I am in the studio, my vision is always that I need to make music that people will be listening to for decades. Everything is magnified in the studio and you need a mindset of perfection. I need to be able to live with the music I create and to ensure that every time somebody listens to it, they’ll want to listen to it again.
A great Brazilian producer and musician, Eumir Deodato, once told me it was all about trusting your ear. I believe it takes many years to develop a great ear in the studio. I’ve always been amazed by some of the producers I’d worked with back in the 80s and 90s and how tuned in they were. Nothing got by them – I learned a lot.
Live is another state of mind. I’ve been lucky to see so many great artists perform over the years. I was fortunate to have great seats to watch Luther Vandross do his thing. I had a long association with him and he was a master on the stage. I saw first hand how much he was in control of the stage and the way he kept the audience engaged for two hours. I learned about the difference between playing for 50 people in a club and 17,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl. It’s about the set list, the build up of the show and not forgetting, having the right musicians!
JV: So to finish up, having had such an amazing career, what’s still on Jason Miles Bucket List?
JM: My bucket list is huge. I still need to visit several countries and cities and perform at some festivals that are still on my list. It’s my goal to play the music for as many people as possible. I’m really looking forward to coming back over to Europe.
JV: Thanks Jason, we’re looking forward to having you back on our side of the pond once thing get back to so normality. Stay well!
Jason Miles new album ‘Black Magic’ is now available on Ropeadope Records.
Jazz In Europe Magazine – Spring 2020 Edition
This article is an abridged version of the full interview that appears in the Spring 2020 edition of the Jazz In Europe print magazine.
Also included in this edition are interviews with Cyrille Aimee, Ray Gelato, Dave Holland, Jason Miles and Sem van Gelder. We take a look at Bitches Brew, 50 years on. Tony Ozuna presents us with a look at the Czech jazz scene from it’s origions behind the Iron Curtin to the present day. This editions photo feature spotlights British photographer William Ellis.
You can purchase a copy of the magazine here.
Last modified: July 19, 2020