On guitarist Henry Kaiser and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith explore the mysteries of Miles Davis's mid-'70s music.
By Derk Richardson
OVER THE PAST two years, the electric music of the late Miles Davis has roared back into the public ear. In the summer of 1997, Columbia/Legacy issued five double CDs of the seminal and jarring fusion recorded mostly in concert by the trumpet giant and his bands after the 1969-70 breakthroughs In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew and before the five-year retirement that kept him out of action for the rest of the 1970s. Since then, artists as diverse as bassist-producer Bill Laswell (Panthalassa: The Music of Miles Davis 1969-1974) and trumpeter-multi-instrumentalist Mark Isham (Miles Remembers: The Silent Way Project) have offered their interpretations of music from the Davis electric period.
But familiarity has not necessarily bred understanding. That's where Henry Kaiser and Wadada Leo Smith come in. Last year, the Oakland guitarist (and peripatetic producer of music from locales as disparate as Madagascar and Norway) and the veteran Mississippi-born trumpeter (who established his reputation as a creative composer, improviser, and theorist in the Chicago avant-garde) recorded Yo Miles!, a double-CD with 160 minutes of music, comprising 10 suites developed from Davis themes originally documented during what they consider to be the peak Miles electric period of 1973-75. More than an affectionate and superficially faithful tribute to a dead master, Yo Miles! is an intense exploration of the musical systems Davis employed to get to completely new music in the company of such musicians as guitarists Pete Cosey, Reggie Lucas, and Dominique Gaumont, bassist Michael Henderson, drummer Al Foster, percussionist Mtume, and saxophonists Davie Liebman, Azar Lawrence, and Sonny Fortune.
Last week, in separate conversations, Kaiser and Smith discussed not only the appeal of this challenging and once vehemently condemned music but also the essential musical and philosophical elements that set it apart from both the music of its time and virtually everything that has followed in its wake. Although interviewed individually, Kaiser and Smith spoke as if they were talking to each other and bouncing off each other's ideas. What made that especially fascinating was the fact that Kaiser says he and Smith have never at great length articulated their understanding of Miles to each other.
"I was amazed how much I learned from doing this project," says Kaiser, who conceived Yo Miles! but attributes much of its success to the underrated genius of his prime collaborator. "When I walked in to play with Mark Isham at Yoshi's, for instance, even though he had a different view of the music, I found I could just sit down and play with those guys. That was because Miles developed such a beautiful system for making music, a little different from anything else. And he did that only from 1972-'73 to 1975, or '71 to '75, depending on how you define it. Then nobody else really did it again.
"These pieces that Miles played in the 1973 to 1975 period weren't tunes really, they were composed of tiny thematic fragments, which usually Miles would state, an ostinato bass line that Michael Henderson would play, and a harmonic climate or environment. The tempos could change and different songs could be superimposed on top of each other. Do you remember what Miles used to put on some of his records during that period? It said 'Directions in Music by Miles Davis.' Miles was telling us what he was doing."
"I would say it this way," says Smith, who lives in Ventura County and teaches African American improvisation at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. "When you look at Miles's music, you see a contemplative version of how to make music all his music is really very thoughtful and you see the emergence of just a few profound properties, like, for example, the bass line, and the nucleus of the note phrases that were part of the pieces. They all solved little problems. If you look at 'Ife,' you can see that straight down the line. It's a systemic music that's quite different and unusual. The reason we know it's systemic is because from one performance to the next, he would play the same bass line and make new pieces over it, and he would name them appropriately. For example, on On the Corner, almost all those pieces use the same bass line, but the music on top is very different. That's what I mean by a systemic approach."
"In this period, Miles's system allowed you to be like an expressionist painter with several buckets of paint," Kaiser continues. "You decide which ones to throw on the wall, then kind of step back and look at the pattern at the end of the concert. And some of the paint was crazy paint, some of it was paisley, some of it was checkerboard paint, and you painted a wild picture. Another way to look at it is you walk into a kitchen and there are ten tables, each with fifteen different ingredients on it. There might not be strawberries, but there might be garlic. You don't have to use all the ingredients, you can use some. You might make chocolate chip cookies or you might make deep-fried squid, and if you want, you can mix stuff up from the different tables."
That freedom and that boundless potential for recombination was what made the Davis music of the early 1970s so complex and intense, and so reviled and perhaps misunderstood by its detractors. "Everybody complained about him having too many elements in his music," says Smith, riffing on the same theme. "I just read some things that were said at the time when people came to see him at the Hollywood Bowl, and those comments were so weird and crazy, like the music had too much energy in it and it went too many different places. They would make all kinds of strange criticisms but in the next instant say, 'Well, if it's Miles Davis who is doing it, maybe he'll find something to do with it.' Actually, he had already found out what to do with it. For example, most people don't understand why his phrasing became shorter when he started playing his electric music. Well, it became shorter because when he first started out with the electric music, he tried to apply the long melodic forms he had used before to the new style, but he found out that didn't work. So he created his new language in much shorter, complex phrases, strung out over much longer periods than the horizontal melodic music he had been into before. He made that change deliberately. He knew exactly what he was doing. He found out that he had to make his language new again. It's very powerful. Also he found out that he could play higher than before. When he started playing this music, he just began to hear the high E and F and G and A inside of him, because once he made that shift, he began to hear new things."
Many of the most famous musicians who played with Miles Davis during the first phase of his electric period (In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson) went on to trail-blaze the most popular forms of jazz-rock fusion. Keyboardists Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Joe Zawinul, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, guitarist John McLaughlin, and drummer Billy Cobham became the leading lights of fusion with such bands as the Headhunters, Return to Forever, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Weather Report. But their music rocked and roiled in ways much different than that of such second-phase Miles fusion recordings as Dark Magus, Agharta, and Pangaea.
"When Miles made the break in 1973 to a different kind of thinking and logic, no one followed that," Kaiser says. "They didn't understand the change he'd made. So when Herbie Hancock and all the guys went off and did their own things, they didn't use that system, they didn't go for this nonlinear system, and consequently, that system didn't remain in fusion. They took some of the textural harmonic ideas that Miles had explored, particularly in earlier pieces, and looked at those as the musical language and devices. They didn't look up to the next level of Miles's system of creating and finding 'new directions in music.' "
"During that period," Smith adds, "he turned the world upside down with that kind of approach to musical improvisation. It focused in on a larger ensemble with more percussive elements and short phrases at a faster pace. If you slice through it at any intense moment, whether the contents are thick or thin, you come up with something so rich. But that whole zone of music, not just his music, could have been much, much larger. That tells you something about who organizes it, and how, in a creative music ensemble, the organizer, who makes the decisions, is powerful. When they are as powerful as that guy, or even as powerful as ordinary people like us, it makes a big impact on the music. People listen to the Ellington Orchestra now, with some of the same guys playing the same music as when Ellington was alive, and it sounds like the music, but it isn't the music that Ellington made with it. It's beautiful, but it doesn't sound anything like Ellington would have played it."
But if Davis left behind such a potent system for getting to new sounds, not necessarily dependent on his own presence, why haven't more people employed it? "Because people don't know it," Kaiser says. "Like when people first heard Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart, they thought it was just a bunch of noise, people playing random stuff, but it turns out it's completely composed music. The music is not what it appears to be on the surface to most people. Even on the very fine Miles Remembered: The Silent Way Project by Mark Isham, when he does material from this later period, he does it in the older style of In a Silent Way, a slightly earlier period before Miles had gotten truly nonlinear and Afrocentric in his approach to music. We're really looking at it from that latter viewpoint, the less popular, less understood viewpoint that we really like. And when you see most people doing music influenced by Miles's electric period, they're doing the same thing that the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Chick Corea did they're going for the textures, feelings, and colors, which are beautiful parts of the music. But they're not looking at the logic, and we just happen to do that. The logic is harder to grasp, only because there has not been much other music operating by that logic. We're old guys, we were around, we saw that music, and we've got Leo, who is a master."
"The difference is that we think we understood what Miles meant by that music," Smith says. "Back then it was very revolutionary to mix all kinds of instruments, and it's much easier now to present his music. But we feel strongly that we really touch the core of it, not in note selection, but in terms of certain devices he used in his music, such as tension and contrast."
"Miles found this new door that nobody had been through," Kaiser says. "Every night he'd go through this door and find different things. And no one's really been going through that door ever since. We're not going up there saying, 'Oh, we're going to redo this pretty music that Miles used to do,' we're going up there saying, 'Hey, we noticed Miles did something back then that's different than a lot of people know or understand,' so we're gonna get up there and go through that door and we're going to find something, we don't know what. I'm not saying we're cool for doing it, it just happens to be our approach, which is more satisfying to us, because it's fresher, it's more exciting, and we discover new things about ourselves and our music every time we play, if we approach music in that way."
"We don't rehearse these songs and go in there knowing what's going to happen," Kaiser says. "We'll be going into the Fillmore like a team that suits up in parachutes and does a night jump, not knowing if we're landing in the ocean or the forest or the mountains. It's a team going in, but we don't know where we're going or what we're going to find."
"It's another kind of explosion to be explored, and it's gonna work in such a powerful way that people are really going to see what we mean by using these pieces in today's feeling," Smith says. "When you hear the way the pieces come out in live performance, a whole other dimension will be revealed."
Henry Kaiser and Wadada Leo Smith's Yo Miles! Band, featuring Zakir Hussain headline the San Francisco Jazz Festival's "The Deepest Groove" concert, following the New Art Jazz Quartet, which features guitarist James Blood Ulmer, drummer Rashied Ali, bassist Reggie Workman, and pianist John Hicks, 8 p.m., Thurs/21, Fillmore, 1805 Geary, S.F. Call (415) 788-7353 for ticket information.
PHOTO: KAREN MILLER