Henry Kaiser & Wadada Leo Smith Sky Garden Review

Released 2004.  

BBC Review

Second in guitarist Kaiser and trumpeter Smith's hommages to the electric Miles Davis.

Bill Tilland 2004

This second, two-disk instalment of Kaiser and Smith's Yo Miles! group (preceded by the eponymous Yo Miles! in 1998) has all of the virtues of the electric Davis, plus a few of the arguable defects; specifically the meandering sprawl of some very long and episodic compositions, the likes of which are either fascinating journeys or aimless excursions, depending upon your point of view.(My vote is solidly on the side of the fascinating journeys!)

As for the derivative nature of the whole enterprise - well, there's no dodging that bullet. And if it hangs you up, I'm probably not going to change your mind. Truthfully, Davis was there first, and was brilliant, and a genius, and all credit to him. However, much of the Davis output after Bitches Brew was recorded live, and often none too well. And everything that found its way to vinyl, beginning with In a Silent Way (or earlier), was also cut and spliced half to death by Teo Macero, sometimes to smooth out erratic performances, sometimes for commercial purposes and sometimes just because the process fascinated Macero and Davis.

In contrast, this second Yo Miles! collaboration was recorded live in the studio, with no overdubs or splices, using Direct Stream Digital (DSD) technology. Even on an ordinary CD player, the music has extraordinary presence and clarity, plus the momentum and logic of a true live performance.But the real strength of this re-creation (which actually contains six new Smith compositions in the Miles manner) is the quality of the playing.

Not taking anything away from the various musicians who populated Davis's electric bands, but in the years after Bitches Brew, the revolving cast was not always perfectly simpatico, and the musical direction itself was increasingly erratic, with Davis conflicted about wanting to be either on the cutting edge of the jazz avant garde or a bad mo'fo with street cred who could sell hundreds of thousands of units. (In hindsight, Stockhausen and Dr. Dre probably didn't have much to say to each other after all.)

But the post-Miles, post-fusion musicians assembled by Kaiser and Smith are seasoned pros who know the core Davis fusion sound inside and out and aren't burdened with the task of blazing the trail (and occasionally losing the way). Nor are they, from the sound of it, victims of conflicting agendas and duelling egos.

Former free jazz warrior John Tchicai is a more than adequate stand-in for Wayne Shorter on soprano sax, and his smeary tenor is refreshingly idiosyncratic. Greg Osby (on alto) needs no introduction. Keyboards are really THE essential instrument in most of the Davis fusion canon, and the relatively unsung Tom Coster is alternatively ethereal, funky, harmonically playful and even profound on electric keyboards. (His work on Smith's Who's Targeted is one of several brilliant extended turns). Karl Perazzo on percussion and Mike Manring on bass are the perfect rhythm section -- heavy when they need to be, but more often slippery and subtle, leaving lots of space on many of the pieces, laying out for one or two beats (or measures), implying as much as they state.

As for the two leaders, Kaiser is an almost infinitely adaptable guitarist who can channel Hendrix, Pete Cosey or even John McLaughin with consummate ease. Most often, he brings a heaping portion of grit and funk to the table, although he can certainly play pretty when he has a mind to. Wadada Smith is the real surprise. While certainly respected in the jazz community, he has a longstanding reputation as a cerebral theorist, and more than one critic has characterized his style as dry and introverted. However, Davis's own playing, especially with his signature Harmon mute, was often described as fragile and introverted, if not cerebral or experimental, so Davis and Smith have that much in common. And Smith can also be forceful and dynamic, with even more tonal exploration (smears, harmonics, growls, etc.) than was typical of Davis, but with experimental tendencies always subordinated to the musics flow.

Smith isn't Davis (nor is he trying to be), but he's a great trumpet player who seems very much at ease in the electric fusion bag. In fact, everyone playing on this CD, including part-timers such as Zakir Hussain and the ROVA Sax Quartet, seems to be having a blast. The music is alternately spacious and intricate, lyrical and fiery, but always as natural and unforced as breathing.

If you're the kind of enthusiast who already has everything that the electric Davis ever recorded (including the posthumous box sets of the complete Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson and In a Silent Way sessions), then you might find Sky Garden a tad superfluous. Otherwise, though, it's well worth picking up; a fine extended homage to Davis and joyous, powerful and poignant music in its own right.

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