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Henry Kaiser and Wadada Leo Smith: Yo, Prince of Darkness!

Henry Kaiser, the globe-trotting guitarist best known for his far-flung world-music collaborations, and Wadada Leo Smith, the sagacious trumpeter and composer with roots in Chicago’s AACM, might seem like an odd couple. But they’ve found fertile common ground through their investigations of Miles Davis’ electric music. Kaiser and Smith created Yo Miles!-arguably the most radical repertory band in jazz-to focus on the trumpeter’s seminal fusion experiments from 1969-75, with a particular emphasis on the later years when Davis’ rapidly morphing ensembles seemed to expand weekly.

The trumpeter’s fusion ensembles drew on a revolving cast of players inculcated in Davis’ evolving improvisational sensibility, an aesthetic based on loose themes and grooves more than set harmonic patterns. “Those kinds of things are more lasting than melodies,” Smith says. Rather than trying to replicate the trumpeter’s sound, Kaiser and Smith use Davis’ improvisational approach as a guidance system, with musical blueprints culled from albums, bootlegs and tapes of broadcasts. “There are sets of bass lines that go with the compositions, and little malleable thematic fragments that Leo gets to play,” Kaiser says. “Then there’s sort of a harmonic climate, and that’s really it. Information, as it was with Miles, is provided on a need-to-know basis.”

Yo Miles! first gained attention with the 1998 release of an eponymous two-CD album on Shanachie, followed by the band’s debut at the Fillmore the following year as part of the San Francisco Jazz Festival. A series of Bay Area club dates and a vaunted performance at the 2000 Chicago Jazz Festival grabbed some attention, but then the ensemble disappeared, mostly because Kaiser’s work as a research diver in Antarctica has made him a scarce presence on the concert circuit. While no new gigs are scheduled, the fall 2004 release of the two-CD album Sky Garden and its 2005 two-CD companion, Upriver, both on Cuneiform, has brought the project back to the foreground. Sky Garden and Upriver feature extended explorations of rarely played pieces such as “What I Say” and Hermeto Pascoal’s “Little Church” from 1970’s Live-Evil, “Go Ahead John” from 1969’s Big Fun and, stretching across both albums, a three-part rampage on “Jabali,” an unreleased track Davis recorded in 1972.

Recorded over three days in 1999, the Sky Garden and Upriver sessions feature a fascinating 10-piece group including keyboardist Tom Coster, Santana percussionist Karl Perazzo, altoist Greg Osby, avant-garde pioneer John Tchicai on tenor and soprano sax and drummer Steve Smith, who credits the visionary electric bassist Michael Manring with holding the music together. “The foundation of that period is the bass lines,” Smith says. “You can say some of those compositions are nothing more than bass lines, and Michael did an incredible job.” The instrumentation on several tracks expands with the exhilarating contributions by tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain, the Rova Saxophone Quartet and guitarist Dave Creamer, a veteran of Davis’ 1972 band.

For Kaiser, the latter years of Davis’ first electric period compare, and contrast, favorably with the trumpeter’s venerated mid-’60s quintet, offering an alternative mode for improvisation that has been largely misunderstood or ignored in subsequent decades. Where Kaiser sees the quintet captured at length on the 1965 Live at the Plugged Nickel box set as “quite European,” the electric bands “operated in a much more Afro-logical, non-European way,” Kaiser says. “It’s a different, nonlinear way of thinking, a different aesthetic. Miles wasn’t providing a commodity. He and his band were going through a door every night that would lead to a completely different place.”

While Davis’ 1970s fusion bands were certainly more difficult to package than the quintet, Smith says the trumpeter was deeply concerned about connecting with a young audience, particularly young African-American listeners. Smith’s own trenchant compositions for Yo Miles!, such as “Thunder & Lighting” and “Shinjuku,” are presented to the group mostly through a blend of traditional notation and his own symbolic system. “People will be able to identify with [the new tunes] because [they have] the same progressive, investigative look into the future as Miles’ music,” Smith says. “They’ll see how this tradition keeps growing and growing.”

One of the major contrasts between the Yo Miles! performances of Davis’ music and those by the trumpeter himself is the emotional tone of the recordings. The mid-’70s was a particularly difficult period of Davis’ life. His poor health was exacerbated by cocaine abuse, and he had cut himself off from many of his old friends. At the end of 1975, Davis broke up his band, withdrew from music and didn’t resurface until 1981. The darkness haunting him in the 1970s was definitely reflected in the music, giving it an often frightening intensity. Yo Miles! replaces the brooding undercurrent with an optimistic vibe.

“The music is fun to play, that’s part of the point,” Kaiser says. “But it’s interesting to cast light on this period, which has been totally misunderstood. The Lincoln Center jazz revisionists, that’s one of the things they’ve tried to erase, along with late John Coltrane. I hope we make people think of new questions about this music. How did they do it? How does it work? Is this something worth doing again? Is it worth it to play ‘My Funny Valentine’ again? It’s interesting to think about.”

Originally Published