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Thursday, 24 May, 2001, 18:22 GMT 19:22 UK
New insights on jazz genius
Miles Davis
Has Miles Davis' electric period been unfairly judged?
Miles Davis would have been 75 on Saturday. The 10 years since his death have seen no let-up in re-issues of his recordings.

His most famous record, Kind Of Blue, even re-entered the UK album charts recently - a mere 42 years after its release.

A new book about the jazz hero has been written by guitarist and journalist Paul Tingen.

Tingen feels that, despite the continued appreciation for the great musician, not enough has been said about perhaps the most controversial period of his career - his move into rock and funk at the end of the 1960s.

BBC News Online asked him about his new book.

There are plenty of books about Miles Davis. What prompted you to write another one?

None of the other books described Miles' electric music in a way that made sense to me.

It seemed like these jazz critics lived in a different musical universe, and assessed many recordings rather negatively, and ignored others.

I thought that as a rock musician and writer I might be able to offer different and new insights into this extraordinary music.

What explains our continuing fascination with Miles Davis?

Like with any artist that captures the public imagination, I think it's a combination of the art itself and the person behind it.

Miles Davis
Lyrical and melodic: Miles in 1961
As a trumpet player Miles had one of the most lyrical, melodic, and touching instrumental voices of the 20th century.

He was also beautiful to watch, and had great charisma.

But Miles had something more, something that's even rarer - in constantly renewing himself and making music that was of the times and in his unwavering commitment to his art, he displayed the hallmarks of a true artist.

I think that Miles appeals to our deep hunger for authenticity and integrity.

What attracts you to the rock and funk period of Miles' long career - when so many prefer his achievements in acoustic jazz?

My musical preferences - rock, world, folk, and classical music - give me a very different take on Miles' rock and funk-influenced music, and I know scores of rock lovers that feel similar.

Jazz and rock are two very different aesthetic languages, each with its own inner logic.

Because Miles began his professional career as a jazz musician, his electric explorations have until now been measured by jazz standards - had Miles begun playing in 1969, this would never have happened; his career would have been charted by writers whose outlook centred around rock.

Miles made a comeback in 1980 after years of silence, touring and recording extensively until his death in 1991. How does this comeback period compare with his earlier work?

For me the most staggering thing about Miles' comeback is that he was still able to make powerful, fresh, and modern-sounding music when in his 50s and 60s.

I mean, how many 30 or 40-something artists have not gone flat on their faces by trying to jump in on the latest musical bandwagon?

But Miles remained entirely credible until his death at 65.

Having said that, in my opinion Miles' 1980s music was not as pioneering or ground breaking as his pre-1975 music, which I regard as the most radical, daring, and important, and yet that has been the most misunderstood.

Has your extensive research brought you nearer to understanding this complex and mysterious man?

I found the testimonies of two of his former lovers, Marguerite Eskridge in the late 1960s, and Jo Gelbard during 1986-1991, particularly helpful in deepening my insights into his character.

I also came to a much deeper understanding of the way he worked as a bandleader, in certain respects very much like a Zen master.

Miles was also a totally selfless bandleader - everything he did was in the service of music and meant to make his band sound better, and not to put the spotlight on himself.

Miles the bandleader rarely gave more than cryptic instructions to his sidemen. What effect did this have on his musicians?

I think Miles tried anything to get his musicians out of autopilot, to get them to come up with new musical solutions.

It could be shocking them, bluffing, intimidating them, playing a gentle father to them, supporting them, all depending on the musician and what he thought was needed - which was anything other than the expected, the predictable.

Which is your favourite Miles Davis performance, and why?

It's very hard to name one performance - but I might go for his beautifully lyrical and touching playing in "He Loved Him Madly," his 1974 tribute to Duke Ellington, who had died shortly before this epic track was recorded.

What do you think of Miles' autobiography, both as a source and as a book in its own right?

I found it a worthwhile source that often threw up unexpected details that I was later able to place in context - such as his assertion that his mother had a lot of Native American blood.

This became an important part of my argument in explaining why Miles was always fascinated by and exploring different cultures and music styles.

On the other hand, the autobiography contains very little genuinely informative details about his 1970s music, and there are some strange mistakes.

But I certainly would recommend his autobiography as the most important and interesting book to read for those who want to learn more about Miles in general.

Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations Of Miles Davis 1967-1991, published 24 May 2001

Biographer Paul Tingen explores the funk and rock influence on Miles Davis's later workMiles beyond
Explorations of jazz-rock in Davis biography
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