REVIEW BY: Jedediah Pressgrove
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 06/29/2010
Aura was Miles Davis’ return to playing with an orchestra. Producer/trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg was the brainchild behind the project, which started out as ten notes based on the ten letters in, ahem, Miles Davis. The title of each track is a different color (well, almost – “Intro” isn’t a color, after all!). For Mikkelborg, these colors represent aspects of Davis’ aura. Hence, the album title.
So yeah, if you think you really like Miles Davis, you don’t. Palle Mikkelborg does.
Okay, perhaps I was asking for it when I purchased the album, but a single name helped me fork over the cash: John McLaughlin. From my standpoint, McLaughlin cemented himself as one of the greatest guitarists with his playing on Davis’ A Tribute To Jack Johnson alone, so I’m usually inclined to give any of his work a chance. Well, McLaughlin’s guitar was impotent for these sessions. You get to hear a cool scale or two, but none of his playing is unusual or inspired. Plus, his tone is too shiny.
Davis’ trumpet is almost the only cool thing on this album. When they show up, the electronic drums are ridiculous. The keyboards are often forgettable or distracting. Despite Mikkelborg’s unassailable passion, his compositions are drab and stagnant. That’s why I’m appreciative of something like Niels Eje’s oboe. You need those good oboe bits from “White” and “Yellow” to help you through.
Davis very much seems in the background on Aura – ironic, considering that the whole thing is about him. I feel I am far more acquainted with another aura after exploring this album: the dreadful aura of Mikkelborg. The album is overproduced, so forget about feeling any of the heart you get when you listen to a classic Davis record. On the other hand, I suppose Mikkelborg’s production does leave some space for artistry. Nonetheless, the album is generally inert, and I think it’s because of Mikkelborg’s overly rigorous arrangements.
Are there any bright spots? Yep. I mentioned Davis’ trumpet and Eje’s oboe, and because they dominate “White,” it is a standout track. “White” reminds me of bits from In A Silent Way, only the former is darker and moodier. “Blue” is another track that I respect, mainly for its willingness to break from Mikkelborg’s overproduced classical/jazz mold. It brings reggae to the mix and thus becomes a curiosity. As always, Davis’ trumpet can fit anywhere, even in this strange song.
Finally, “Indigo” is an inexplicably great song in that Davis doesn't even play on it. It's unique to this album because it sounds as if another person produced it -- meaning it doesn't sound like Mikkelborg's work, which roughly translates into “good thing.” A chunk of the track is essentially free jazz, so it's not as rigid as other compositions on the album. One last thing: Thomas Clausen’s acoustic piano and Marilyn Mazur’s percussion are impeccable on “Indigo.”
Listening to a lackluster Miles Davis album is rare, interesting, and disappointing. What should we ultimately take away from Aura? That Davis can withstand bad composition and bad production and still come across as a daring and listenable musician. But as I could tell after listening to Aura several times, he could only do so much with Mikkelborg’s technical inclinations.