05/15/08

Miles From India

One of the most audacious and brilliantly crafted concept albums of the year became one of the most eagerly anticipated concert events of the year when Miles From India received its world premiere before an enthusiastic crowd at Town Hall on a rainy Friday night in May. Jointly conceived by producer Bob Belden and visionary record executive Yusuf Gandhi, the ambitious two-CD set on Gandhi’s Times Square Records is a wildly successful cross-cultural celebration of Miles’ music that brought together several of India’s foremost instrumentalists with various Miles alumni who appeared on such groundbreaking recordings as Kind of Blue, Bitches Brew, On the Corner and Agharta, as well as latter-day outings like 1981’s The Man With the Horn and 1986’s Tutu. As Belden wrote in the album’s liner notes, which were also used as the program notes for this Town Hall gala, “I mused about what it would sound like if you could do Miles compositions with Indian musicians, and Yusuf turned to me, smiled and said, ‘Miles From India.’ That was the germination for this project—a simple thought and a smile.”

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Jimmy Katz

Bob Belden

While the mixed crew on hand at Town Hall was a scaled-down version of the sprawling lineup that appears on the recording (noticeably missing from this live gig were such key Miles alumni as bassists Michael Henderson and Marcus Miller, saxophonists Dave Liebman and Gary Bartz, guitarists John McLaughlin and Mike Stern and pianist Chick Corea), the seamless arrangements by Belden and pianist Louiz Banks demonstrated how comfortably jazz and Carnatic music can co-exist.

The show was divided into an acoustic set and an electric set, though each generated equal sparks in the searing solos and disciplined interplay demonstrated among all the musicians. With Ron Carter on bass alongside a two-drummer tandem of Lenny White (who played on Bitches Brew) and his young Indian counterpart Gino Banks (who wasn’t even born yet when Bitches Brew was released in 1970), they opened with a provocative rendition of “So What,” performed in 9/4 time and underscored by the churning South Indian rhythms of Anantha Krishnan’s mridangam. Alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and pianist Vijay Iyer, both American-born musicians of Indian ancestry, contributed scorching solos on this extended romp as drummer Banks successfully incorporated South Indian rhythms onto the kit while percussionist Krishnan added konokol vocal phrasing (“taka dimi taka juna”) to the intricate mix.

“Blue in Green” was an exquisite feature for master Indian vocalist Shounak Abhisheki, who delivered with dramatic flair on this delicate number from Kind of Blue. With beautiful contributions by sitarist K.V. Mahabala, Carnatic violinist Kala Ramnath and pianist/arranger Louis Bankz, they used the evocative Bill Evans composition as a springboard into some elaborate call-and-response between singer and sitar. Violinist Ramnath also turned in a stunning solo here while drummer White playfully snuck in a swing beat on occasion with a Cheshire Cat grin on his face.

After an extended alap (meditative intro to a given raga), sitarist Mahabala carried the familiar melody on an entrancing 5/4 rendition of “All Blues,” which bassist Carter held down with typical low-end aplomb. Mahanthappa unleashed a particularly powerful solo here that rocked the house while Carter applied dazzling left-handed hammer-ons underneath. White’s loose shuffle-swing beat powered this extended jam while Louiz Banks supplied a relaxed, behind-the-beat solo that teemed with old-school soulfulness.

The electric set opened with a supercharged “Spanish Key” that featured some dazzling trumpet work from Miles disciple Wallace Roney. Vocalist Abhisheki doubled the familiar five-note motif on that driving number from Bitches Brew alongside Roney, while Hindustani violinist Ramnath contributed a gripping solo to the energized proceedings.

Guitarist Pete Cosey, the notorious Chicago-based six-string shredder of Agharta/Pangaea fame, wailed with bluesy, psychedelic abandon on the slow-grooving meditation “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” while master tabla player Badal Roy (from 1972’s On the Corner) nearly stole the show with his virtuosic solo intro to “Ife,” which drew a standing ovation from the crowd of Miles aficionados. Keyboardist Adam Holzman (who appeared on Tutu and was a member of Davis’ late ’80s touring band) played a moving piano solo intro to “In a Silent Way” (the title track from Miles’s pivotal 1969 recording), before switching to Minimoog and blending beautifully with violinist Ramnath on that simple folkloric melody originally written by Joe Zawinul to capture the feeling of a snowy night in his native Austria.

Holzman later engaged in rapid-fire exchanges of eights with violinist Ramnath, trumpeter Roney and saxophonist Mahanthappa on a blazing rendition of the fusion classic “It’s About That Time” (from In a Silent Way), which was solidly anchored by hypnotic electric bass groove of Benny Rietveld. And the crew closed on a festive note with a swaggering rendition of Miles’ concert favorite from the ’80s, “Jean Pierre,” highlighted by another potent solo from alto saxophonist Mahanthappa.

Though it was apparent that this sprawling Indo-American aggregation could’ve used more rehearsal time to tighten up some of the transitions in the arrangements, Belden’s cross-cultural experiment was a highly successful marriage of East meets West that brought out the best of both worlds.

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