- Prince, Miles, and Maceo: Horns, Masculinity, and the Anxiety of Influence
It is New Year’s Eve of 1987; Prince is performing his Sign ‘O’ The Times stage show on the new soundstage of his recently completed recording complex, Paisley Park. The event, a two-hundred-dollar-a-plate benefit for a local charity, is one of only a handful of occasions when Prince will perform this show in America (having done his Sign ‘O’ the Times tour in Europe during the summer of 1987, Prince elected not to mount an American leg of the tour). Nonetheless, the night will be remembered primarily as the only time that Prince and Miles Davis performed together, the zenith of their on-again, off-again collaboration (Nilsen 1999, 251). Even though he is performing within a framework completely controlled by Prince—Prince’s song, his stage show, his band, even his own building—Miles Davis’s presence shifts the center of gravity for the short time he is onstage.
Davis takes the stage only once, during a half-hour extended jam on the song “Beautiful Night,” and the two artists have a tense interaction. Davis begins tentatively: he strolls on without introduction and begins getting a feel for the groove (a harmonically static D-dorian vamp) by playing and repeating a simple two-bar motive, little more than the flat seventh, fifth, and root. Prince stands downstage, facing away from the audience, his attention focused on his band. Davis paces back and forth across the upstage space between Prince and the band, his horn and eyes angled inscrutably downward. After a twelve-bar elaboration of his initial motive, Davis starts exploring, trilling in his middle register before breaking out some high notes, allowing a few to sound dirty and cracked as he pushes toward a breakthrough. [End Page 117]
Throughout their time onstage together, Prince seems to lack the patience required to allow Davis to explore the groove and develop an interesting solo. Just as Davis begins pushing into his upper register, Prince calls an audible, cuing a six-beat turnaround—one of several prearranged riffs that the band plays on Prince’s cue—that interrupts the development of Davis’s solo. Davis is silent for the next six bars, then reenters with a more aggressive version of his first motive, shifted off the beat and played at a higher intensity, full of cracked notes. Two bars later Prince cues a single “hit” on the downbeat of a measure (a trick that he adapted years earlier from James Brown’s live show); three bars after that Prince again cues the six-bar turnaround. This time Davis enters hard on the heels of the turnaround, playing the most aggressive phrase of his solo, sixteenth-note runs that thrust upward and then double back. But after four bars of what could be a spectacular display by Davis, Prince cues another down-beat “hit” and Davis breaks off his sixteenth-note motion, returning to his original motive, during which Prince again cues the turnaround.
Prince is hyperkinetic, cuing his band to play more hits and turnarounds during Davis’s solo: first one, then a double, then a quadruple interrupt the old lion’s melodic exploration. This stop-start interaction eventually turns into a call-and-response between the two men, and they trade two- and four-beat riffs back and forth (starting at 7:38) for sixteen bars before returning to their unspoken struggle. When Davis tries to play longer phrases that build momentum slowly, or leaves one of his trademark pauses, Prince invariably cues the band to do something. At one point, it seems clear that Prince has disrupted Davis in the middle of an interesting idea: the trumpeter reacts by peeling off a high squeak, dropping the horn momentarily from his lips and giving Prince a curt nod (at 8:49). Davis’s solo, which began roughly five and a half minutes into the song, is over by nine minutes and twenty seconds, as Prince thanks the old lion and Davis walks briskly offstage, where, according to Prince’s manager Alan Leeds, he announced, “‘That little motherfucker tried to set me...