Musical iconoclasts Wadada Leo Smith and Henry Kaiser were way ahead of the popular consciousness when it came to paying tribute to Miles Davis' pioneering electric bands of the early-to-mid 1970s. Kaiser's involvement in this project is no surprise. He's an avowed long-term fan of Davis' mid-1970s recordings and cites Pete Cosey's work on these recordings as a seminal influence on his own playing. At first, I found Wadada Leo Smith's involvement a complete surprise, if not a little perplexing. Affiliated with the AACM since the early 70s, Smith has worked extensively with avant-garde musicians such as Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams and Anthony Davis to name just a few. His work as a leader, while incredibly diverse, showed few, if any, tendencies towards electric jazz-rock fusion. Yet, from the first note he plays, Wadada's profound understanding of Davis' groundbreaking 70s oeuvre is palpable. As a trumpeter, he is able to evoke the spirit of Miles without ever imitating him. As a composer, he has the artistic integrity and musical guts to honor the past while extending some of Miles' most important concepts into a 21st Century musical setting.
Their first collection, titled Yo Miles, was released in 1998, followed by two more volumes, Sky Garden (2004) and Upriver (2005). Though Kaiser has moved on to other musical arenas, Smith has focused on his own concepts and ideas as applied to a large plugged-in band (now called Organic). The first documentation of Smith's unique artistic vision in the electric arena, disc 2 of the 2 CD-set Spiritual Dimensions, was nothing short of revelatory. Hearing this disc, I had the sense that the jazz world had suddenly recovered from a selective amnesia in which the musical advances and experiments of the 60s and 70s, once forgotten or expunged from the collective memory, had suddenly presented themselves as valid starting points for further investigation. Wadada digs right in, and immediately strikes musical gold. While superficially similar to Miles' post-Bitches' Brew recordings in terms of instrumentation, the use of syncopated funk rhythms, the layers of contrasting electronic sounds, and an attitude towards improvisation that subverts the role it held in conventional jazz, it's quite clear that Wadada's music has evolved beyond Miles' all-pervasive influence to forge ahead into truly new territory.
The seeds for Wadada's highly successful Organic concept were sown during the Yo Miles sessions. Lightning and Shinjuku, available only as MP3 downloads, contain unreleased live recordings of the original Yo Miles band and collect the original material (not the Miles Davis compositions) from the three Yo Miles recordings. Listening to these recordings, it's quite palpable that Wadada had already begun to head off in his own direction. This is especially evident throughout both collections, where tracks such as "Thunder & Lightning," "Shinjuku," "Who's Targeted" and "Muhammad Ali" evoke the subterranean noise-jazz magic one hears on Miles' live LPs such as Agartha and Dark Magus without imitation or pretense. While some sections of these recordings devolve into un-Miles-like jazzy jam-band noodling, Smith's trumpet always brings the music back into sharp focus.
Lest we forget, the band backing Smith and Kaiser is, simply put, beyond incredible. Most of these guys need no introduction, and their collective credits include extensive work with musical luminaries such as Carlos Santana, Frank Zappa, John McLaughlin, Jack DeJohnette, and Journey. I especially enjoyed hearing Tchicai's voice here. His playing is a remarkable synthesis of lyricism (think Wayne Shorter) and balls-to-the-wall, paint-peeling madness (think Albert Ayler). Drummer Steve Smith, best known for his long tenure with arena rockers Journey and with his own various contemporary fusion groups such as Vital Information, proves to be a flexible and sensitive rhythm section leader. Greg Osby, as always, makes concise, distinctive, and virtuosic musical statements. His dialogue with Steve Smith on '"Willie Dixon" is one of many remarkable moments on Shinjuku. But the real surprise here is keyboardist Tom Coster. Even though he sticks largely to the Hammond B-3 organ, an instrument that Miles largely eschewed throughout his career. his far-reaching musical curiosity and willingness to experiment nearly matches that of Kaiser and Wadada Smith. He provides numerous high points during these never-dull proceedings.