Miles Davis’s first electric period traced an arc from 1969 to 1975 which continues to inform the most exploratory electric jazz of the past three decades. Miles developed techniques (generic cross-pollination and studio cut and paste, to name only two) which produced seriously funky and out music and which have inspired a whole slew of innovators including – to take fellow trumpeters as one example – Jon Hassell, Cuong Vu, Dave Douglas, Erik Truffaz and Rob Mazurek. Miles Davis’s legacy continues to serve as a sturdy dam against the waves of conservatism promulgated by the likes of Stanley Crouch, Wynton Marsalis and numerous conservatory graduates. In terms of influence Miles always was and, more than a decade after his death, continues to be both archetypal outsider and right at the very centre of things.
That’s one part of Miles Davis’s bequest. Wadada Leo Smith’s Yo Miles! and Mark Isham’s Silent Way Project have taken another route and approached Miles’ 1970s music as repertoire ripe for musical interpretation. Two recently formed groups to have shared this approach comprise former members of Miles’ 1970s groups: guitarist Pete Cosey’s Children of Agharta and Michael Henderson’s Children On The Corner. In the latter example Miles Davis’s bassist is joined by three other Davis alumni: Ndugu Chancler on drums, Sonny Fortune on sax, Badal Roy on tablas and two others, Michael Wolff on keyboards and Barry Finnerty on guitar.
The eight tracks on Rebirth were recorded at a club date and the sound quality has a rough and ready feel. The problematic aspect of enterprise lies in the group's interpretation of the three tracks which originally appeared on its namesake. What to this day sets On The Corner apart is the stripped down, foregrounded nature of the harsh, tabla-dominated rhythm section. This emphasis upon the repetitive, the skeletal and the other is repeatedly subjected to the buffeting of studio effects and harsh solos. The production is strikingly prescient of much dance music from the 1990s onwards, including hardcore, techno and jungle. The versions of “New York Girl” and “Black Satin” on Rebirth unfortunately don’t recognise the central importance of this particular sound to the originals. When reduced to musical composition, the essential impact of the originals dissipates like a dream upon waking.
Despite that, some of the playing on Rebirth is a pleasure. Sonny Fortune literally kicks off “Directions” with a five minute solo at once more urgent and more ragged than his playing on Agharta and Pangaea. Ndugu Chancler and Michael Henderson drive the music along and Barry Finnerty’s guitar, though no match for Cosey, is at times suitably firey. Michael Wolff’s organ dovetails nicely with the rest of the group although his two compositions, “Oakland Raga” and “Madimba,” sound out of place alongside the other pieces.
Miles Davis established a level of innovation, passion and commitment to which most can only aspire. Ultimately your judgement of Children On The Corner will rest upon your perception of his 1970s music and what it is that continues to make it vital thirty years later.