What first attracted me to buy a vinyl record version of Miles Davis’ Tutu was the front and back photographs. The front shows a close-up on a sternly philosophical older Davis. The back shows another close-up, this time with Davis’ hands stretching his close-eyed face. These photographs seemed to visually portray what Davis often exuded musically: introspection, confidence, and a sense of purpose. When Davis played a note, it was like he had been thinking about playing that note for days. Next, I was attracted to the album’s name, Tutu. Named after the Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who became a prominent leader of the South African anti-apartheid movement, I ventured that this album meant a lot to Davis. As usual, Davis’ trumpet plays with brilliant surety and intention. Unfortunately, the rest of the album is riddled with mismatched clutter and abrasive, outdated electro-tones.
This 1986 collaboration with bass player Marcus Miller saw Davis venture into the sounds of the ‘80’s with electronic samples, synthesizers, and glamorized drum effects. Most great art helps to define an era while simultaneously transcending it; 1980’s music was no different, with Prince’s Purple Rain, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and Herbie Hancock’s Future Shock. Tutu gives the sense that it even sounded outdated in 1986. Most of the songs are dreadful and headache inducing. With Miller playing the majority of the instruments and writing most of the arrangements, it seems that Davis was confined by Miller’s brainchild, resulting in unlikeable music. While Davis’ innovations on Tutu are often compared to his fusion creations of the 1970’s, one major difference stands out: 1970’s Miles Davis harps of free expression, while Tutu reeks of musical imprisonment.
Take the album’s title track. Davis’ signature muted horn sound is muddled by ridiculous orchestra hits and distracting bass slaps. Or “Splatch,” which sounds like a less interesting version of the theme song from Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air. Davis and Miller even try UB40 style reggae with “Don’t Lose Your Mind,” to no avail. I could go on and on about how the other songs fail to live up to their potential, but I think you get the point. This album is almost entirely unlistenable.
Two musical gems on this release saved me from giving it an “F” rating: “Portia” and “Backyard Ritual.” “Backyard Ritual” was coincidentally arranged by keyboardist/singer George Duke, who also played most of the instruments on the track. Unlike most of Miller’s arrangements, Duke allows Davis to control the tone and mood of the piece, letting the surrounding instrumentation complement rather than overpower the trumpet. I was also thoroughly impressed by “Portia.” “Portia” is beautiful in its simplicity and, again, it allows for Davis to control the mood. The song is fundamentally introspective, regaling emotions of late-night walks, solitary meditation, and embracing lovers. For me, “Portia” made this album worth purchasing. This is coming, of course, from a diehard Davis fan.
With regards to the majority of the material on this disc, I am afraid that if the name Miles Davis did not grace the cover, Tutu would be lost forever in a sea of banality and mocked by anyone who accidentally heard it. My advice: only own if you are a collector and, even then, simply use the album sleeve as décor.