Don Cheadle was not going to make a conventional biopic when he set out to direct Miles Ahead, his recent film about Miles Davis' mid-Seventies lost years. "Make some mistakes, go crazy, crash into a wall – anything but something fucking cookie-cutter," the actor-director told Rolling Stone of his liberally fictionalized narrative. Pianist and producer Robert Glasper – who scored Cheadle's film and makes a cameo near the end — took a similar approach to Everything's Beautiful, a new album that features his reworking of Miles Davis material from the Sony vaults.
Artists have remixed Davis in the past, but Glasper was after something different. In recent years, the pianist has established himself as a master of the territory where jazz, hip-hop and R&B overlap, appearing on Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly and calling on his many talented friends to assist on eclectic albums such as 2012's Grammy-winning Black Radio. The Everything's Beautiful cast includes MCs, singers and instrumentalists, who help Glasper – acting more as producer than player here – create entirely new songs using elements from Davis' original recordings. North Carolina rapper Phonte riffs on the title of classic Kind of Blue ballad "Blue in Green" on "Violets," while rhyming over a Bill Evans piano sample from a false-start take of the tune; Erykah Badu turns the extended 1974 jam "Maiysha" into a cool bossa nova breakup song; and Stevie Wonder offers a lilting harmonica version of the Wayne Shorter-penned theme from 1968's "Nefertiti" on "Right On Brotha."
Some pieces sample the iconic trumpeter's horn, but just as often, Glasper and his co-producers grab snippets of Davis' studio chatter (one of which gives the album its name), parts played by famous sidemen such as Evans or other trace elements. "I feel like people diminish Miles to the trumpet," Glasper told Rolling Stone. "And he's so much more than that, so I made it a point to have him incorporated in every track but in a different way."
During a wide-ranging interview, the pianist also weighed in on how Davis predicted hip-hop, why Badu is Davis' kindred spirit and why jazz is often its own worst enemy.
It's a pretty daunting task to reinterpret Miles Davis. What was going through your mind when you were first asked to do this?
It was actually awesome. I was actually glad to do it, because I was already scoring the Miles Davis movie when they asked me to do this remix thing. Scoring the movie was the hard thing; that's something I've never done before. ... But reinterpreting Miles songs was something that I was like, "Wow, I'd love to do that." Because I'm a student of jazz; I studied it in high school; I studied it in college. I know a pile of Miles songs, and I'm a fan of his bands and the whole nine. And I felt like I could do something special with it, so I couldn't wait to sink my teeth into it, actually.
So you basically had access to Sony's entire Miles archive – any multitrack recording you wanted?
Yes, 'cause when they asked me to do the remix project, I told them I didn't want to do a remix, necessarily. Normally when you hear "remix," you think, "OK, they chopped up four bars and looped it and put a hip-hop beat to it." You've heard that before. But I wanted to do something different, so I asked them if I could go into the vault and take multitracks and try to make some new compositions and ideas from those multitracks. 'Cause I feel like, paying homage to an artist, it's better to do something that's inspired by them – a new work that's inspired by them, versus another person saying they redid your song.
These do sound like entirely new songs. On the Erykah Badu track, it's almost like she's duetting with Miles – it sounds like the two of them were in the studio together.
Exactly. And that was the whole purpose of that song, specifically, to bring those two worlds together. 'Cause I think Miles would've loved Erykah, you know what I mean? And part of the reason I did that too was, I didn't want every track to be the same. I didn't want it to be [mock-wearily] a sample from a Miles thing, and you hear trumpet, and you take a part of his solo from the trumpet and you loop it. And there's trumpets on every track, and this is Miles Davis, and you get it.
Because I feel like people diminish him to the trumpet, you know what I mean? [Sarcastically] "If you don't hear the trumpet, it's not Miles!" And he's so much more than that, so I made it a point to, you know, have Miles incorporated in every track but in a different way. So for Erykah's track, he was incorporated literally playing the trumpet. On another track, you might just hear Miles' handclaps, and the musical palettes are built from songs of his, from the multitracks. Some songs, you might just hear his voice, as far as it being obvious. There's a song where I have him whistling. There's different aspects of him – I thought that was a lot fresher of an idea to do, and you can sneak Miles in without it having to be the obvious trumpet thing.
That approach parallels your own role on this album. You're a piano player, but you solo very little on Everything's Beautiful – it seems like you too don't want to be reduced to your instrument.
Exactly. I'm producing it... I didn't want to play much at all on this album. I wanted it to be basically new compositions that I made from the frameworks of his old compositions. So most of the stuff you hear is actually original Miles stuff; I just changed it around and built it different. I took a keyboard solo on the Erykah song, and then I took a piano solo at the end of "Milestones," but that's all the soloing I do.
You mentioned the tactic of sampling Miles' voice, which is one of the most interesting things about this album. What is it about the way he spoke and his studio chatter that fascinated you?
I think the main thing was that most people know what Miles' voice sounds like, but you've never really heard him talk a lot... You just hear little pieces of him talking over recordings, like him talking to the engineer for a split second, and he'll keep that, sometimes at the end of a song, where he's talking to Teo [Macero].
"The way [Miles] talked was art ... so much stuff he says is poetry."
But the reality is, you don't hear how he's really talking to his musicians, and the rapport he has with them and how he's explaining certain colors musically that he wants, the metaphors he uses and all these different things. You don't know how the sausage is made; you just have the sausage [laughs]. So I kind of wanted to give people a glimpse into into that world, into the actual studio, because that's something that most people never get a chance to be a part of. Only the musicians that were there could be a part of that. So I wanted to really bring that to the forefront too. Because the way he talked was art. ... I've got so much audio of him talking, and so much stuff he says is poetry, which is great to hear, and which is where I got the title from, Everything's Beautiful.
There's almost a zen-master quality to the things Miles says on here, like on "Milestones," when you sample him saying, "You got to cool it a little bit, man. I mean, you gotta let it carry you." It's very evocative of what you often hear about Miles' bandleading, how he led in indirect ways and inspired the musicians to produce something they didn't even know they were capable of.
Exactly. I've been working with Herbie [Hancock] really close. I'm co-producing his next record. And so I had asked him about a certain record. ... My favorite Miles album is Miles Smiles. And on that album, if you really pay attention to it, Herbie doesn't really comp on that album, you know. It's open. Even when he takes a solo, he's not really using his left hand. So I asked him about that because that's the only album he does that on, to the extent of that. ... And I asked him about it, and he said right before they started recording, Miles asked him, he said, "Hey, try not to use your left hand on this album, and let's just see what happens." And he said what Miles was telling him without actually telling him, was that his left hand and the chords were boxing him in, and basically, if you take your left hand away, take the chords away, it frees you up and you can get different places.
He had a way of saying things and transmitting things to you, and you didn't realize what just happened, and you're like, "Oh, snap." That's the genius, or one of the geniuses, of him.
The sample of Miles' voice in the first track, "Talking Shit," is fascinating because he seems to be getting on [drummer] Joe Chambers' case. He tells him not to play the standard "ting-ting-ta-ting" cymbal pattern, which is something I've heard you speak out against as well.
Yes, exactly. [Miles] heard hip-hop, and he knew what it was, in his mind. He didn't have a name for it and wasn't quite sure how to get there, but he heard it in his mind. That's why he said, like, "Some type of pulse that goes on, that's not 'ting-ta-ting' but it repeats itself.
Speaking of Miles and hip-hop, did you check out his own experiments with hip-hop, like on the album Doo Bop?
I didn't listen to any of that for this record, per se. I kind of closed my ears to it. Some people think I went back and checked out Tutu and all these other albums, and I actually kind of ignored it, because I wanted it to be so fresh and so from me and from my perspective that I didn't even go back and listen to those records, on purpose. Sometimes ignorance is bliss [laughs].
That's perfect for a record like this where you want the influence to be subtle. Because, and this is something you've also touched on in the past, jazz is a music that's extremely hung up on the idea of paying tribute, sometimes to a fault.
Totally. The genre and the people within the genre are killing the genre. But at the same time yelling about people not wanting to cosign what's happening now. They're mad people don't listen to it. It's like because it's the relevance issue, you know.
You're sort of at the center of all that, the movement to make jazz relevant again. Back in 2009, you had a record called Double Booked, and the concept was that you had the hip-hop and R&B world on one hand and jazz on the other. Do you still feel like those are two completely separate territories you're passing between?
For a while, for me, it was kind of always intertwined. I think Double Booked was me realizing it was intertwined and it's hard to keep them apart. 'Cause the Double Booked thing was a real thing. Like, I was really doing [that], playing at the Village Vanguard and afterwards going and playing at other clubs under alias names with my hip-hop shit, doing my [Robert Glasper] Experiment stuff. So I was doing that a lot, but that was before the Experiment band really popped off. So now with this Experiment band it's kind of all just come together, and it's not so separated anymore. Which is great because I'm bringing so many different people of different walks of life to my shows, and they're all at the same show.
It's very rare that you get very old jazz lovers and super-young hip-hop lovers at the same exact show, when you think about it. Not many artists can do that. Cause the older jazz audience is a very specific thing, you know what I mean? It's so specific, and they want to hear what they want to hear. They're probably the most close-minded, in a way [laughs] because jazz aficionados, if you will, are kind of snobs, you know? I have that in me too. Anybody who loves jazz has a little bit of snob in them. But your older jazz lovers are probably bigger snobs, because they come from the era of when it was, in quotes, "pure," and not tainted with all this hip-hop stuff.
Why do you think Kamasi Washington has managed to reach both that sort of listener and a wider audience too?
I think it's a few different things. He's a talented dude and he's a smart dude, and he's actually a genuinely good guy. And I feel like people like that, their time just comes when it comes. And I think also it doesn't hurt that he has a Brainfeeder connection ... which has such a huge following, and a huge demand on the scene right now, with Thundercat and a few other people. And the Kendrick Lamar thing. So I think it was just the right time, the right connections and the right album. You can't find another album that sounds like that right now, you know. I love Kamasi; I take my hat off to him because he follows his heart. He wasn't coming off the Kendrick album trying to do a hip-hop-meets-jazz record or nothing like that. He was just doing him and what he's been doing.
Yeah, it's funny that the jazz album that broke through was the most classic, retro-sounding thing ...
Totally, exactly. Which is kind of hip, in a way, to do this like that. A lot of the hip stuff now has a very throwback kind of vibe, in a way, so throwback is kind of modern. If you're a young person doing it right, anyway.
I was interested in what you said before about how Miles would have loved Erykah Badu.
Yeah, well first of all, when I did this record, I made sure that I got people to do this record that actually had a love for Miles Davis. They weren't just artists that I called up like, [mock-clueless] "Hey, I've got an idea for a Miles' song." ... I asked everybody on this record what's your favorite Miles song and they could actually voice it and say it, and everything wasn't surface, either; it wasn't like, [mock-clueless] "So What."
I wanted it to be a labor-of-love project, you know. And Erykah, to me, in a lot of ways, she mirrors Miles because she keeps reinventing herself. She's been around here for, what, 25 years, or something? And she keeps reinventing herself and does it relentlessly with a big middle finger to everyone who has a problem and doesn't care. Her and Miles are like two big-ass middle fingers.
"When people say, 'sex, drugs and rock & roll,' and all that stuff, that's fucking jazz music."
So that's kind of why I said he would love her. Because she's so naturally jazz. She doesn't even realize how jazz she is. Like, her voice and her vibe and her swagger... Swagger came from jazz cats. Hip-hop got a lot of their swag from jazz. When people say sex, drugs and rock & roll, and all that stuff, that's fucking jazz music. And style, just the hardcore swagger-ness, that all came from jazz guys. So Erykah has so much style, and she's always ahead of the curve with the style. She's always just doing her. When you look at her, you don't know what the hell she's going to have on, and that's kind of how she is. And that's the same thing with Miles. You didn't know what the hell he was going to be wearing. And when he talked, he only sounded like Miles; when Erykah talks, she only sounds like her. When Erykah sings, you know her voice right off the bat; she could sing one word and you'd be like, "Erykah Badu." And when Miles played one note on the trumpet, you knew it was Miles.
Erykah used to come onstage, when she first started, singing "So What." She used to change the words to "Badu." She used to walk onstage to that back in '98 or some shit.
It's interesting that you mention Miles' middle-finger attitude, because it seems like more than anything else, that's what Don Cheadle was trying to convey with Miles Ahead.
Exactly. This is my thing with the movie. Miles was extremely unconventional, weird and very unpredictable. Why would you think there would be a predictable movie to go with somebody so unpredictable? So it makes sense the way he did it. And it was awesome the way he was able to still capture some of the other time periods in Miles' life, with the flashbacks and everything. That was awesome. [Don] said that if Miles was alive, and if you asked Miles, "Hey, Miles, we're going to do a movie on you. Do you want me to make a movie documentary-style that crosses all the t's and dots all the i's? Or would you rather star in your own action film?" [Laughs] What do you think Miles would've did?
The parts that worked the best for me were when an action sequence would start and a track from, say, On the Corner would come on. It almost felt like that was what that period of Miles' music was designed for.
Yeah, totally. And you have to think of, too, Don was trying to capture what was in Miles' head. He was high and fucked up! So some scenes, he wanted to try to portray that when you watch the movie, which is why some things didn't make sense. Because when you're high and fucked up, things don't make sense; they're weird; they look weird. He was just trying to capture some of these parts of Miles in that way and give the audience as much insight and feeling of that as much, too.
"I wanted people to know it's Miles, but at the same time I didn't want to shove the jazz part down people's throats."
In contrast to the film, Everything's Beautiful has a very sustained, chill mood it. Was that intentional?
Well, yeah, 'cause there's different kinds of Miles records, depending on what you're looking for. There's the smashing, hard-hitting, weird shit in some of his quintet shit, or the weird, loud Live-Evil stuff, or the chill Kind of Blue. ... So it depends on where you're coming from with it. I wanted it to be an easy listen. I wanted it to be one of those things that people pop it in their car and you can really just listen to it all the way through. That was my reason for it. I kind of wanted to hypnotize you a little bit, in a way. And when stuff is chill, it just kind of hypnotizes you and people tend to put that on when they're working or cleaning, and it's kind of just seeping into your body a lot without you really realizing it.
I wanted people to know it's Miles, but at the same time, I didn't want to shove the jazz part down people's throats. And that's what a lot of people do with the remixes: They shove the solos, the jazz part, down your throat ... I wanted to try to come from a totally different perspective on it that's not so obvious.
It seems like we can't have this conversation about a shapeshifting artist with a lot of swagger without bringing up Prince. Do you see an affinity between those artists?
Yeah, I mean ... I wonder if they ever worked together.
I heard there were recordings that never came out, and Miles spoke highly of Prince.
Right, well, the funny thing is, there were talks with Prince, [about] him actually helping to do some stuff for the soundtrack for the movie. They were actually talking with Prince about doing stuff. Because once they got word out that there's a movie being made, so many people reached out and wanted to be a part of the soundtrack, or wanted to do the soundtrack. They were coming to me like, "Yo, this person said they wanted... " So there was a minute where I was waiting; they were like, "Prince wants to do something." And I was like, "Oh, snap. OK." And we were kind of waiting, but it never happened. But that would've been absolutely awesome.
But [Prince and Miles] both have that mysterious thing happening. If you got every single artist in the world in one room and you put Miles on one side and Prince on the other side, those are the two people that everybody would be trying to get a glimpse of [laughs]. And Michael Jackson would be the other one. They have a mystique about them, a mysterious thing about them, and they both have these long careers and they all kept changing, and they all kept trailblazing the music, and kept changing the music. That's one of the similarities between all of them: Michael, Prince and Miles. They never were complacent in music.
At the end of Miles Ahead, you make a cameo onstage with Don, as well as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and some other musicians. It must've been surreal to be onstage with those musicians who played with Miles, and the actor playing Miles.
Oh, man, it was amazing. It was absolutely amazing. One of the musical highlights of my life, to be there with Herbie for ... I'd spent about three days with Herbie at that point. That was my first time really hanging with him hardcore like that, talking to him. It was funny, because there was a time where I actually watched Herbie and Wayne – I was behind them – and I watched them watch Don, and talk about it. And I heard them talking and they were like, "Wow, look, even how he stands..." They were in awe of how much he reminded them of Miles. And we weren't even on set. ... We weren't even, like, taking a take, or anything. It was, like, a break, and Don was still in character on his break, and he was talking to people and stuff; he wouldn't break character. And they were in awe. And for you to trick them, because they could've easily been talking shit [laughs]. ... But they weren't; they were in awe. So it was amazing to see that.
That's a pretty major blessing on the whole project.
It really is. And Don doesn't even know about it. I don't even know if I told Don personally yet.