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November 2004

Henry Kaiser/Wadada Leo Smith
Sky Garden
Cuneiform Records

Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith makes a fascinating Miles Davis stand-in. A player of a different generation and temperament, Smith embraced free improvisation and modern composition, musical idioms somewhat removed from Davis' music. Smith nevertheless developed a searing, minimal style that, however distant, echoes Davis' unmistakable playing. Six years ago, Smith teamed with producer and guitarist Henry Kaiser to record the noteworthy Yo Miles!, a modern take on Davis' dense early-'70s music. Not willing to let this project fade, Kaiser and Smith recalibrated the band for a second, long, double-disc recording, Sky Garden.

Split between Davis' compositions and Smith's originals, Sky Garden finds this incarnation of the Yo Miles! band once again fully immersed in Davis' sound of the time. What sets this recording a notch above its predecessor, despite occasionally lengthy dead spots and misfires, is Smith and Kaiser's willingness to work surprising mutations into Davis' blueprints. Stately saxophone quartet recitals of "Sivad" and "Little Church"-arranged by Steve Adams and performed by the Rova Saxophone Quartet-bookend a scathing, electrified "Gemini Double Image." As one tune segues to the next, the saxes and sneering guitar distortion improbably coexist for a few thrilling moments (thanks in large part to Kaiser's remarkably detailed recording). Smith and Kaiser pare "Great Expectations" down to a short thematic segment, which they use only to mark space between a series of duets, each featuring a horn player with Zakir Hussain on tablas. The duets-most notably Hussain with Smith-manage to reference the Davis sound in a necessarily spare, almost impressionistic setting. The addition of saxophonists Greg Osby and especially John Tchicai, two players with languages far removed from the Trane descendents who typically fill these roles, also gives the music an entirely different inflection. There are moments when Osby and Tchicai sound out of sync with the band, but elsewhere, as with Tchicai's darting, tumbling solo on Smith's "Shinjuku" that ends in a fractured duet with Kaiser, they make the experiment worthwhile.

Originally published in November 2004
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