San Francisco Jazz Festival
The Deepest Groove
October 21, 1999 The Fillmore, San Francisco
The New Art Jazz Quartet/
Henry Kaiser & Wadada Leo Smith's "Yo Miles"

The New Art Jazz Quartet

On a chilly Fall evening in SF, the interior of the Fillmore was a sauna at the start of this show. I appeared in short and a short-sleeved shirt, and my shirt was soaked before the show began. Eventually the AC restored something of a temperate balance, but the conjunction of sauna-like conditions and black light chandeliers created a hostile and unsettling initial atmosphere (sic).

The New Art Jazz Quartet consists of James Blood Ulmer-g, John Hicks-p, Reggie Workman-b, and Rashied Ali-d. Ulmer was advertised in the SFJF newsletter as "an avatar of all things free and funky," but the music this quartet produced was nothing like Ulmer's notable trio with Amin Ali-b and Grant Calvin Weston-d that appeared in the early 90s at Koncepts Kultural Gallery in Oakland. That group was infused with the blues, and Ulmer's guitar sparked, snarled and hummed in a dense gumbo that was frequently hard to decode but was never boring. The NAJQ, by comparison, is more like the John Hicks Quartet with special guest JBU. It may be fair that an all-star aggregation like this have all four members share the spotlight more or less equally, but a Blood Ulmer group not playing Blood music is a disappointment. The music was, for the most part, jazz quartet chamber music. Hicks played some nice roaring sheets of sound, Workman soloed interestingly, but Ulmer failed to excite. He also seemed to be in cardio-pulmonary distress, forced to sit several times during a less than one hour show and to mop his face profusely. The best number was a cross between a jump blues and bebop, with Ulmer playing staccato cascading single lines. I don't know whether there is serious artistic intention behind this group, or merely an attempt by a bunch of aging jazz stars to pull a paycheck, but the latter possibility certainly crossed my mind.

Yo Miles!

Henry Kaiser and Wadada Leo Smith brought the first ever live performance of 1998's Yo Miles! CD on Shanachie (which featured the ugliest cover I have ever seen issued by a major label). The band consisted of Kaiser-g, and Smith-tp, as well as Nels Cline and Chris Muir-g, the excellent Michael Manring-b, Alex Cline-d, Tom Coster (who was a surprising revelation)-kb, Zakir Hussein-tablas, and Rova Saxophone Quartet (with arrangements by member Steve Adams) on multiple reeds.

The group played a variety of Miles Davis material from the hard-to-decipher 73-to-75 era. Many of these pieces are long jams with various names attributed to various performances, but the band also did an extended version of Black Satin from On the Corner. The performance showed more variety and nuance that any recordings I have heard of Miles from that period. The performances by Miles were basically a thick percussion soup with Miles' wah-wah trumpet sometimes layered over the top but also often subsumed into the mix.

Smith did two excellent ad lib duets, one with Manring on bass and one with Hussein on tablas to lead off Black Satin. Singling out group members for praise flies in the face of the ensemble nature of the performance, but the long medleys are hard to describe without doing so. When Manring was not holding down the bottom with Michael Henderson-like repeated ostinati, his playing was interesting. Smith frequently soloed in a vein much like Miles of that period, but with less electronics and wah-wah. Kaiser unleashed some screaming guitar that sounded as much like a UFO as traditional guitar playing. In fact, members of the band frequently made unearthly sounds that required visual confirmation to ascertain which instrument was creating that sound. Coster was a much more serious player than I had previously given him credit for being, and excelled both at Keith Jarrett-like electric piano and more traditional organ sounds.

But the real hero of the evening success was the band as a whole, a funky, percussive mix that had the younger pot-smoking members of the audience and me dancing the night away, as I understand Miles intended when creating this music originally. The only thing missing, and this is a quibble and an aside, was the sense of menace that was palpable when I saw Miles play Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis in 1974. I don't think that's a fault of the Yo Miles! band, but merely a result of different times and different intentions. It's also hard to recreate an era, although the Yo Miles! funk mob surely tried with a period light show at the Fillmore, and there is always the possibility of creating a stillborn period piece. The Yo Miles! band took the Miles Davis legacy, treated it with fondness but not reverence, expanded on it, and made it shine for a new generation much more than Laswell's Panthalassa did. The band also made its case better in live performance, which is how the music was originally created, than with the CD, even though the CD was quite good, probably the best Miles Davis tribute to date.