Bob Belden: Eastern Promise

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Bob Belden
By Jimmy Katz
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Badal Roy
By Richard Conde

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Miles Davis performed in numerous countries throughout his half-century career, but India wasn’t one of them. He touched down there once, just long enough to refuel during a lengthy transcontinental flight, but never left the tarmac. Had he done so, says Bob Belden, producer of Miles From India—an ambitious new double-CD that teams 18 Davis alumni and nearly as many Indian musicians to re-imagine Miles’ music—he might have learned that in India, as in so many other places in this world, he is considered a legend.

The reason for that, explains Belden, is not so much that India has a sizable community of jazz enthusiasts—it doesn’t, yet—but rather that Miles, for a brief period in the early 1970s, hired two Indian musicians, sitarist Khalil Balakrishna and tabla drummer Badal Roy. The pair added Eastern flavorings to sessions that would ultimately comprise such Miles earthshakers as On the Corner, Big Fun and Get Up With It, and the Indians respected Davis’ willingness to expand the ways in which their traditional instrumentation could be utilized.

Miles’ flirtation didn’t last long. Ever on the move, he dropped Balakrishna and Roy within a year of their first sessions and never returned to Indian coloration. But the notion of revisiting the Miles/India connection, on a grander but more concentrated scale, took root more than three decades later when Belden and Yusuf Gandhi, chief of the world-music label Times Square Records, were discussing potential projects. “Yusuf has a vast collection of Indian music,” says Belden, whose mile-long list of production credits includes dozens of Miles reissues for Sony, among them several elaborate boxed sets. “He’s always showing me pictures of these guys and saying, ‘He’s the most famous singer in India.’ I started hearing all these modern influences creeping into the traditional music. I was working on the On the Corner box. I had done the research and Miles was into the sitar thing, this drone thing. I thought there was something there. Yusuf suggested Miles From India. And then he said, ‘I know the people.’”

As the idea gelled, Gandhi brought in Louiz Banks, an Indian composer and keyboardist, to help coordinate the Indian end of the project. Banks is well known in India as a tireless advocate of jazz and is often credited with sparking India’s own fusion movement. Once the logistics were worked out—the Indian musicians would lay down their tracks in Mumbai and Chennai, India before any Miles alumni were even invited into the project in the States—Belden, Gandhi and Banks went to work. “We all met,” says Belden. “I flew in from China, Yusuf flew in from the U.S., and Louiz came in from a couple of days in Nepal. All the musicians were flying in from all over India. They all know each other and respect each other so there were amazing connections. Louiz and I discussed the tunes. I said, ‘These might work.’ From those tunes we came up with the time-signature and the tempo and from that you get the rhythms.”

Rather than cherry-pick from throughout the massive Davis discography, Belden—who arranged the music with Banks—narrowed down the selections to compositions that originally appeared on a small handful of Davis albums. From Bitches Brew came “Spanish Key” and “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down.” “So What,” “All Blues” and “Blue in Green” were chosen from Kind of Blue. From In a Silent Way, Belden grafted the intro to the title tune and “It’s About That Time.” “Jean Pierre” was borrowed from We Want Miles, and “Great Expectations” and two different versions of “Ife” (fast and slow—the slow one, originally just a rehearsal, was not intended for release but Belden liked it enough to include it) were drawn from Big Fun. Rounding out the album is a newly commissioned piece written and produced by John McLaughlin, also titled “Miles From India,” on which the guitarist is accompanied by piano, mandolin and vocals.

Once the Indian musicians were assembled, they were presented with keyboard demo tracks that laid out the structures of the songs and, after being instructed on what the producer was roughly looking for, they constructed their interpretations, laying down the framework over which the Miles alumni would later overdub their parts back in the U.S.

For the Indian segment, Louiz Banks handled keyboards. The other Indian musicians providing the backbone of the project were his son Gino Banks on drums, the American-born alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, sitarist Ravi Chary, Vikku Vinayakram (of McLaughlin’s ’70s acoustic fusion band Shakti) on ghatam, his son Selva Ganesh (of Remember Shakti, the late ’90s revival of McLaughlin’s concept) on kanjira, U. Shrinivas (also from Remember Shakti) on mandolin, Brij Narain on sarod, Dilshad Khan on sarangi, Sridhar Parthasarthy on mridangam, Ranjit Barot on drums, Taufiq Qureshi (the son of Indian tabla legend Alla Rakha) and A. Sivamani on percussion, Kala Ramnath on Carnatic violin, Rakesh Chaurasia on flute and Shankar Mahadevan and Sikkil Gurucharan on Indian classical vocals.

Whether or not the Indian musicians were familiar with the Davis recordings was immaterial. “They had no idea what was going on,” admits Belden, “but they understood that something good was going to happen. And [the layering of tracks] wasn’t a process they were unaccustomed to; it’s just that they had no idea what the result would be. None of them heard it till it was done, and I have no idea what they think of it. The way the Indians look at it, it’s a fusion of Indian classical music and something else. It’s not colonialism, it’s a fusion: trying to be as pure as possible, to where the colors mesh with the rhythms in such a way that you don’t feel that any one thing dominates. It’s not a hundred percent Indian—there’s rock ’n’ roll, there’s jazz. But the colors, the orchestration, are definitely Indian. “Like all burgeoning cultures,” he adds, “the concept of jazz is going to become more acceptable to musicians. When I was there I met younger musicians who didn’t stick to the same traditional role. They were emulating modern jazz musicians. We’ve gone beyond the stage of nationalism and beyond music. It has nothing to do with music.”

With the Indian tracks in hand, Belden began recruiting musicians who had played with Miles during various eras. One by one he brought in tabla player Badal Roy, saxophonists Dave Liebman (who also plays flute) and Gary Bartz, guitarists Mike Stern, Pete Cosey and McLaughlin, bassists Ron Carter, Michael Henderson and Benny Rietveld, Marcus Miller on bass clarinet, keyboardists Chick Corea, Adam Holzman and Robert Irving III, and drummers Jimmy Cobb, Ndugu Chancler, Lenny White and Vince Wilburn Jr. Appropriately, Wallace Roney, the only trumpeter that Davis personally mentored, supplied the trumpet lines (although surprisingly, perhaps, for a Miles Davis-inspired project, several tracks on the album lack a trumpet).

The American sessions were recorded in studios in Chicago, Encino, Calif., and Saylorsburg, Penn. The recordings were made over an 11-month span during 2006-07.

In an earlier time, if such a project would even have been undertaken at all, it would likely have involved the musicians being shuttled at great expense from various locales to one central location, where they would record in the same room, interacting with one another in real time. But contemporary recording techniques and technologies allowed for the U.S.-based contributors to overdub their parts on their own, one or two at a time, often with no one else present. Through the wonders of broadband, recorded parts could even be e-mailed, to be dropped in electronically where Belden saw fit. “With the global situation you can’t fly people around to do what you want, but you don’t have to anymore,” he says. “The younger musicians are more adept in the studio, in terms of being able to play and not worry about it being artificial. They’re used to the two-track, spontaneous, capture-the-moment jazz, but they’ve also been involved in progressive music and modern recording sessions to know that it’s never gonna be that way again.”

Still, he adds, the element of human-to-human contact has its pluses. “Yusuf was great. I said, ‘I’m going to go into the studio on Tuesday, and I want to bring in Michael Henderson and Pete Cosey. Can you get them there?’ Boom—Tuesday I show up, and there they are already playing. It wasn’t something where he had to lay out incredible gobs of money up front; we could do it piecemeal.”

For Badal Roy, who appears on the 14-and-a-half-minute slow version of “Ife,” returning to the music that took him from “making $40 a week as a busboy to sometimes making $4,000 a week” as a member of Davis’ recording and performing unit in 1972-73 allowed him to complete a circle. Roy, originally from Bangladesh, had come to New York in 1968 to study statistics. A couple of years later he found himself playing tablas on McLaughlin’s My Goals Beyond album, but in order to make ends meet Roy worked at an Indian restaurant in Greenwich Village, playing music for diners—when he wasn’t busy waiting on their tables—alongside Balakrishna. One night, McLaughlin asked the two if they’d be interested in playing a mini-set during intermission at Davis’ gig down the block at the Village Gate. “Honestly, at that time I knew Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong but I never knew Miles Davis,” says Roy. “But about six months after [the intermission gig] this gentleman calls me and says, ‘Badal Roy?’ It was [Davis’ producer] Teo Macero. He said, ‘Can you come for a session with Miles Davis?’ That was the first On the Corner session. Miles came and I’m sitting on the floor and everybody was pretty much in tune. I asked John [McLaughlin], ‘Please give me the note.’ I was very concerned with one thing: my tablas had to be in tune. Then whatever I do, I do. If I’m grooving, let me just groove. And I can never forget that groove that I played. Herbie Hancock looked at me and said, ‘Yeahhh!’ But I was hearing all these sounds for the first time, and I said, ‘What’s happening here?’ I didn’t know. In fact, I didn’t like it!’”

Roy never even opened his vinyl copy of the On the Corner LP, so alienated did he feel by this music he’d helped to create. Even after he started to come around, joining Miles’ road band and becoming accustomed to this new electric music among which his hand drums were such a black sheep, it remained sealed on a shelf. Then, more than two decades later, Roy’s 18-year-old son came home from Rutgers University one day and, recalls Roy, “He said, ‘Dad, you were on On the Corner?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ ‘Dad, this is a great CD! The guys in school are asking for my autograph.’ I opened the CD and I played it on my good sound system, and I loved it! It gave me goosebumps.”

Roy had no qualms at all when Belden called to ask how he’d feel about giving that music a second life. Neither did Lenny White, the drummer who was just 19 when he participated in the historical 1969 sessions that would become Bitches Brew. For White, the importance of that album—both as a musical and cultural touchstone—cannot be overstated. “That was a very special time, the late ’60s going into the ’70s,” he says. “Everything was revolutionary at the time. Black people started calling themselves black people, not Negroes anymore. Bitches Brew started a thread and then with On the Corner Miles totally went into black history, that and [A Tribute to] Jack Johnson. Also, to me, the Bitches Brew cover is the best album cover ever. I had never seen anything like that before. It was African and everything else.”

Davis, adds White, “is like the American Picasso. He was the epitome of hip, before the word got used in hip-hop. The more you delve into musical cultures, the more you see that Miles had an influence on a lot more than the jazz scene or the rock scene here in the United States.”

On Miles From India White takes the drum throne on the two tracks culled from Bitches Brew, “Spanish Key” and “Miles Run the Voodoo Down.” He says, “Bob just said, ‘Here it is,’ and I just did what I did on Bitches Brew: I added some spice. That’s what Miles asked me to do. He said, ‘Jack [DeJohnette]’s gonna play the rhythm and I want you to add spice.’”

As is the case throughout the project, these tracks are not intended to be, nor can they be confused as, simple remakes—this is not a Miles Davis cover band. While the melodic structures are recognizable, although often stretched into other dimensions, the presence of the Indian musicians lends a decidedly different rhythmic and harmonic texture to these pieces—it’s very definitely a post-millennial vibe.

Besides, attempting to re-create the arrangements or sounds generated by Miles and his crews of decades earlier would not only have been foolhardy but would have run counter to the spirit of Miles Davis, who was never about looking backward. A project such as this, then, begs the question: What would Miles think?

“It’s hard to answer that question,” says Wallace Roney, “but I believe Miles would like the fact that so many of his former disciples, who recorded and played with him over much of his career, are connected to the project. And, I believe that he would have liked the musical contributions of the renowned Indian classical musicians that were onboard.”

Adds Vince Wilburn Jr., who drums on “Jean Pierre” and “Great Expectations” on Miles From India, “I think he would have been cool with it; he would like the attempt that we’re making at keeping the music fresh, as he did. He might have gone to India to record it there, or he probably would have called Kanye West or Prince or some hot cats. That’s where his head was. He taught us all to reach.”

Wilburn enjoyed a relationship with Davis unlike anyone else involved with Miles From India: Miles was his uncle. “He just happened to be my Uncle Miles,” says Wilburn. “He was Miles Davis but we were nephew and uncle. He was like a father figure, with all due respect to my dad. Even though he was my uncle I just wanted to learn. It was teacher-student and a love and passion for music, and him sharing a little bit of his enormous amount of knowledge with me. It’s like if you wanted to play basketball and your uncle was Michael Jordan. He taught me to keep the music evolving. Keep it changing and fresh. Don’t look back.

“The music that my uncle recorded is timeless,” Wilburn adds. “It speaks for itself. If you have an open mind you just go for it. If you knew him and understood where he was going, then you get it.”

“On one hand,” says Roney about Miles from India, “there are these great classical musicians from India, embracing and playing many of Miles’ classic compositions. And on the other hand you have a who’s who of great American jazz musicians, who formerly recorded and/or performed with Miles, which was deep. Any time that you can be a part of such an incredible gathering of musicians, it is an awesome feeling and experience.”

Belden hopes that some listeners outside of the core jazz audience will also get Miles From India, accept it and enjoy it on its own terms. Early response has been encouraging—and often surprising. “My mother, on her deathbed in the hospital, was promoting the album to all the nurses, giving them copies,” he says. “I said, ‘Mom, they have no clue what they’re listening to.’ But they’d come back the next day and say, ‘Wow, this is an amazing record.’”

Originally published in June 2008

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