Review of Miles Davis: That's What Happened: Live in Germany 1987
Eagle Eye Media
Miles Davis: That's
What Happened: Live
in Germany 1987

Reviewed by Michael Fortes



iles Davis’ work of the 1980s never gets the kind of respect that his work of the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s and even the ‘70s regularly receives. As several live albums over the years have displayed (especially the gargantuan 20-disc box set The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux 1973-1991), this wasn’t for lack of skill, talented sidemen, or even vision.

If anything, it all boils down to Miles’ tendency to put his own spin on what he liked about popular music at any given time. And what was popular in the 1980s still sounds cartoonish and cheesy today.

In his early years, he reaped great rewards with his interpretations of timeless standards from Broadway musicals, bop staples and pop songs. By the 1960s, he was finding ways to take what he liked about Motown, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, and even Crosby, Stills & Nash, and make it all his own. But in the 1980s, synths ruled, and though it’s tough to debate the merits of Michael Jackson’s and Cyndi Lauper’s biggest hits, the wave of revisionist hipsterism that made Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond cool again has yet to sweep over the stigmas that prevent Miles’ aura from triumphing over the decade that gave us hip hop, hair metal and Smurfs.

“That’s What Happened: Live in Germany 1987” probably won’t ever be lauded with the same passion as live performances like his ’55 set in Newport, the ’64 concert that yielded the My Funny Valentine and “Four” and More albums, or the 1970 Cellar Door sets in D.C. that found their way onto the double album Live Evil, and for that you can blame the ridiculous-sounding technology of the 1980s. Granted, Prince is lionized for his work during this same time using the same technology… but then, the ‘80s were all about titillation, and the only way one could be truly titillated by Miles was to listen to him speak (as on the bonus featurette of the DVD about Miles’ art, where he casually remarks, “I fuck on the floor”). Get past that, however, and what you have is an approach to funk that could only come from one man.

Actually, make that one man and seven able assistants. By the time of “That’s What Happened,” Miles’ band consisted of saxophonist Kenny Garrett, “lead bassist” Foley, keyboardists Adam Holzman and Bobby Irving, percussionist Mino Cinelu, bassist Darryl Jones (pre-Rolling Stones), and drummer Ricky Wellman. It’s the drummer who perhaps gave this band its funk as much as Miles’ directions to the band, adding to the mix a touch of D.C.’s go-go rhythms that had caught Miles’ ear. While few even remember what “go-go” was (its biggest moment in the sun was E.U.’s 1988 novelty hit “Da Butt”), Miles’ take on the music has survived.

Best of all, “That’s What Happened” shows Miles not just making the most out of ‘80s funk and R&B with a mix of original tunes (“New Blues”), contemporary covers (“Human Nature,” “Time After Time”), and pieces written by producer Marcus Miller (“Tutu,” “Portia”), but also out-dressing the rest of his band. His flashy, brightly colored clothing displayed his commanding nature just as much as the signals he gave to his band and the synth cues he would hammer out in between phrases on his trumpet. Only the leadership style and musical concepts here are timeless. The presentation is, by all observation, pure ‘80s. It’s not the coolest item in Miles’ oeuvre, but“That’s What Happened” is nothing if not real, as only Miles could be.

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