Since introducing his hip hop/funk/fusion-centric Ethnomusicology series in 1999culminating in Ethnomusicology Vol. 4: Live in Atlanta (Justin-Time, 2004) forward-looking trumpeter Russell Gunn has alternated straight-ahead fare for HighNote like 2002's Blue on the D.L., with Ethnomusicology releases for a variety of labels. With Plays Miles, however, he finds clear common ground. Given his steadfast avoidance of labeling it's no surprise that Gunn is gradually moving towards a unified approach that brings together all of his diverse musical interests.
There's no direct hip hop reference to be found here, but Gunn's tribute to musical paradigm shifter Miles Davis brings together post bop and fusion/funk in a remarkably integrated fashion. Most Miles tributes focus on one of the late trumpeter's many periods, but Gunn places material as old as the modal "All Blues and pensive "Blue in Green, from Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959), beside later material including the title tracks from Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969) and Tutu (Warner Bros., 1986). Gunn encyclopedically finds the common thread running through the icon's four decade-plus career.
Gunn's economical penchant for melodic development has everything to do with Miles. His thick tone, however, and a harmonic approach more evolved from the styles of Booker Little and Lee Morgan, bears little reference to the trumpet icon, making this a tribute that truly speaks with its own voice.
"Tutu is as inevitably funky as the original, but more open-ended and less sonically dated, with keyboardist Orrin Evans alternating between acoustic piano, Rhodes and synthesizer. Gunn's Elektrik Butterfly Band is a small affair, also featuring bassist Mark Kelley, drummer Montez Coleman and percussionist Kahlil Kwame Bell, resulting in a more spacious sound that contrasts with the greater density that Miles began with Bitches Brew and continued, with rare exception, to the end of his life. It also allows for greater interaction and clearer delineation.
There are plenty of surprises. Ron Carter's "Eighty One, from E.S.P. (Columbia, 1965), is given a brisk Latin reworking, with Kelley and Coleman almost relentlessly propulsive. Evans' intro to "Blue in Green suggests a mainstream approach until the rhythm section enters and it morphs into a soulful take that would have been completely in context with Miles' '80s workif it weren't for Evans' remaining on acoustic piano throughout. Afro-beat meets go-go on the group's version of Wayne Shorter's "Footprints, from Miles Smiles (Columbia, 1966), while "Nardis revolves around Kelley's loosely repetitive bass line and features Evans at his show-stopping best.
Gunn has always been a bit like actor/director Woody Allen: there's no middle ground, you either love him or hate him. With Plays Miles he's finally created a record that's funky, energetic and contemporary enough to appeal to Ethnomusicology fans while not neglecting the mainstream tradition that admirers of his HighNote discs are looking for. Rather than being a compromise it's the most stylistically assimilated record of his career, and may well convert some of his naysayers into new devotees.
Personnel: Russell Gunn: trumpet, effects. The Elektrik Butterfly Band: Orrin Evans: keyboards; Mark Kelley: bass; Montez Coleman: drums; Kahlil Kwame Bell: percussion.