“Directions in Jazz”: Miles Davis’s “Decoy” bridged two phases of his ’80s comeback era

By on April 25, 2017

Night Flight’s “Directions in Jazz” — which originally aired on September 20, 1986 — featured music videos by a handful of the genre’s key players, including the legendary Miles Davis, whose “Decoy” video was directed by Annabel Jankel (the co-creator and director of the pioneering cyber-character Max Headroom) and her partner Rocky Morton of London’s Cucumber Studios. The video — which mixed computer animation with video footage — is streaming over on Night Flight Plus.

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In 1984, Columbia Records wanted to introduce Miles Davis to a new audience, and so it’s not really too surprising that they’d turn to music video directors Annabel Jankel and her partner Rocky Morton, who together had directed music videos for rock and new wave artists like Elvis Costello, Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club.

Jankel and Morton were commissioned to make the video — which also happened to be the very first video that Davis would ever release — for the title track to his new album, Decoy.

Davis recorded the title track in the summer of ’83, but the album wasn’t released until June of 1984.

“Decoy” was co-produced by Davis and keyboardist Robert Irving III, who would also produce Davis’s You’re Under Arrest album (he played synthesizer and did the electronic drum programming on the track).

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“Decoy” — a pivotal recording for Davis, which bridged two phases of his ’80s comeback era — has an interesting story on its own.

Originally, Davis had asked a musician named Randy Hall, who had worked with him on an earlier album, The Man with the Horn, to write a song for the Rolling Stones.

Hall wrote a song called “(Let Me Be Your) Decoy,” which was presented to the Stones, who declined to record it. Keith Richards thought the song was funky, but not for them.

Davis, meanwhile, decided to re-title a track he’d already recorded a demo for, called “Outer Space” — using “Decoy,” because he’d like the title of Hall’s song, although it has nothing to do with the song Hall had written for the Stones.

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Irving had originally into the studio — Paul Serrano’s recording studio in Chicago — and demoed “Outer Space”/”Decoy” with Davis on trumpet, backed by a bassist named Felton Crews, and Irving’s drum machine.

A guitarist came in later, named Henry Johnson, and laid down an overdubbed guitar track, which Miles liked, but then he wanted the guitar parts transcribed so that it could be played by both John Scofield (guitar) and Branford Marsalis (soprano sax) on the recording master.

Al Foster (drums), Mino Cinelu (percussion) and bassist Darryl “The Munch” Jones also appeared on the final track.

Davis had apparently asked Jones, who played the bass strings with his fingers, to use his thumbs instead, creating that twangy bass-slapping thwack you hear on a lot of 80s jazz recordings.

Jones is, coincidentally, now playing bass with the Rolling Stones (and, oh, believe it or not, during the promotion of his Decoy album, there was even some talk of Davis opening up for the Stones, and was apparently a fan of their music).

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Author George Cole — whose book The Last Miles: The Music of Miles Davis 1980-1991 (University of Michigan Press, 2005) is an in-depth chronological musical analysis of the final period of Davis’s recording career, after he emerged from a five-year hiatus to record some of the most experimental music he’d ever do — interviewed Jankel in London (she now lives in Los Angeles) about the making of the “Decoy” video.

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Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel

Jankel told Cole that she and Morton only had a few of his albums at the time (“Rocky and I used to be punks, but like many people we had one or two of the important Miles Davis albums, things like Kind of Blue.”)

She and Morton met Davis at a boardroom at Columbia Records offices in New York City, where she learned that the jazz legend was apparently having a bad day, angrily strangling his walking stick as if he was choking it by the neck, and telling those present that day that he wanted to die.

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When things settled down a bit, and everyone got around to the business at hand, they learned that Davis had some very interesting ideas of his own, which had something to do with dancing girls (“a sort of can-can in the desert” she remembered).

Jankel says she knew that she would have to convince him to do something different, something that she felt matched his iconic status as an artist, and “all the gravitas that comes with the name Miles Davis.”

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Jankel hadn’t yet had the idea of shooting in black and white, but that would come later in the process, because to her mind, that’s the world that Miles Davis lived in, a very stylized, glamorous world, much like George Hurrell’s black & white photos of 1930s and ’40s-era Hollywood actors and actresses are still considered iconic, and classic.

The Decoy album, in fact, would turn out to be the first of several albums in the 1980s which featured Miles Davis’s face prominently on the sepia-toned cover, a concerted effort to pitch himself as a contemporary celebrity, his face now important to feature on an album’s cover decades into his career.

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They explained to Davis, with storyboards they’d made of their concept, that they were going to shoot footage of Davis on a soundstage, sitting in a chair, wearing a pair of sunglasses, a cap, baggy pants and a short leather jacket.

Then, Miles would stand up and take off his sunglasses, and just as he does, he glares straight into the lens of an expensive remote-controlled camera called a Hot-Head, which could pan 360-degrees around him, or tilted, at various speeds, then he turns away, so that his back is shown to the camera for much of the video.

“We thought it was a timely juxtaposition of a musician who favored playing with his back to an audience, and the technology that was perfectly designed to rotate around him, allowing him the freedom to play in his own space,” Jankel told Cole.

They were then going to mix this footage with computer graphics and animation (London-based graphic artist Erica Russell would be a key contributor at this point), a kind of trademark look that the video duo were well known for at the time.

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Davis and his record company must have agreed to the concept because the next thing that happened was that they all went back to Davis’s apartment on NYC’s Upper East Side, located at 312 West 77th Street, where he’d lived for the last twenty-five years (he also had a place in Malibu, as we recall).

Jankel recalled to Cole that Davis’s home had grey carpeting on the floor, along the walls and even up on the ceiling, which gave the large apartment a very claustrophobic feel. They went through his closets and picked out a leather jacket for him to wear during the shoot.

Davis then produced a pink trumpet that he wanted to play in the video, but Jankel told Cole she nixed that idea, because it didn’t quite fit with her idea of how she wanted the video to portray the world’s greatest trumpet player.

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Davis then produced another colorful trumpet, a turquoise anodized trumpet, and that didn’t fit the image either, and then another, saying they “looked more like kids’ trumpets”).

They simply asked him to bring a “normal” trumpet to the shoot, which was happening the very next day, and left it at that.

The next day, when the first shooting sessions were taking place, Davis showed up without a trumpet in hand, and so they had to send a PA to a nearby pawn shop to find a more suitable trumpet, but he returned with an old, bashed-up trumpet that didn’t look appropriate.

“Miles tried playing it but it obviously hadn’t been played for years and was all gummed up- nothing worked,” Jankel remembered.

“Miles painstakingly took it apart, lovingly restored it over two days and put it back together again so he could play it,” restoring the trumpet with the help of a screwdriver, cleaning fluid and cotton wool buds during downtime between takes.

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Annabel Jankel directing Miles Davis during the shooting of the “Decoy” video (photo by Peter Shelton)

During the video shoot, Jankel and Morton had Miles Davis mime to the audio playback of “Decoy,” and they asked him to spin his arms around, so they could later, in post-production, use the movements to create streams of colored graphics sparking across the screen.

David apparently was cooperative and well-tempered during the entire shooting.

He drank Perrier water from little bottles, and he was, in their words, “a consummate professional.”

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Guitarist John Scofield also came to the shoot, and for just a split-second in the video, he can be seen playing guitar, but we don’t see his face, as the filmmakers later decided that they wanted Miles Davis to be seen in a kind of isolated manner and having Scofield in the video kind of ruined that illusion.

There’s also someone (likely a production assistant), acting as a percussionist, as we see a hand tapping a conga drum, but we never see their face. It’s not Mino Cinelu, Miles’ percussionist on the actual track.

For much of the video, Miles Davis is either standing on a turntable or the Hot-Head camera is revolving around him.

He plays his trumpet or blows into an imaginary horn or rotates his arms in front of him and then flicks out his fingers, creating a shower of dancing colorful sparks.

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When the shoot was over, Jankel returned the bashed-up trumpet to the pawn shop where the PA had bought it, explaining to the shop owner that it had Miles’s magic infused into it.”

They loved the idea that some unsuspecting soul who purchased the instrument was going to have something that a legendary jazz player had personally put all his love and attention into. They were going to get touched by the Miles magic.

Jankel and Morton returned to their studio, where they worked with their full-time editor, Andy Gilman, who was instructed to edit the footage in a free-form way, just like Miles would play the trumpet.

Gilman pieced it together and then they added the animation, which took two or three months.

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The video duo never saw or spoke to Miles Davis again, and didn’t know until years later that Davis didn’t care for the video (“That was nothing,” he told Musician writer Bob Doerschuk during an interview).

“Decoy,” meanwhile, ended up being one of that album’s highlights, and at one point, there was even some discussion that it was going to be used as in the background of a National Football League promo film.

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The Decoy album topped jazz sales charts and MTV played the four-minute video in regular rotation for a time; it was a very eccentric performance by a major label jazz artist coming at a time when jazz was trying to redefine itself for a new generation.

Critics weren’t initially upbeat about the album, but many of them have softened over the years.

Robert Christgau, in fact, gave it a solid B+ when he wrote about it: “Like so many groove albums, this one is now-you-hear-it now-you-don’t. But once you learn to live with the synthesizer colors of Robert Irving III, the only weak link in the band the leader’s been forging since his comeback, you stop worrying about why he’s making a conventional fusion record and realize that between his own muscle-mouth and John Scofield’s sweet-and-sour licks and the quite audible Jones-Foster pulse he’s made a pretty damn good conventional fusion record.”

Have a look and a listen to Night Flight’s “Directions in Jazz,” which also features videos and appearances by Chuck Mangione, Stanley Jordan, and new age Eco-Jazz from Paul Winter Consort. Classic Night Flight indeed, for our subscribers over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.