To understand the righteous indignation many critics and old-time fans felt, it's important to realize the depth of Davis' apparent betrayal in the context of its time. By the late '60s, jazz had become more and more abstract and visceral, hewing less to any recognizable harmonic structure than to pure improvisational expression. Meanwhile, pop, folk, and proto-funk had exploded, and Davis was listening.
In 1969 Davis released Bitches Brew, introducing the world to his concept of fusion: a huge rhythm section, supported by up to three drummers, three electric pianists/keyboardists, and two electric guitars, playing a steady rock and R&B rhythm while several horns soloed freely on top. All this was happening on album-length jams that bear more resemblance to Grateful Dead shows than Davis' spare, earlier work.
Many considered Bitches Brew, and the fusion concept in general, a Frankensteinian creation best left dead on the operating table. And no matter what Davis said, there was a touch of commercialism about his fusion; Columbia took advantage of his new look to dub him "The Prince of Darkness," and a light show was added to his concerts. Thousands of new, young fans made Bitches Brew his best-selling album ever, and huge crowds flocked to his shows.
Henry Kaiser was one of them. "I heard that [fusion] about the time I picked up a guitar, and I went to see those [Davis'] bands many times, during that period," he says. "So it's something very, very close to my heart, because I grew up listening to it, sitting 10 feet away from Miles in a club, and talking to [guitarist] Pete Cosey afterwards." Kaiser, then in his early 20s, went on to become an important member of the "second generation" of free improvisers who emerged during the '70s. The Bay Area guitarist had no qualms about melding influences as diverse as Davis, England's Derek Bailey, and Captain Beefheart, as well as music from India, Korea, and Vietnam. The long roster of musicians he's collaborated with includes Herbie Hancock, Jerry Garcia, Diamanda Galas, and Michael Stipe, though perhaps Kaiser's best-known work is five CDs of Malagasy music called A World Out of Time, the second volume of which was nominated for a Grammy in 1992.
One thing Kaiser had long wanted to do was an album of Miles Davis' neglected fusion music, but that only became possible in the last few years. Columbia issued five double CDs of Davis' live music from 1969 to '74 in 1997, while Bill Laswell "reconstructed" and remixed Davis recordings from the same period on an album released last year, Panthalassa. Hip-hop artists and other musicians began to acknowledge a debt to Davis' grooves and ideas, and critics finally came around to recognizing his huge influence on everything from disco to funk to rap to house music. When Kaiser recruited musicians for a studio project, among the first he approached was L.A.-based trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. "I was in a solo concert of Leo's and I mentioned to him I was going to do [the album]; he said, 'That's my favorite stuff of Miles -- count me in.'" The result, released last year on Shanachie, was Yo Miles!, a compelling double CD of Davis' late fusion compositions performed by Smith, Kaiser, and an all-star improv band.
"It's very unusual for that to be a trumpet player's favorite period," says Kaiser, and that's especially true, at first glance, of Smith, who has stood firmly in the avant-garde almost his whole career. At about the same time Davis began fiddling with electronics in 1967, Smith moved to Chicago and joined the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) with Anthony Braxton; he co-founded the Creative Construction Company with Braxton and Leroy Jenkins later that year. By 1970 CCC had disbanded, and by the mid-'70s -- around the time Davis "retired" -- Smith was studying ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University. Since that time his music has focused on creative improvisation informed by his study of African, Japanese, Indonesian, European, and American music cultures.
But Smith argues that his avant-garde jazz and Davis' supposed concessions to the marketplace aren't that different. "Well, if you listen to the Miles Davis legacy, particularly the electronic music, you find that all those elements -- world music, improvisation -- is all right there, except that it has been taken to a level that defies instrumentation," says Smith.
"For one thing," he continues, "the bass lines, all of them, are pitched in a particular tonality, and the structure on top of that is all improvised. So that's a dynamic, at that time new understanding, and unexplored after him, notion about improvisation. ... We have to look at them [the compositions] as being generators of fresh specimens, of a new piece of music each time it's played." Far from wondering what kind of music to call it or whether Davis "sold out," Smith marvels at his invention.
"He understood something that no one ever understood before -- that you could take the same properties and not rework it, but use it as a generator for something new and vital each time that performance would take place ... so I think when we look at that, [there's] a profound implication of world music, and improvisation, and the notion of freedom in music."
Indeed, an examination of Davis' fusion music -- both in its original form and the new versions by Smith, Kaiser, and others -- reveals a thoroughly modern sense of freedom and groove. Bitches Brew may be the best-known of these albums, but it's an early experiment and it's not the best; besides, the original recording muddled the sound almost beyond comprehension. Much better is 1974's Get Up With It and 1970's Jack Johnson, both of which are explored on Yo Miles!
It's interesting to listen to "Calypso Frelimo" on Get Up With It, and compare that to the Yo Miles! version. On the original, Pete Cosey's guitar deftly echoes everything from conga to cymbal to steel drum, while acting as a subtle solo voice as well. And the rhythm is far from that of a simple, steady rock number; as the title suggests, complex polyrhythms are conjured by a large drum corps. The "bottom" drops out halfway through, leaving Davis to paint sparse, abstract solos while the keyboard explores the calypso theme, giving the piece a somber but humorous feel. As the beat creeps back in, the song builds to a relentless climax.
Other than the calypso groove and the rhythm, the Yo Miles! version bears little resemblance. Smith seems to take up where Davis left off, never straining the limits of his breath while using short, staccato bursts of notes to make his horn sound like a noise guitar. Kaiser is even freer than Cosey was, using his solo to bounce his guitar between speed riffs and a fuzzy theremin sound. The effect of the whole is both spacier and more driving -- it's clear that Prince has happened since the original version -- with the groove politely visited from time to time rather than insisted upon.
"You will notice ours is not a remix," says Smith, "nor is it a cover. It's music that we took the same approach that Miles took, but with a much freer, open, dynamic notion of how that music could fit in today and sound just as fresh as it did then." Smith doesn't shy away from the inevitable comparisons with Miles. "God gave me a sound that's just as powerful as Miles, and he gave me the knowledge of how to use that sound. So when I play Miles' music, it's almost like a reincarnation of his music, but at a different level. Not a better level but a different level."
Both Kaiser and Smith express wonder at the ability of Davis and his mid-'70s bands to come up with whole new takes of the electronic compositions -- "improvisational structures" might be a better word for them -- during live shows, and look forward to doing the same next week at the Fillmore, a location Kaiser insisted upon in agreeing to the show. ("I would not have done it in at another venue," says Kaiser, who is very aware of the significance of the Fillmore for the jazz of that era -- "we wanted it to be a certain experience.")
This will be the big band's first opportunity to play the music live, and Smith says, "It'll be totally different from what we put on the album. It'll have the bass lines and it'll have a few touches here and there, but essentially it'll be a free creation again, just like when Miles Davis went out and played that music night after night on his tours; it'll be a fresh, fresh moment." Helping to create that moment will be a band that reads like a who's who of the local and international improv music scene. The Rova Saxophone Quartet steps in to provide the horns, along with Oluyemi Thomas and George Brooks; lap steel guitarist Freddie Roulette joins Kaiser on guitar; and on piano will be Canadian Paul Plimley, Berkeley pianist Greg Goodman, organist John Medeski (of Medeski, Martin & Wood), and former Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Bralove, among many others.
"I remember how fun it was to see those bands live," adds Kaiser. "They were so fun to see ... we want to make a live experience that's really fun to go to, with the light show and some really exuberant music. So, we're sort of there to have a party with this music, too."
Henry Kaiser and Wadada Leo Smith perform along with the New Art Jazz Quartet as part of the 1999 San Francisco Jazz Festival Thursday, Oct. 21, at 8 p.m. at the Fillmore, 1805 Geary (at Fillmore), S.F. Tickets are $28; call 776-1999.