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Yo Miles! Henry Kaiser and Wadada Leo Smith: Upriver

John Kelman By

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Following their highly-acclaimed second Yo Miles! release, Sky Garden (Cuneiform, 2004), trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and guitarist Henry Kaiser return for a third time to the wellspring of Miles Davis' electric period of '69-75. Like Sky Garden , Upriver sports cleaner lines and a less dense approach than their first collaboration, Yo Miles! (Shanachie, 1998), but stylistically it sits somewhere between the two, blending the bold assertion of the first release with exploration of the ambient space that was so predominant on the second. Recorded live with no overdubs and again released as an SACD hybrid, Upriver features the same cast of characters as Sky Garden , and it's clear from the first few bars of "Go Ahead John"? that they've upped the ante even further.

As much as other electric Miles tributes have captured the period, Yo Miles! most clearly draws the line between Miles' less-structured electric fusion and a more modern improvisational approach. Less strictly imitative and more about extrapolating where Miles might have gone had he continued down the same path, rather than reinventing himself upon returning to public life in the early '80s, there is nothing retro about the way Smith and Kaiser view this archival material. While other fusion of the era has ultimately become dated, Miles' less rigid approach, which relied more on interplay and improvisation than on bombast and complex structure, sounds even more relevant today, now that a larger audience has caught up with his vision.

What is particularly remarkable about this incarnation of Yo Miles! is how comfortably the players—many of whom would never appear to have any direct association to this music—fit into the post-Miles milieu. Drummer Steve Smith may have strong ties to fusion, but his playing has rarely been this filled with reckless abandon. Similarly, keyboardist Tom Coster is a broader colourist than one would expect. Bassist Michael Manring has a more prodigious electric technique than any of Miles' bassists of the time, but he never places style over substance. And the avant history of saxophonist John Tchicai would never lead one to believe that he could fit comfortably in this context.

Of course the same could be said for Wadada Leo Smith himself; with a background in free music and through-composed composition that is closer in aesthetic to contemporary classical music, one would never have imagined him to be such a good fit. And yet, while his playing demonstrates a richer breadth than Miles', he clearly understands and intuitively reconciles his own playing into this more rhythmically charged homage.

Whereas Sky Garden was divided equally between Miles pieces and original compositions that seemed to fit seamlessly into the larger arc, Upriver is largely dominated by Miles material. Still, a group improv and Smith's "Thunder & Lightning"? on disc two show an uncanny grasp of the essence of Miles' concept. Miles was always about looking forward, and Upriver , like its predecessors, never looks back, instead placing tribute into a thoroughly modern setting.

Visit Henry Kaiser and Wadada Leo Smith on the web.


Track Listing: Disc One: 1. Go Ahead John 2. On the Corner jam 3. What I Say 4. Bitches Brew. Disc Two: 1. Tatu/Agharta Funk 2. Tune in 5/One Phone Call 3. Corrado 4. Macero 5. Yesterfunk 6. Thunder and Lightning 7. Jabali (part III) 8. Black Satin (slight return)

Personnel: Wadada Leo Smith: trumpet; Henry Kaiser, Mike Keneally, Chris Muir: electric guitars; Michael Manring: bass; Steve Smith: drums; Karl Perazzo: percussion; Greg Osby: alto saxophone; John Tchicai: tenor and soprano saxophones; Tom Coster: keyboards. Special guests Zakir Hussain: tabla; Dave Creamer: guitar; ROVA Sax Quartet.

Title: Upriver | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Cuneiform Records

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