Two Separate Film Soundtracks Honor Trumpet Legends

Original Soundtrack – Born to Be Blue (Rhino)
Original Soundtrack – Miles Ahead (Legacy)

Miles and Chet – their stories on the big screen

Two of the most important trumpet players in the history of jazz are celebrated with recent Hollywood movies: Miles Ahead (Miles Davis) and Born to Be Blue (Chet Baker). Each accompanying soundtrack takes it’s own unique approach to providing music, but both with satisfying results.

In Born to be Blue, Director Robert Budreau went for on-screen authenticity, allowing actor Ethan Hawke the opportunity to sing Baker’s vocal parts, while handing the instrumental backing to pianist David Braid (the trumpet parts are played by Kevin Turcotte). So, despite being a movie about Chet Baker, there is no actual Baker music in the film.

For Miles Ahead, director Don Cheadle (who also portrays Davis in the film), chose key tracks from the trailblazing horn man’s long career. In fact, for those looking for a good introduction to Miles, this soundtrack is an excellent choice. The only drawback is the R-rated movie dialog which is sprinkled in-between the tracks. Davis was famously foul-mouthed, and this is one you may not want to play at work.

Baker’s tumultuous life is the stuff of legend. Blessed with supreme good looks, a sultry singing voice, and unparalleled dexterity on the trumpet, he seemed destined for superstardom, before drugs and reckless behavior derailed his career. The film Born to Be Blue focuses on Baker’s attempted comeback in the late Sixties. Although Hawke lacks any of Baker’s buttery delivery, in this case it fits perfectly. By this point, Baker was a broken artist and Hawke’s less-than perfect vocals are actually spot-on.

Ditto for the accompaniment. Turcotte ably captures Baker’s signature, if somewhat noisy, delivery during this time in his career (summed up on his reading of “Over the Rainbow”). Braid tackles bebop (“Ko-Opt”), Spanish flavor (“Tequila Earworm”), even string-laden numbers (“Could Have Been”), but is best on the small combo pieces like “Let’s Get Lost” and “Born to Be Blue.”

The soundtrack is fleshed out by Charles Mingus’ “Haitian Fight Song” and Odetta’s “Go Down Sunshine,” which both add color to scenes in the film. Despite lacking any of Chet Baker’s music, Born to Be Blue still manages to capture the essence of the influential, yet troubled trumpet player.

Miles Davis is one of the pillars of jazz music, managing to be at the forefront of several key movements in the genre. With a career lasting well over fifty years, it can be difficult finding a place to start listening. That’s where the soundtrack Miles Ahead comes in.

Leading off with “Miles Ahead,” recorded in 1953 while still on Prestige records, the soundtrack grabs key tracks along the way, including “So What” from the essential Kind of Blue sessions. Although that song is presented in it’s original, nine-minute form, several other tracks have been edited for inclusion – such as “Solea” (from Sketches of Spain”) and both “Seven Steps to Heaven,” and “Nefertiti,” which feature Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. A couple of tracks showcase the incredible talents of guitarist John McLaughlin – “Duran” and “Go Ahead John” (both are presented as just excerpts). There’s even several tracks from his lesser-known 70’s & 80’s material, like “Back Seat Betty” (off 1981’s The Man With the Horn).

The soundtrack also includes several new recordings featuring a group led by Robert Glasper on Rhodes piano. The highlight here is a live, all-star jam called “What’s Wrong With That,” featuring Davis sidemen Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, as well as Gary Clark Jr on guitar, and Espranza Spalding on bass. The disc ends with “Gone 2015,” featuring rapper Pharoahe Monch, and snippets of Davis speaking.

While purists with bemoan the chopping up of Davis’ works, Miles Ahead does a great job of summing up his career and making it listenable for even the casual fan. The profanity-laden in-between dialogue is the only caution for the general public. Otherwise, the soundtrack is one the best introductions to Miles Davis’ career ever assembled. —Tony Peters