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Chris Kelsey & What I Say: Chris Kelsey & What I Say: The Electric Miles Project

Jeff Dayton-Johnson By

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Trumpeter Miles Davis' post-Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970), pre-hiatus (1975-1981) electric music—dense, loud, dark, funky, vast—has posed problems for musicians. The Yo Miles! collective, led by trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and guitarist Henry Kaiser, gamely approached it as a repertoire: these are songs, they seemed to say; let's just play them (and so they did, on albums like Upriver, Cuneiform, 2005). Bassist/impresario Bill Laswell, meanwhile, approached the releases of the period as post-performance collage, woven together from miles of Ampex tape; thus he remixed the original recordings rather than re-performing the tunes (on Panthalassa: The Music of Miles Davis, 1969-74, Columbia, 1997).

On The Electric Miles Project, saxophonist Chris Kelsey, whose adventurous acoustic playing has been likened to Ornette Coleman, plays four epic numbers from these Miles years (plus one original in two parts), together with his What I Say ensemble. Kelsey hews more closely to the precedent established by Yo Miles!, but his erudite liner notes hint at the difficulty of performing these tunes. "Sivad," from Davis' Live- Evil (Columbia, 1971), "is essentially little more than a bass line," he writes: ..." but what a bass line!" More generally, Kelsey writes, these tunes are "canvases upon which we throw images, colors and textures."

Kelsey's band abjures the Davis' high-Agharta mode, which was a dense mix of instruments, hard to identify, over a thicket of percussion and electronic effects. What I Say's sound is compact, accessible, intelligible. The leader's athletic alto and soprano sax sound navigates with aplomb the difficulties faced by Gary Bartz, Dave Liebman, Steve Grossman and Sonny Fortune, among others who occupied the saxophone chair in the Davis bands of the era. Drummer Dean Sharp's kit, meanwhile, sounds modest and acoustic, funky like a 1960s R&B player.

Where What I Say most closely approaches the Davis sound is in the double whammy of electric guitarists Rolf Sturm and Jack DeSalvo. They recall the dizzying duo of Reggie Lucas and Pete Cosey, who played with Davis in the last couple of years before his retirement. They even sound in their ubiquity a little like Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter on Lou Reed's live Rock 'n' Roll Animal (RCA, 1974). Sturm's sound encompasses Adrian Belew's irreverence, while DeSalvo updates Cosey's mix of blues and psychedelic oversaturation.

If these numbers are "little more than basslines," then they are in good hands with Joe Gallant, whose playing is more supple than that on the originals of the mighty Michael Henderson, who stuck to those massive grooves tenaciously.

The best cut on The Electric Miles Project is "Directions." In fact, the track is actually the jittery rhythm and bass line of "Black Satin" (from On the Corner, Columbia, 1972), overlaid by Kelsey's sax playing the main melody from pianist Joe Zawinul's composition "Directions." The mash-up works better than trumpeter Dave Douglas' superimposition of Davis' "Boplicity" upon the rhythm of "Miles Runs The Voodoo Down," on his "Penelope," from The Infinite (RCA, 2002). Douglas was clever, but Kelsey's take sounds more organic. It also suggests that he's onto something new in his appreciation of this repertoire, locking pieces together like pianist Nik Bärtsch does with his "moduls."

The two-part "Mad Love" echoes various moments from Davis' In A Silent Way (Columbia, 1969). Moreover, it shows most vividly that for Kelsey and his bandmates, this repertoire is a living thing, a way of collective improvisation as much as a set of compositions to be dusted off. And in so doing, they unlock the joy encoded in the originals.

Track Listing: Agharta Prelude; Mad Love, pt. 1; Directions; Ife; Sivad; Mad Love, pt. 2.

Personnel: Chris Kelsey: soprano saxophone, straight alto saxophone; Rolf Sturm: electric guitar; Jack DeSalvo: electric guitar; Joe Gallant: electric six-string bass; Dean Sharp: drums.

Title: Chris Kelsey & What I Say: The Electric Miles Project | Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: Self Produced

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