The old joke about supergroups being less than the sum of their parts often holds true in rock and pop. Too many cooks, and all that. But what happens when you bring together superstars from different genres? This was basically the idea of jazz fusion, and especially of Miles Davis, one of fusion’s principle pioneers in the late sixties and early seventies. It’s a genre of music people seem to either love or hate. Those who fall into the latter camp often cite the tendency of jazz-rock ensembles to overplay, to the detriment of both jazz and rock.
Following Davis’ innovations, virtuoso collaborators like John McLaughlin went on to form their own supergroups, while the star trumpeter checked out for a while. But “after five years of silence,” as People magazine wrote in 1981, his trumpet was “once again heard in the land.”
Davis assembled a few bands and charged ahead in an even more fusion-y direction, despite some severe criticism from music writers, fans, and fellow performers. He covered Cyndi Lauper and Michael Jackson and collaborated with new wave bands and pop stars like Toto. He seemed determined to mix it up with as many major players as he could.
The results were sometimes less than the sum of their parts, though his experimentation crystalized in an excellent record in 1986, the Marcus Miller-produced jazz/funk/pop/R&B album Tutu. That same year, Davis and a loosely-assembled band took the stage at Giants Stadium for a short set at an Amnesty International benefit concert, where they were joined by jazz and rock guitarist Robben Ford and, on the last song, by special guest star Carlos Santana. Tutu, notes The Last Miles—website for George Cole’s book of the same name—“was still a few months away from its official release.”
The band jammed through two of the new album’s tunes, the title track and “Splatch.” Then, for the final song, “Burn”—“a rock-funk number that Miles first heard in 1980”—Santana took the stage. You can see video of them playing that song at the top of the post and hear the full audio of the short performance, less than 30 minutes, further up. The eight-piece band plays a typically busy fusion set, with solo after amazing solo over a full-on wall of electrified sound. I confess, I find this side of Miles a little assaultive next to the restraint of much earlier work, but that’s a matter of personal taste. It’s impossible to say a bad word about the quality of these performances.
How did these superstars end up working together, not only at this benefit but in other concerts and recordings? Find out in the interviews above from Santana and Ford, both of whom describe their experiences as major career highlights. The respect in both cases, a rarity with Miles Davis, was mutual.