James Blood Ulmer Quartet
James Blood Ulmer - guitar
Rashied Ali - drums
John Hicks - piano
Reggie Workman - bass
James Blood Ulmer opened the show with a powerful set of music. The amazing musical history of these players gave their set an immediately felt atmosphere of heightened expectations. Ulmer looked very much like George Clinton, sans the dye job on the 'do, with fringed tunic, two-toned cowboy boots and a pile of knotted dreads. The music ranged from straight-up standards (a surprise to me) and Ulmer's patented, ecstatic drone playing and idiosyncratic singing. Ulmer's playing is deeply suffused in the blues and is accentuated by his use of his thumb instead of a pick. While he conjures the sound of several guitar icons, his sound is distinctly his, especially on his instrumental compositions. The band revealed their indebtedness to Trane and the blues on nearly every number. Each of the band members was in total synch with the tunes, John Hicks being especially on it whether comping or soloing. Reggie Workman was all up in the music, creating exciting rhythmic slapping, muted harmonics, glisses and other assorted niceties picked up in his long career. Rashied Ali had the crowd in his pocket, maybe as much for his positive vibe as the sterling support to Ulmer: these two musicians are totally locked together in a musical embrace that transcened the material. I don't know how old these guys are, but they put to shame bands half or a third their age. The band seemed to be laughing while playing the blues, they were definitely having a great time. This set was a real treat given that Ulmer very rarely appears in these parts.
Wadada Leo Smith - trumpet
Henry Kaiser, Nels Cline, Chris Muir - guitar
Steve Adams (horn arranger), Larry Ochs, Bruce Ackley, Jon Raskin - various saxophones
Michael Manring - bass
Tom Coster - keyboards
Zakir Hussein - tablas, hand drum
Alex Cline - drums
This band seems to have so much baggage: accusations of trading on Miles popularity and some critics insistence that this music could only be done by Miles and only in the years that he made it. I don't care, this is a bodacious idea well executed and at the same time a bit sloppy, just like the original. From the get-go it's necessary to lower your expectations a bit: no one could ever reproduce the awesome bands that Miles put together from Bitches Brew through his retirement in 1975.
So, that said, how could Wadada Leo Smith (or even Wallace Roney!) ever reprise a Miles solo, ever even come a hundred miles close? Wadada did his level best, and what a sweet thing it was. He seemed to be using nearly the same equipment Miles did, a pickup near the mouthpiece leading to a wah-wah pedal, effects and an amp. He occasionally used a mute but mainly blew clean lines very closely emulating Miles. At the end of one extended solo the entire audience and band gave him a tumultuous, well deserved hand. Wadada parried most effectively with Zakir Hussein and Bruce Ackley, a "mutual inspiration society" forming between the players. Wadada seemed to be in a state of grace, very humble and seemingly appreciating and savoring every moment at center stage. Kaiser told the crowd to thank Wadada for making the music happen, an appropriate sentiment.
The other horn players are also known as the Rova Saxophone Quartet. They played all manner of saxophones, including sopraninos which were very effective (one passage had three sopraninos and a baritone - yow!). The ensemble horn parts were few and far between, serving as occasional swells and coming in on the themes. As soloists, each of the players turned in admirable performances, with special props to Bruce Ackley on baritone and tenor.
Michael Manring had a very difficult role to play. Michael Henderson's original parts are masterful in the context of what Miles was doing. Manring was right on all night: funky, loose and technicaly adept while keeping the playing spare and spacious. Manring and Zakir performed a lively duet that allowed Manring to display his own formidable chops. Manring was beaming all night long. It was great to hear Tom Coster's licks again. He was integral to a few fantastic Santana bands and has a truly unique sound that usually worked with the Miles material.
Coster was on one side of the stage with the saxes and Zakir Hussein, while on the other side was the unruly pack of guitarists creating guitar pandemonium at times. Chris Muir was solidly in the Pete Cosey seat, copping the Cosey atmospherics nicely. I found myself repeatedly drawn to the "Cosey sound", very psychedelic and incredibly close to Cosey's original tones and licks. Nels Cline was a loose cannon, spraying odd noises and using weird tools to stroke and coax the strings of his guitar. Nels would occasionally cop the Reggie Lucas role. Henry Kaiser took the McLaughlin role, as well as band director. He was the obvious spark plug behind the entire effort. Like the other guitarists, Kaiser's rock roots came out during solos and band climaxes. The audience seemed unmoved by any of the guitarists. During a couple of climactic points in the music, the guitarists created a wall of noise that was fun, as well as slightly comical, perhaps partly due to the relaxed and friendly rapport they all have with each other.
Immediately upon seeing Alex Cline play I thought of Al Jackson Jr. - the upright posture, very funky with an economy of movement. He navigated the tunes admirably and played like he's been playing these tunes for years. In concert with Zakir Hussein, Cline did not overplay and kept the rhythm section uncluttered, allowing the clutter, at times, of the other players to be clearly heard in the mix. Zakir Hussein is certainly one of the planets most accomplished musicians. He could have carried a set by himself and been roundly cheered by the crowd. It seems like Zakir has been playing this Miles music all his life. As he took turns dueting and trading eights with various players, he constantly varied his tabla playing to fit the music at hand, ensemble playing for the ages.
The light show presented this evening was specially designed to use no equipment developed after 1971, in order to replicate, I suppose, the original light show that might have been seen when Miles originally played the hall - it worked. The band was ferocious at times, roaring through a theme, creating a cacophonous mudslide of sound. Most of the night found the music flowing, none of the fits and stutters of Miles direction. In fact, the music here is more composed and set than the original Miles vision, which is probably why the players all seemed so relaxed: nobody was on their guard for the abrupt changes that Miles orchestrated. Kaiser had to nearly jump up and down at times to give direction to the band!
After two encores, the audience had had enough and strolled out onto Geary and Fillmore streets to the strains of Greensleeves, a fit and traditional Fillmore ending to the evening.