Henry Kaiser & Leo Smith: Yo Miles!

Henry Kaiser & Leo Smith
Yo Miles!

A DECADE MIGHT appear musically interminable while you're in the middle of it, but give its by-products a dozen years or so and the cream rises. At times even the curdled butterfat is sweetened by nostalgia. Time has a way of reconciling the music of enemies. When "Brandy, You're a Fine Girl" saunters onto my radio, I mentally file it next to similar-sounding contemporaries such as Beefheart's "Big-Eyed Beans from Venus" and the Commodores' "Brick House." Led Zeppelin never received critical respect until half the bands on album-oriented radio stopped sounding like them and half the bands on college radio copped their sound.

A similar perspective can be applied to the music of Miles Davis. Kind of Blue may get name-checked by the settled jazzocracy, but it's his music of the 1970s that has slowly won favor with the current listening (and, most important, recording) public. Oft deemed a rock sellout by know-nothings, this era of Miles was much too weird to sell at all. Miles's coked-out wah-wah trumpet and organ playing were set against undanceable static funk rhythms and mixed with tabla and sitar by producer Teo Macero, who then cut the tape to ribbons and combined several sessions into one.

Yet today even this avant garde aesthetic can get the museum treatment. Yo Miles! features an enormous, all-star cast of avant savants. Genre-bending speed-guitarist Henry Kaiser and space-rasta trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith are joined by jazz luminaries ROVA sax 4tet, Geraldine Fibbers guitarist Nels Cline, and organist John Medeski to fill two CDs that sound like note-for-note re-creations of tracks from albums like 1974's Big Fun and Dark Magus.

Smith's re-creation of Miles's sound is uncanny--you can hear the connection to his own delicate and much sparser work. Kaiser has always struck me as too hairy a hippie, and his good taste (Madagascar pop/U.K. guitarist Derek Bailey) is often outweighed by the bad (the Grateful Dead). Here, he is restrained and his playing is often tasty. This is a mixed blessing. In the context of the company he's keeping, his sensibility practically signifies pop.

But this record is troubling in its mimicry. We should hold aging adventurers to the same standards of originality that we saddle the young lions with. Although there is deviation from the original cuts--the massed horns on "Moja-Nne," the slack-key guitar on "Maiysha," Smith's own excellent "Miles Dewey Davis III-Great Ancestor," and, of course, the individual solos--they don't revise (let alone innovate) from their source.

Any attempt to organically recreate the musique concrete of Macero's production, however, is an audacious conceptual task. And we have to admire it, even if we're a bit put off by its curatorial agenda. Maybe by 2010 more bar bands will be choosing this version of funk over Pearl Jam's.

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