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Charles Pillow Large Ensemble: Electric Miles

Jerome Wilson By

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The electric music Miles Davis recorded from 1969 and into the 1970s was a game-changing event in jazz, a steamy, mysterious, ever-evolving soup of improvisation, rock, funk and electronics that launched numerous careers and inspired subsequent generations of musicians across genres. Its influence shows in the numbers of players who have since studied, dissected and interpreted this material in their own ways. Alto saxophonist Charles Pillow has adapted Davis' work for a full-scale big band but with mixed results.

Davis' take on jazz-rock was an amorphous, slinky beast dependent on layers on keyboards, electric bass and prowling bass clarinet. In Pillow's versions the rhythm section, with electric piano and bass present, still try to achieve those creeping, dangerous grooves but it's overwhelmed by the brute force of massed reeds and horns that often attack the melodies. The ensemble passages of "Black Satin" and "Spanish Key" come off blocky and musclebound. Joe Zawinul's "Directions" starts off nicely with bubbling funk arising from Tim Hagans' trumpet, Chuck Bergeron's electric bass and Jared Schonig's drums, but brass fanfares continually disrupt what they try to do. Zawinul's classic "In A Silent Way" starts out with with a lovely, gradual reading of the theme realized by the entire band but eventually speeds up into a sweaty feature for Hagans, Schonig and pianist Julian Garvue that leaves the original theme and feeling far behind.

Other adaptions are more successful. Wayne Shorter's "Sanctuary" has a more subdued and open-ended feel. It balances the brass and reed line with measured grace and slowly works its way up to a full massed shout without breaking the contemplative mood of the composition. The slow-walking "Yesternow" really captures the sense of Davis' dark funk with bass moving at a slow, stalking pace while simmering electric piano and cool band harmonies set the table for fine solos by Pillow on alto flute, Clay Jenkins on trumpet and Davis alumnus David Liebman on liquid soprano sax.

The most consistently worthwhile part of the CD is the soloing. Hagans is reliably fiery in his trumpet playing and leader Pillow contributes a number of funky alto spots. Jenkins cuts through the thick gristle of "Black Satin" and "Spanish Key" like a blade of bright light, Michael Davis takes a couple of swaggering trombone solos on "Black Satin" and "Directions" and when David Liebman turns loose on "Black Satin" and "Yesternow," it's party time.

There are a lot of good things in Charles Pillow's tribute to Miles Davis' early electric phase but it is often hampered by a brassy heaviness that weighs it down. This disc is worth hearing but to hear this music played with real unpredictability and danger, you have to go back to Davis' original work on classics like Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970) and On The Corner, Columbia, 1972).

Track Listing: Pharoah’s Dance; Bitches Brew; Black Satin; In A Silent Way; Directions; Sanctuary; Yesternow; Spanish Key.

Personnel: Charles Pillow: arranger, alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute, alto flute; Colin Gordon: alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute; Luke Norris: tenor saxophone, clarinet; CJ Ziarniak: tenor saxophone; Karl Stabnau: bass clarinet; Michael Davis: trombone; Abe Nouri: trombone; Jack Courtright: trombone; Gabe Ramos: bass trombone; Tony Kadleck lead trumpet; Charlie Carr: trumpet; Clay Jenkins: trumpet; Tim Hagans: trumpet; Julian Garvue: electric piano; Chuck Bergeron: electric bass; Mike Forfia: acoustic bass (4, 6); Jared Schonig: drums; David Liebman: soprano saxophone (3, 7).

Title: Electric Miles | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: MAMA Records

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