In retrospect it’s easy to hear the evolution from Miles Davis’ mid-’60s albums to In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, and On the Corner. Still, plenty of listeners weren’t happy when atmosphere took the place of composition. Groove was everything, though sometimes it could feel tentative. Studio editing, of course, also played a major role, creating a strong structure from open ends and adding direction to the longer pieces.
Alto saxophonist/flutist Charles Pillow has taken eight compositions from those Davis albums and arranged them for a conventional big band. Though many were originally played by a large ensemble stocked with extra electric keyboardists and percussionists, Pillow’s Large Ensemble is made up of four saxophones, four trombones, four trumpets, bass clarinet, and a rhythm section. In their hands, the lowdown groove of “Bitches Brew” doesn’t sound quite as dirty or slinky. The quick cuts and melodies of “Pharaoh’s Dance” are split nicely between horn sections, delivered over a steady beat. The ensemble takes away some of the original mystery by making the music a little too clean. But even within these conventional charts, the soloists don’t relax. Pillow himself adds fire to both of the aforementioned tracks. In addition to trumpeters Tim Hagans and Clay Jenkins filling the role of the Prince of Darkness, his one-time bandmate Dave Liebman puts in two cameos.
“In a Silent Way” and “Sanctuary” offer especially intriguing moments. Both arrangements feature airy Gil Evans sonorities, with the former developing well beyond what Davis kept as a concise statement. The latter expands Wayne Shorter’s melody into a rich sketch that uses the whole band without solos. “Directions,” the Joe Zawinul piece that Davis played live regularly but didn’t release until the 1970s, also creates some welcome frenzy.