Miles Ahead is actor/director Don Cheadle’s movie about jazz giant, MILES DAVIS. A loose jazz improvisation, if you will, inspired by the ‘lost years’ of the trumpeter’s life when he stopped playing between 1975 and 1981, Cheadle’s film has garnered mixed responses so far from both pundits and punters. Its soundtrack, though, has had a universal thumbs up and for those that have seen the movie and know little about the trumpeter, then this CD spans Miles’ work from the ’50s to the early ’80s. In addition, there are contemporary pieces taken from keyboardist Robert Glasper’s contribution to the music score. Cheadle’s insightful liner notes set the scene as to how the soundtrack came into being but it is the music that is most eloquent of all, from the jaunty hard bop of ‘Miles Ahead’ to the cool modal jazz of ‘So What,’ the haunting free bop of ‘Nerfertiti’ and the febrile avant-funk of ‘Black Satin.’
In between the music there are snippets of pertinent dialogue from the film with Cheadle doing his best raspy-voiced Miles impression. Some of the tracks – ‘Seven Steps To Heaven,’ ‘Duran’ and ‘Black Satin’ have been edited down from longer pieces to fit in the movie – though this doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of hearing the major musical phases in Miles’ career being delineated in chronological sequence. Towards the end of the disc, we get Glasper’s new incidental music – the jaunty ‘Junior’s Jam’ (a sensational Miles-esque funk groove featuring Keyon Harrold and Marcus Strickland on horns); the lush, dreamy ‘Francessence’ (to accompany a love scene between Miles and his wife in the early ’60s, Frances); and then a piece called ‘What’s Wrong With That’ that features Miles’ erstwhile band members, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. The album ends with the majestic Miles eulogy, ‘Gone 2015,’ a fusion of jazz and hip-hop tropes featuring a pithy rap by Pharoahe Monch. For those that appreciate Glasper’s music on this soundtrack, he has a new record called ‘Everything’s Beautiful’ out later this month that explores Miles Davis’ music in more depth (look out for a review of that coming soon).
Q&A with DON CHEADLE
How much did playing Miles Davis in the movie enhance your appreciation of him both as a man and musician?
I had been paying attention to Miles’ music since I was in fifth or sixth grade and I read his autobiography when I was in college, and then I saw others things – a documentary online – and just followed other articles that I’d seen about him so he was somebody that I’d had on my radar for a while – not just musically but also as a person. And yeah, I guess playing him in the movie just really deepened all of that, and being able to have a good relationship with his family who really opened their arms to us and gave us tons of information and allowed us to hear things that people hadn’t heard before and see private footage and home movies and things of that nature so it was just really awesome to have that sort of gateway into his life.
Did you stay in character off the set?
No, although I would find myself slipping into him sometimes off the set. I tried to stay in character as much as I could during the filming when we were on set all day but no, I tried as much as I could to let that go so that I could come back to the set fresh the next day and not just hang on to him for six weeks and go to bed as Miles. But like I said, he crept in, and my dreams were often haunted by Miles.
Did your co-star Ewan McGregor share your passion for Miles’ music?
Now he does! (laughs).
What made you veer away from making a more orthodox biopic on Miles’ life?
Because I’m not really a fan of those kinds of films. I’d done a lot of them. For something like this I did not want to do something that’s standard or run-of-the-mill so I attempted to make something that felt more creative, more in the vein of something that I believe that Miles himself would have wanted – something that felt like a composition, that flowed more and was impressionistic. So that was the thinking behind it, for better or worse.
What did it feel like to be Miles and inhabit his character?
For the purposes of the film, and for the purposes of the story that we were telling, it felt good in some ways I guess. I was appreciative to have the opportunity to embody him to the degree that I could. To play this role is something that I’ve been working on for a long time. It was daunting and definitely something that I had a lot of concern about doing but ultimately I felt good about it to the degree that I was able to in some way at all approximate who he was. It’s a hard one to answer but I felt I went through what the character in the movie went through, not necessarily what Miles himself went through because I have no idea personally what that was about, but I felt like getting to the place where he was in the film was necessary and there’s a sense of accomplishment that you feel you’ve dropped in that way.
(as told to Charles Waring).