Don Cheadle on 5 Miles Davis Albums - Rolling Stone
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Don Cheadle on 5 Miles Davis Albums

The actor, currently helming a Davis biopic, discusses works from the jazz legend

Don Cheadle

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Artistically unpredictable and personally mercurial, jazz genius and American icon Miles Davis lived an impossible-to-pin-down life. For years, it seemed the same was true about Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle's long-in-the-works biopic. Now though, the project is locking into a steady groove. Cheadle, who will direct the film, and his collaborators, which include Davis' nephew Vince Wilburn and musical giant Herbie Hancock, recently launched an Indiegogo campaign to help raise funding for the effort.

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Miles Ahead, says Cheadle, will be "an excavation more than checking off all the benchmarks of Miles' life. I'm less interested in making a traditional biopic than in making a movie that Miles would've wanted to star in and that's true to the spirit of his music."

So in that spirit, Cheadle spoke with us about five Davis albums as well as his thoughts about the man's brilliant career and often-turbulent life. By David Marchese

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“Porgy and Bess”

"My first sort of introduction to Miles' music was my parents. They had very few albums when I was growing up, but one of the ones that they had, which the cover art intrigued me and the music intrigued me, was Porgy and Bess. It was very different than the sort of jazz I had been listening to up to that point. I played the saxophone, so I was kind of drawn to Charlie Parker, but listening to that was like, 'this is an impossible feat!' I could never do that. I was also listening to a lot of Cannonball Adderley and kind of got into the trumpet elliptically through Nat Adderley, his brother. And then found this Miles Davis album that my parents had. I was a theater kid and I liked the scores that I listened to for plays and stuff. So the marriage of Miles' music with Porgy and Bess appealed to me. The motifs that [Davis and album arranger Gil Evans] were using and the very interesting voicings — they were between traditional  jazz music and jazz instruments and then traditional orchestral, chamber music kind of instruments. Like, is that a bassoon? Is that a French horn? It just hit me in my ear in a place where I liked it. I did't have the tools necessarily to deconstruct all the reasoning why, the sound just appealed to me."

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“We Want Miles”

"I saw him in '82 at Red Rocks in Colorado, right after the time that he sort of came back with the We Want Miles tour. I was in high school. At that point he’s got a funk bass player and a rock guitarist and an African percussionist. He's using all of these different players coming from all these different disciplines to create the sound that was still all Miles Davis music. I think even in the group of people I was with at the show I was in the minority about liking it, but I always heard him working out. It was never to me like we were looking at some polished thing. It was always discovery and going for shit and stuff falling apart. Then they’d find something and they would stumble — I was just fascinated by the process. You don't see bands get in front of you and go for shit, you know? They usually perform and go, 'This is what you get.' Seeing Miles felt like, 'Who knows what's gonna happen?' It was very alive." 

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“Bitches Brew”

"The first time I listened to Bitches Brew I was like 'what is this?' It just didn’t lock into me at the beginning. It sounded like a bunch of guys fucking around. I didn't know what was happening. Then I sat down and sat with the album and got older, you know? I really tried to come at it from a different angle and it was like, 'Oh wait a minute.' I started hearing what Davis was doing with the looping and engineering and the production that was behind the album — then it was fascinating to me. He was really showing us a process, which I think is the best thing ever. How gracious is that? To go 'I’m gonna take you through all of this. It's not all gonna be pretty, there might be some problems along the way, I’m not giving you the polished me. I’m letting you see the crags and the cracks and the creaks.' But then they lock into something that's like, 'woah.' You got the journey. You got to see how this sausage was made. Very few artists let you see how the sausage was made."

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"Agharta's what we start with in the movie. Our point of departure is the silent period, the five years in which Miles didn't really play — '75 to '79. I believe his music got to a place where he pushed it as far as he could [Agharta was released in 1975]. He'd been so prolific and had followed that muse wherever it went. I know he was exhausted at that point. Not just musically but physically and emotionally. If you're on that sort of train where you've got to keep coming up with the next thing — I can imagine how exhausting that can be. When I talked to his nephew I said, 'Why didn’t he play?' He said Miles would say, 'I don't know what to say now. As soon as I know what to say I’ll come back and say it.' It then takes a lot of intestinal fortitude, energy and commitment and resolve to start it again until you're really ready to come back."

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“Circle in the Round”

"Right now I'm drawn to the Circle in the Round stuff. I'm drawn to the bridge between once Miles moved away from purely acoustic stuff — when he took Wayne [Shorter] and Herbie [Hancock] and Tony [Williams] — and his later versions of that because you see how elastic the Kind of Blue music was and how far he was able to push that stuff with those guys in his second quintet. It's like, 'How do we come from there to there?' Incidentally that is the period of time that he was with Frances [Taylor], the love of his life, 'the one that got away.' The period of time between his being with Frances and when that relationship went away, and the music from that period to where he came to at the end, is kind of what our movie mirrors."

In This Article: Miles Davis

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