“There’s an art to making an album and it’s a craft that is totally lost,” opines JASON MILES, who laments the fact that we are living in the age of the digital download. The 65-year-old native New Yorker grew up in an age when the LP format was king and came through the ranks in the Big Apple session scene in the ’70s and ’80s, rising from keyboard programmer to record producer. “I am a real producer,” he states. “I spent 15 years in the New York studios as an apprentice doing synthesiser work for Luther Vandross and Marcus Miller but I was also learning in that period also about being a producer and what it really takes and how you make an album. So I learned the craft and one of my strong points is that I learned is how to make everybody sound like they’re in the same room, even though they’re not. That’s something that I’ve learnt and all my records feel like that. They feel like we’re all playing together. That’s very important to me to give it a kind of sense.”
Miles is intensely loquacious and brimming with energy – “keep asking questions because I can riff forever,” he tells me – and is a musician who has worn many different guises in his long career. They range from producer, recording artist and composer to arranger, synthesiser programmer and session musician. He learned his craft from the some of the biggest and best names in the business, including a jaw-droppingly talented Holy Trinity comprising the great Miles Davis, the late Tommy LiPuma and super-soulful singer Luther Vandross. They’ve all passed on, of course, but they left an indelible mark on Miles and undoubtedly helped to make him the man and musician he is today.
The Big Apple-based musician has appeared on countless albums over the years and worked with the finest talents from worlds of jazz and R&B music. As well as appearing on albums by Luther and Miles Davis – he worked on the iconic trumpeter’s late-’80s albums, ‘Tutu’ and ‘Amandla’ – he’s worked with Diana Ross, Roberta Flack, Aretha Franklin, David Sanborn, Al Jarreau, Anita Baker, George Benson, Grover Washington Jr, Whitney Houston, Chaka Khan, and Michael Jackson. It’s an impressive CV, charting Miles’ rise from pioneering synthesiser programmer to go-to, in-demand record producer. As a producer, Miles is famed for putting together critically-acclaimed tribute albums (namely ‘Miles To Miles,’ ‘Celebrating The Music Of Weather Report,’ ‘To Grover, With Love,’ and ‘A Love Affair: The Music Of Ivan Lins’) and more recently, helmed a track on Maysa Leak’s new Shanachie album, ‘Love Is A Battlefield.’
He’s also released a steady stream of albums under his own name over the years and his latest project is ‘Kind Of New 2 – Blue Is Paris,’ a unique album that offers ten different instrumental configurations of a song that the keyboardist/producer wrote in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attack in November 2015. It features notable guest appearances from trumpeters Theo Croker, Michael ‘Patches’ Stewart, Jukka Escola, saxophonist Jeff Coffin, guitarist Ricardo Silveira and singer, Maya Azucena.
In a detailed interview with SJF’s Charles Waring, JASON MILES talks at length about ‘Blue Is Paris’ and also recalls other aspects of his career, including his work with the legendary Miles Davis…
Tell us about your new project, ‘Kind Of New 2: Blue Is Paris’
I made this album ‘Kind Of New,’ in 2015, which got incredible press all over the world. I used this trumpet player on it, Ingrid Jensen, and it was a combination of live and studio recordings based on Miles Davis’s ‘The Cellar Door Sessions.’ That was a legendary week in 1970 where Miles’s band – Jack DeJohnette, Airto, Gary Bartz, Keith Jarrett on electric piano, and Michael Henderson – was recorded. The tapes got lost but then Sony found them and released a box set. When I first heard it I thought holy mackerel, Keith Jarrett is so freaking funky – Miles told me that Keith was his favourite keyboard player from his ’70s bands – but it was a different kind of funk, like in 3-D. So I thought, you know what? Here’s a premise: the small electric ensemble has been disappearing. In the ’70s we had The Crusaders, Weather Report, Return To Forever, and Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters, which were all small electric ensembles, and that’s where I come from. I thought it was time to bring it back, this broad concept that’s got interaction, so I came up with the idea for ‘Kind Of New’ and I asked Ingrid to be on the record and wrote these different tunes and did some live gigs as well to get that Cellar Door kind of a vibe on it. I came over to Europe to do press for it right after the terrorist attack in Paris. A friend drove me around there and I was amazed that people were just going and doing their thing like nothing had happened. They weren’t going to stop going to sit in cafes. It’s built into the culture. They were so resilient and when I was on the train going to Brussels to do some more press all of a sudden I started thinking, I’ve got to write something about that, about Paris. It’s so sad. And I came up with ‘Blue Is Paris.’
Instead of producing an album of different tracks, you feature just one song but offer an album’s worth of different variations and interpretations. What inspired that?
When I came back from Europe I wrote the tune ‘Blue Is Paris,’ and put together the rhythm track. First, I called up (trumpeter) Russell Gunn, who was interested and played on it. I told him that was really freaking good, man, but you know what? I could take this thing to other places, I really could because on the track there was some other stuff happening and I’m hearing other melodies. That’s when I said forget about this one trumpet player thing. So I started thinking about an album that my father got me, ‘Lullaby of Birdland,’ by George Shearing on RCA Victor, which came out in 1955. I still have it. It was twelve versions of the tune done by twelve different arrangers. I thought: it worked for that, so why can’t it work for something like this? It had Shorty Rogers, Zoot Sims, Quincy Jones, Barbara Carroll, Charlie Barnett, Joe Newman, and Pete Jolly, who all did versions of it. It was all recorded in different places. So that’s how the vibe came.
After that, I called up (trumpeter) Theo Croker, and he came back with something totally different and I thought, okay, man, this shit could work. And that’s when I got two more horn players, ‘Patches’ Stuart and Jukka Escola. I really love Jukka’s album. I went to him because I thought it would be interesting because nobody knows who he is really and he’s from Finland and he’s really freaking good. And ‘Patches’ is a long-time friend. We’ve done stuff together. Then I thought, let’s break it up, and I went to Jeff Coffin on sax and (guitarist) Ricardo Silveira in Brazil, who’s a 40-year friend and let’s give it a try, see what happens and see what the story is. So I started to put it together and got some great feedback and then I did the last track, the vocal version with Maya Azucena. I thought let’s see what she can come up with on the vocal angle and she was great. Then I thought, let me go far away from what they’re doing and do a remix of it, just totally different, just me. And that’s how I came up with the vibe. I feel very strongly about it. Why limit yourself to one thing?
How did you come across Theo Croker?
I’ve got to be very honest and said I need some young trumpet player. I just wanted to look at something different. Jay Rodriguez recommended a couple of different cats, and Theo was one of them and I listened to his album (‘Escape Velocity,’ released in 2016) and I really, really liked it. I met him and he was a really great guy, and very much into playing for real as far as joining an ensemble and playing with people. That’s what I liked about him. He’s really creative and really good.
You recently produced a Luther Vandross song, ‘Because It’s Really Love,’ for Maysa’s new album, ‘Love Is A Battlefield.’
Maysa asked me to do that song for her. I said to her, “you do realise, number one, that that’s a Luther ballad, and you also realise that that song took us two-and-a-half weeks in the studio to do because Luther was so meticulous. So it’s got to be meticulously perfect for a Luther ballad to work with somebody else.” She said, “let’s do it, let’s go,” so I put together that tune and knew I could do it because I watched Luther and Marcus Miller put together those tunes. I did eight albums with Luther and watched all those albums going down. For each of those albums, we were in the studio for three freaking months. Those albums were really crafted. Some of them, like the ones I worked on, ‘Give Me The Reason,’ ‘Any Love,’ ‘Power Of Love’ and ‘Here And Now,’ took us two weeks to do just one song.
Did it feel like you were serving an apprenticeship with masters like Miles and Luther?
I was a synthesiser cat and I didn’t feel like I was serving an apprenticeship – I felt like they should be serving an apprenticeship with me because they had no idea how I did it. Miles could walk in the studio and say to a sax player or somebody, “man, you’ve got to do that solo again, it’s too ahead of the beat” but he couldn’t walk up to me and say that because he had no idea how I did what I did. All he knew was that he sat there and the music started popping out of the speakers and he’d never heard it before because this was very new territory back then.
You first came to the wider public’s attention playing on Miles Davis’ ‘Tutu’ and ‘Amandla’ albums where you were credited as a synthesiser programmer. How did you get into that?
It had really started with walking by this auditorium at my college in the fall of 1973 and seeing a guy sitting on stage with this little tiny keyboard and it ended up being Bob Moog and his mini Moog. So he let me play it and I was like oh my God, oh yeah, this is amazing, listen to this thing! And then I was influenced by people like Herbie (Hancock) and Joe Zawinul. I got to be friends with some of these cats. Zawinul was a friend of mine for years. I had been friends with him since 1974. He was coming up with sounds that were very innovative, but he was coming up with the sounds for Whether Report, not for anybody else. I came up with sounds myself when I got a Prophet 5 synth in 1979 when I made my very first album (‘Cozmopolitan’ in 1979). I was thinking about the different sounds and how I was going to do this and all the different possibilities. I knew how to get the sounds because I understood synthesis at that point. And so what happened was that a keyboard player named Kenny Kirkland, who was one of the great piano players of all time in New York he had a record date with this Japanese cat, and he said they want me to do synthesis. I was like, so? Come on, Kenny, man, you can do it. He said, are you kidding me? I have no idea how to do that stuff. You’re going to come and bring your Prophet and I’ll pay you $500. This was like 1980. I said wow, I’ll come for 500 bucks man. After that record, people started knowing that I knew what was going on with this stuff and I got very, very deep into synthesisers.
And your name started to get around?
There were two people that were really responsible for being very hip to me and one was (saxophonist) Michael Brecker, who told everybody about me. We started doing some music together and he started telling producers, “you should use Jason Miles.” Then one night he had called me up and (saxophonist) Bob Mintzer’s band was playing at a club. It was the summer of 1984 and Mike was leaving him the next day to go and do festivals in Europe. What happened was, he said come down, man, everybody’s going to be at this club. I lived 50 miles out of the city and it was a nice June night and my wife was in Indiana visiting her family so I said fine. I’m coming, man. So I leave the dog, jump in the car, and everybody’s hanging at the club. Michael sees me, gives me a big hug and then I see this drummer, Lenny White. And the next thing I know, Lenny White, who played with Miles and Return To Forever. He walks over to me and says, hey man, who’s your favourite producer? I said to him, that’s easy, Trevor Horn. He said, we are definitely going to work together because I could see that he loved all the orchestra hits and all that shit, and I could do all that kind of stuff. We just kept in touch and then Lenny told Marcus Miller about me. I had known Marcus from him doing my first album with me in 1979 and then following Marcus and seeing what was going on. I was part of the New York scene. Marcus was jumping up as a producer and Lenny told him that he should be using me on this new project and we started working together and that lasted 10 years. Through Marcus, I met Miles, Luther and David Sanborn. I had known a whole bunch of those people but they had never brought me in until Michael started recommending me.
The 1980s, when you started to get noticed, was a time when technology was coming to the fore in music.
People could relate to the music but they didn’t know how to relate to the production and the sounds and everything, because I was coming from a whole other kind of place. And that place was in the spirit of Art of Noise, Trevor Horn, Grace Jones’s ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ and Malcolm McLaren’s ‘Buffalo Gals.’ I listened to all that stuff. I was into jazz really heavily but I came from Brooklyn, New York, where music was very hybrid in the ’60s. There was all this music happening and it just wasn’t jazz, it was everything: rock, R&B, soul, funk, and jazz. I listened to everything back then. And pop radio was very different too.
Did you see yourself as a synthesist rather than a pianist or keyboardist?
At first, I played organ and I wasn’t known as a pure piano player. I played electric keyboards. I never represent myself as saying ‘oh yeah, I can play acoustic piano.’ That’s not how I represent myself on gigs. I don’t want to be judged with McCoy Tyner and Herbie (Hancock)and guys like that on acoustic, because my strength was writing music around my sounds though I get my musicality from Bill Evans, Herbie, and Chick Corea.
How did you feel when Marcus Miller offered you the chance to work on the ‘Tutu’ session with Miles Davis?
Marcus and I had been working together for over a year when that happened. What happened was that we had done David Sanborn’s ‘Chicago Song’ and the Jamaica Boys with Lenny White and Marcus. We were forming a little conglomerate and Marcus was getting more calls because of his writing and now his production thing was really going up. He was bringing a fresh approach and he was bringing me with him. That made a difference, ‘cos I know people were asking, “are you bringing Jason Miles, Marcus?” People would ask him that because we had started to get a lethal reputation. One day, Tommy LiPuma called Marcus, just out of the blue, and said: “have you got anything for Miles Davis?” Tommy had signed Miles to Warner Bros and Miles had started cutting tracks for a new album but Tommy just did not like where the direction was going. He just hated the music. First, he went to George Duke, and he came up with this one tune (‘Backyard Ritual’) and Tommy was like, “okay, we’ve got something here.” So then he calls Marcus up. Then Marcus called me up on a Friday, and said: “hey man, are you doing anything tomorrow? Tommy LiPuma signed Miles from Columbia and he’s on Warner Brothers now. I’ve got some tracks and I want to send some demos over. Are you up for it?” I said hell, yeah and took my Emulator (a sampling keyboard) and we put together ‘Tutu.’ I used some trumpet samples. They were actually Miles samples that I’d lifted off ‘Sketches of Spain,’ so I could do some demos. I said to Marcus, check this out, and he says, “man, that’s a good trumpet.” I said yeah, that’s Miles. So we started laughing and that’s what he used on the demos for ‘Tutu.’ Marcus played it to Miles. He asked, “who’s that on trumpet on that?” Marcus goes, “that’s you – Jason Miles sampled you. ” He said, “I thought it was Nat Adderley.” All of a sudden, Marcus gets back to me, told me Warner’s loved it and that the record is happening. And that was the start of Tutu. It was an interesting thing because it was all new territory. Nobody knew what we were doing. Miles just went with the vibe. Every time we did something, he loved it more and more…but some of the jazz police weren’t thrilled.
What about your beginnings. What drew you to music in the first place?
I was sitting behind the drummer at a wedding when I was six years old and loved it, watching the band. I just wanted to play the drums and the guy let me sit in. After that, I wanted to play music so my parents got me in accordion (laughs). I just started growing from there. Then I started hearing more and more music when I was younger. My father bought a hi-fi and he listened to all this different music. Jerry Lewis and Jackie Gleason, and then he bought George Shearing and Terry Gibbs. So I started hearing a lot more music and then, all of a sudden, more stuff started happening in a more creative way with music. And then when The Beatles came in, when I was 12 years old, I was still playing but I wanted to take it in another direction. I started studying jazz at 15 with a guy called Rector Bailey in Brooklyn, who really taught me a lot about the changes and a lot of different things. So that’s how I got into it, very early on.
You mentioned Miles but which other musicians had the biggest influence on you, do you think?
I would say CTI era Bob James. I would also say Zawinul (pictured above) and Weather Report. Chick Corea, of course, but I wasn’t into the next incarnation of Return To Forever with Al DiMeola. I was into the Airto/Flora Purim shit when they did ‘Return to Forever’ and then ‘Light As a Feather.’ That was what I was into. I also loved The Crusaders and Steely Dan back then and West Coast California jazz. So all that stuff had an influence on me but Weather Report was a very big influence. What Zawinul did with the synthesisers and the groove and the world music had a great effect on me. But also, Brazilian music. I got heavily involved in Brazilian music in 1974, because I met (drummer/percussionist) Dom Um Romao from Weather Report. He became a friend and he turned me onto all this Brazilian shit. I was just a magnet for music. We went to all the clubs. You know another group that had a big influence on me? Stuff. (Keyboardist) Richard Tee had a huge influence on me with his playing.
Are there any other projects in the pipeline after ‘Blue Is Paris’?
I have this other band called Global Noize and we’re making an album called ‘Plugged Into The Universe.’ It’s dedicated to (P-Funk keyboardist) Bernie Worrell, because of how much I learned about funk and him. I call it a crafted 21st-century electric record. It’s like 21st-century jazz-vibe funk and it’s not based around any one premise of live musicians or anything; it’s based around all the tools that I have to create music with. It’s got live playing on it and synthetic playing on it but Global Noize feels like an electronic band playing live. My thing is still based off of melody and creative changes, groove, and sound. I like to say that my music is what I call creative commerciality. That’s what I strive for; to bring the most people in and to go and to give them something that isn’t stupid for them. That makes them think that they can still hold on to. That’s my challenge.
You’ve also started branching out into management.
Absolutely. I started a small management company because I’m helping one of the greatest guitar players to ever live right now and we’re getting his album out. His name’s Reggie Young. Everybody knows his playing but don’t know who he is. He played on Dusty Springfield’s ‘Son Of A Preacher Man,’ Dobie Gray’s ‘Drift Away,’ Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline,’ Elvis Presley’s ‘You’re Always On My Mind,’ ‘In The Ghetto’ and ‘Suspicious Minds.’ He’s a guitarist on all those American Sound Studios recordings. Reggie is a dear friend and he made his first album at 80 years old and he had no idea what to do. So I became his de facto manager to give him his victory lap and got him two record deals – in the UK he’s with Ace Records. It will be out at the end of June. I’m also looking after Hazelrigg Brothers. They’re brilliant. One plays bass and the other plays piano and they have their friend on drums. They’re a beautiful trio. Very ECM. Then I have a young singer, Rebecca Angel, who just graduated college and I knew her when she was 15. We’re making an album together with great Brazilian musicians. I’m trying to make her the new Flora Purim. Nobody’s done that slot. She can’t compete with the jazz singers or someone like Maysa, but they can’t compete with her vibe on contemporary Brazilian jazz. I’ve also worked with a jazz singer from the UK, Beverley Beirne. I made it in the UK with a trio of young, exceptional, amazing musicians. We have a record called ‘Jazz Just Wants To Have Fun.’ It’s all jazz versions of her favourite songs from the ’80s of bands like Kajagoogoo, the Specials, Bananarama and ABC. It’s a brilliant young band with Sam Watts on piano. I couldn’t even sit at the same piano as him, he’s so freaking good. I didn’t play one note on the album but they said to me, “We couldn’t have an album unless you were in the studio because you know how to run a recording session.” And that’s true – there is an art to running a recording session and I know how to run them.
You’ve been in the music business now for 45 years. Besides talent, what do you need in order to survive and achieve longevity?
I think the ability to morph and the ability to grow into something else. You have to be able to change. I’m in the fourth incarnation in my career. My first was coming back to New York and trying to get my shit together, turning into a studio synthesist, and getting to that place. And then going from that to become a full-time producer. At first, nobody wanted to hire me as a producer, because everybody knew me as someone who programmed synthesisers. So I had to prove myself as a producer and I had to develop projects, like ‘A Love Affair: The Music of Ivan Lins,’ and ‘Celebrating The Music of Weather Report,’ and ‘To Grover, With Love.’ These are projects I developed. Then I had to morph into presenting myself in a live experience. So I’ve morphed into this thing on a constant basis but taken all my experience with me from all of the years and paid attention to a new thing. And also I’ve grown up with the technology, so I have a grip on all of it and know what’s happening. Am I the best or best at it? No. But I know enough and I know what I need to do to create great records and use the tools that are out there.
What’s been the highlight so far of your career, because you’ve so many amazing moments of different musicians, haven’t you?
In terms of playing live, I think Carnegie Hall with Ivan Lins was a highlight when we performed the whole of the ‘Love Affair’ album there. I was in South Africa two years ago and played the Cape Town jazz Festival and we blew the place away. There were 12,000 people were loving it. It was beautiful. I played the Hollywood Bowl last summer for the first time because it took me so long to get into there. It’s so hard to get in these kinds of shows. We opened up for George Benson and George was off the hook with the ‘To Grover, With Love’ show. He loved it. And those are some of the highlights. Also, working at Air Studios in Montserrat and working with Luther. All these different things are on a very A-level as far as being memorable. Even going to Nashville and working with (country singer) Suzi Bogguss and helping her rebuild her career. But then, there’s Miles Davis and Miles Davis has got to be the pinnacle of your validation as an artist and creator because so many great people came through Miles for real. And one thing I can say is that I was part of a very historic record, ‘Tutu.’ Meeting Miles and having him as my friend five-and-a-half years and having him come up to my house, talking all the time, and me learning from him, is why I’m here.
JASON MILES’ NEW ALBUM ‘BLUE IS PARIS’ IS OUT NOW
FOR MORE INFO GO TO: http://www.jasonmilesmusic.com/