A "Yo Miles!" (Henry Kaiser and Wadada Leo Smith) Two-Fer! - Shinjuku and Lightning (2010)


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By S. Victor Aaron

Since very early on we've eagerly pounced on records that re-image that dense, impenetrable period of Miles Davis between about 1969 and 1975 when he first defined fusion jazz and then kept redefining it again and again. This is music that doesn't come easily to most people; they must go to it, get inside of it and slather themselves with it. Even then, many folks might not “get it." I'd admit that there's a few cuts myself I still can't figure out after listening to them for decades now. Still, the mystery, the grooves...the aura of these songs keep me coming back like a Rubix cube put down in frustration only to return to it later in a never-ending quest to resolve it.

As much as its intrigued me, it's become much more than that for some musicians, enough to make an album attempting to unlock that aura of Miles' early fusion performances by interpreting them on their own. Virtually all of these records succeed in capturing the energy, the band cohesion and the playing style of Miles' awesome fusion bands, but no one's been able to capture that aura. However, a certain experimental guitarist from the San Francisco Bay Area, Henry Kaiser, combined with one of Chicago's AACM giants Wadada Leo Smith to make not one, but three proper, double-CD albums investigating this music under the flag of “Yo Miles!": Yo Miles (1998), Yo Miles!: Sky Garden (2004) and Yo Miles!: Upriver (2005), the latter two being Cuneiform Records releases.

These records were all very serious embraces of Miles' rock-funk music with some serious musicians backing up Kaiser and Smith: Nels Cline, Michael Manring, John Medeski, Elliott Sharp, Mike Keneally, Greg Osby, The Rova Saxophone Quartet, Steve Smith and Tom Coster all have contributed to these recordings. Remakes of Davis songs were supplemented by new tunes, written mostly by Smith, that captured the essence of the covers without copying them. Last fall, There Records culled the originals from the Cuneiform releases, added four more previously unreleased original tracks all performed live and molded two, digital-only albums from them, Lightning and Shinjuku.

One thing these Yo Miles! originals do not share with the real stuff are the half-hour long, single note rumbles like “Ife" (which Kaiser and Smith did faithfully reproduce on their first Yo Miles! album). “Thunder And Lightning," which kicks off the Lightning album, might be a rather long twenty one minutes but takes its cue from the schizophrenic “Savid" from Live-Evil (1971): starting off with one hot groove and then switching over to a completely different one. During the second part, Kaiser (I assume Kaiser, as there are two other guitarists in this group) rips off an incendiary solo performance that wails and cuts with authority.

Smith's best solo performance comes just one track later, on “Cozy Pete," a clever rearrangement of the name of Miles' Agharta period guitarist, Pete Cosey. The Rastafarian trumpet player perfectly captures the spirit of Miles in Jack Johnson mode, dodging and weaving like the great boxer, picking his spots to throw in some concise jabs. The finest live performance comes in the form of “Tsapiky Frelimo," which begins with some unhinged percussion/drums showcase by Steve Smith and Karl Perazzo, followed by an equally unhinged guitar psychedelia by Kaiser. After Wadada blows an urgent solo, Coster shows off a rarely heard wild side of him. Contributing to this cacophony is that Rova sax quartet, who ably fill up all remaining available space. Manrings' fast percolating bass lines on “Miles Dewey Davis II—Great Ancestor" form a bridge of sorts between Miles and Pastorius' Weather Report.

Shinjuku begins with the twenty-two minute song by the same name, an informal suite of songs that takes listeners from an In A Silent Way meditation to the hard funk-rock of Agharta and even the swing of the pre-fusion days. Somewhere in the middle of it, Osby stretches out skirting the line between “in" and “out" over a sweaty mid-tempo rock groove. The slide guitar on “Who's Targeted?" reminds us that even during the time Miles was in the midst of his jungle funk phases he never forgot completely departed from his blues roots. Miles' experimentation with Indian music forms isn't forgotten, either; the centerpiece of “Muhammad Ali" is the tabla of Zakir Hussain, who exchanges ideas first with Manring and then Wadada Smith, who seems pushed by Hussain to play his electrified trumpet at a higher level in a mesmerizing performance.

By collecting all the originals from the Yo Miles! series together into two albums, “all-new" fusion Miles records were created that are worthy pseudo additions to the least understood chapter of a long, legendary career. The four live cuts not found on other Yo Miles! releases are more than strong enough on their own to justify those already owning Skygarden and Upriver to spring for these two latest entries in the Kaiser/Smith project. Yo Miles! still doesn't fully capture the aura of the fusion-aura Miles Davis, but it's arguably the closest anyone has come. Even when the band is not playing Miles' songs.

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