Miles Davis was born May 26, 1926. In observance of the anniversary of his birth, I’m taking a look at an album that I haven’t listened to in about 15 years.
In December 1984, Davis was given the Léonie Sonning Music Prize in Denmark; it’s that country’s highest musical honor, and normally goes to someone from the world of classical music. The first winner, in 1959, was Igor Stravinsky; Davis’s award came in between Rafael Kubelík (a Czech conductor and composer) and French composer, conductor and writer Pierre Boulez. Danish trumpeter/composer Palle Mikkelborg created a suite in tribute to Davis, and he liked it so much he returned to Denmark at the end of January 1985 and recorded a studio version. However, his label at the time, Columbia, chose not to release it, which may have been a factor in his decamping for Warner Bros. Aura was eventually issued in 1989.
Mikkelborg created the piece by turning the letters in Davis’s name — “M, I, L, E, S, D, A, V, I, S” — into corresponding musical notes. The piece’s introductory movement begins with these notes played in sequence on electric guitar, over a sustained synth chord. The nine movements that follow are named for colors that Mikkelborg claimed to see in Davis’s aura: “White,” “Yellow,” “Orange,” “Red,” “Green,” “Blue,” “Electric Red,” “Indigo” and “Violet.”
What makes Aura interesting is that the ten-note phrase isn’t actually very pretty. Its first notes are quite high-pitched and shrill, and this may just be an impression derived from hearing it introduced on electric guitar, but as it progresses through the full sequence, it sounds like a metal guitar riff. And it resolves in a somewhat unattractive, inconclusive way; it’s an introduction that demands that more music come afterward, to fill in the spots that remain empty. Listening to it, I’m reminded of a story Herbie Hancock often tells of being onstage with Davis and playing a clangingly wrong note and being struck with terror at his fuck-up, only to have the trumpeter come in an instant later with a note that made what he had played seem right. That’s what’s going on here, in a way; Mikkelborg has written something that requires others to finish the job, to save the day.
The ensemble numbers about thirty, plus Davis. They’re mostly Scandinavian musicians, though trumpeter Idrees Sulieman, who lived in Denmark at that time, is part of the horn section, and guitarist John McLaughlin is also present, as is Davis’s nephew, drummer Vincent Wilburn Jr. Percussionist Marilyn Mazur was part of the ensemble, and was invited to join Davis’s touring band afterward. Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen plays upright bass, but there’s also a bass guitarist.
The nine sections of the piece flow together, rising slowly at first to become hot (white, yellow, orange, red) then gradually becoming cooler (green, blue, indigo, violet). The orchestrations have a very ’80s feel, because Mikkelborg used synths instead of strings; during the slow sections, it could be the soundtrack to a love scene in a Ridley Scott movie, while the more upbeat, jazz-funk passages thump and blare. “Orange” is probably the peak, in terms of energy; it sounds very much like something Davis or his bandmates would have written and played on tour, including heavy-handed synth stabs, a locked-in groove, a fanfare-like chorus, and a long, shredtastic, extremely ’80s guitar solo. “Red” is somewhat quieter, surprisingly; a slow-burning, almost metallic guitar riff underpins its first half, accented by popping bass. The keyboards come stomping in about two minutes before the end.
“Green” is mostly a duet between Davis and Pedersen, with a steady synth drone underneath, while “Blue” has an ersatz reggae pulse and booming electronic drums. One might expect “Electric Red” to stand out from the second half, but it’s basically a reworking of “Red,” with a few individual instruments popping in for a second or two, to comment on something Davis plays. “Indigo” is the most conventionally jazzy section of the program, featuring an extended piano solo by Thomas Clausen over a twitchy, skittering drum pattern with manic percussive outbursts from Mazur, and “Violet” is a recapitulation of all that’s come before, a slow blues-funk groove with solo space for trumpet and guitar.
Davis’s playing in 1984 and 1985 was very different from what it had been in previous eras. He’d passed through the bebop of the 1940s and the dispassionate, cool virtuosity of the 1950s; returned to the blues in the early 1960s and exploded song form in the second half of that decade. Then, when he began to surround himself with electric instruments in 1969, his style became fiercer, stabbing through a wall of organs and guitars; this style lasted until his disappearance in 1975. When he returned in the ’80s, his music was built on funk and rock grooves, and his phrases were appropriately sparse, anchored in the blues but also prone to digression. His solos mirrored his onstage behavior: wandering around, gaze fixed on the floor. This is the zone he’s in on Aura. He drifts in and out, seeming unmoored at times, muted but pushing hard, playing long phrases that roll out like a ball of yarn tossed down a hallway. He’s listening to what the ensemble is doing, but feels no obligation to collaborate with them. They’re not his band; they’re the scenery he’s performing in front of.
It’s not hard for me to understand why critics responded favorably to Aura when it was released. It was a Big Gesture, a piece written to honor Davis that he’d chosen to record, in the process proving that he could be flattered, that he cared what other people thought. And if you didn’t like the slick, poppy jazz-funk he was recording on albums like Decoy and You’re Under Arrest, never mind the ice cold cybernetic exercises of Tutu, this almost-big-band suite probably felt like a “return to real music.” But to me, it’s a mere curiosity. Compositionally it’s just interesting enough to keep me listening while it’s on, but the various elements — jazz-funk, semi-classical orchestration, quiet ballad sections — never add up to a single big thing. It feels like a collection of ideas stapled together and given a collective title. And I’ll listen to Decoy and You’re Under Arrest and Tutu and Amandla a hundred more times before I’ll come back to Aura.