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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.”

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