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  • Writer's picturejeremyrider

That time Chaka kicked Miles' butt ...

Alright, maybe I'm overstating things a bit with that title. You'll have to be the judge. And I guess I should add that I really don't know jack about jazz so maybe I shouldn't be criticizing an artist pretty universally considered a genius and a giant in his field. Then again, what are blogs for? I gotta say my piece, right? Or "speak my truth" in the current parlance?

Sidenote: Though I'm not at all knowledgeable about jazz (or any music really), that doesn't mean I don't enjoy it. Miles Davis's "Ballads & Blues" is one of my favorite albums -- especially on a cold, grey morning with a soft rain tapping lightly on the roof and a mug of dark bitter coffee in your hand. (OK to substitute bourbon for coffee if it's after noon). Try it, you'll see!

But I digress. One of the main points I want to make is that Chaka is underrated. Sure she's famous and no one would argue with those pipes, but I think she's a little pigeon-holed as "just" a popstar. But if you watch the video below, I think you see a serious and stunningly capable artist at work.

So, about the video. Pretty crazy that Chaka and Miles actually performed together, right? To my knowledge they only did this once -- at the 1989 Montreux Jazz Festival where they covered Michael Jackson's "Human Nature." For real! And I don't even think they rehearsed -- Chaka literally has a piece of paper in her hand with the lyrics on it. She's improvising with Miles Davis in front of a huge audience and she doesn't even really know the song. Yas queen!

Chaka later wrote that she thinks she may be the only female to ever perform with Miles (which begs a lot of questions, but that's not for this blog). But what I want to focus on is the "creative dance," the interaction and improvisation that these two go through and how exciting and beautiful -- but also tenuous -- that is.

So take a look (and feel free to pause after Chaka exits after about 4 minutes):

To me, this is true creativity at work. It's risky (especially in front of an audience of thousands) and not 100% successful, but that's just how creativity works. I love how you can sense how nervous and tentative Chaka is at first (not helped by the audio tech who forgot to turn up her mic!). But she and Miles work it and eventually find a groove. Then Chaka really gets going after that awesome little "a tisket, a tasket" riff. Doesn't matter that Chaka didn't know the words to that either -- when you can scat like that you got no need for lyrics! There's a pretty clear moment after that when Chaka takes command. It made me think of a beautiful Rumi poem:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,

there is a field.

I'll meet you there.

I feel like Chaka was out in that field -- though I don't think Miles ever quite made it. It also reminds me of a line from that great documentary about backup singers, "Twenty Feet from Stardom." In it one of the singers laments the lack of recognition backup singers get, but then says she doesn't really care because it's fulfilling for her to be in that perfect zone with someone else where everything is clicking and the world just fades away. I can't remember her exact quote but I think she says it's kind of an addiction.

But of couse it can't last. And for Chaka and Miles it kind of falls apart -- because that place is fragile. And then Miles sort of unceremoniously dismisses Chaka from the stage. Seems pretty harsh, but maybe it's just that he knew they had lost it. Or maybe he was just being an asshole because he knew she kicked his butt? Either way, it's fascinating to watch and to invent what you think each is thinking or experiencing. I also think it's really instructive for creatives (which is really all of us) to watch two masters tangle with finding that perfect zone of harmony and creativity.

So tell me what you think! And as always, feel free to disagree -- just do it with love ... or at least respect!

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