Miles From India is the name of a working group as well as the title of their first recording and it is far, far more than a bunch of Indian and American jazz musicians jamming on Miles Davis tunes. It is an organic, thoughtful synthesis of African-American and Indian music played out in the context of compositions written by or associated with Miles Davis, specifically the music he made during the late 1960s through the early 1980s.
The relationship between Davis' music and Indian music is both complex and profound. In the late 1950s, influenced by the likes of Gil Evans and George Russell, Davis shifted his focus away from the be-boppers beloved practice of improvising over complex chord changes. He started experimenting with a scalar or modal approach to improvisation. Modal improvisation is common in ethnic and Eastern music such as Flamenco and Indian ragas. His first tentative moves toward 'modal jazz' can be heard in his soundtrack for Louis Malle's film Ascenseur pour l’Échafaud, though the full fruit was borne on Kind of Blue, an LP that helped launch the career of John Coltrane who, himself, developed an intimate knowledge of Indian music.
Fast forward 15 years or so and Miles was leading an electric group that featured a full-time sitar player (Kahlil Balakrishna) and tabla master Badal Roy. The drone of the Indian tamboura also figures prominently on On The Corner, one of Miles' most influential and controversial recordings. Far from being a sort of exotic pastiche added as an afterthought to appeal to the hippie demographic, Davis respected Roy and Balakrishna, and integrated their contributions in an artistic and beautiful manner. On The Corner and the recordings that followed were profoundly influenced by Indian music, a ball that may have started rolling for Miles Davis many years previously. Several of Miles' sidemen, most notably John Coltrane, John McLaughlin and Dave Liebman, moved on to create a significant body of work that was overtly influenced by Indian music and musicians.
According to Belden's detailed liners, Miles From India started out in India, where the basic tracks were recorded over a period of several months in Mumbai under the aegis of keyboardist and co-producer Louiz Banks. Banks, one of India's most well-known and respected jazzmen, leads the popular jazz-fusion group Silk and is also prominently featured (along with drummer Ranjit Barot and several other Miles From India members) on John McLaughlin's upcoming Floating Point CD. Banks also co-led the Jazz Yatra Sextet, an innovative jazz-Indian fusion band (with Barot on drums), whose 1980 LP still gets a lot of play at my house. Belden took the Mumbai recordings to New York and Los Angeles, where the contributions of the American musicians were added. Except for saxophonist Rudresh Maranthappa, all of the US-based musicians were associates or former members of Miles' groups over the years - from Kind of Blue (octogenarian drummer Jimmy Cobb) through his final appearances (e.g., bassist Benny Reitveld and keyboardist Adam Holzman). Wallace Roney played with and stood next to Miles at Montreux in 1991, which, by all appearances, was a benediction of sorts.
Interestingly, several of the Indian musicians have just a degree of separation or two from Miles. Badal Roy, who went on to work with Liebman and Ornette Coleman, first achieved notoriety in Davis' various early 70s bands. According to Belden's liners, mandolinist U. Shrinivas, featured on the title track, opened for Miles as a 12-year-old prodigy and later joined one of John McLaughlin's bands. Several other musicians featured here, including Banks, Rajot, percussionists Vikku Vinakarayam and Selva Ganesh, have also worked extensively with McLaughlin over the past decade.
Historical references and degrees of separation aside, the music on Miles From India really speaks for itself. Though the primary focus of this collection is Miles' output from Bitches Brew onward, the older material (all from Kind of Blue) fares extremely well. Ravi Chary's brief sitar solo is a fitting start for "All Blues," here taken in 5/4 time. He follows with a gorgeous, contemplative improvisation that gives way to Banks' own personal spin on Bill Evans' legendary piano solo. More surprising is the sweetly singing alto sax duet featuring Rudresh Maranthappa and Gary Bartz. "So What," recast in a slinky 9/8, features the dual keyboards of Banks (on Rhodes) and Chick Corea. Despite the amazing interaction between three Indian percussionists and drummer Ndugu Chancler, this track is Corea's show and he delivers a limber, acrobatic solo filled with liquid beauty. "Blue In Green" starts off with a dark, introspective conversation between Banks on acoustic piano, Dilshad Khan on sarangi (a violin-like stringed instrument), Wallace Roney and Mike Stern. Featured vocalist Shankar Mahadevan sings the theme wordlessly and quite beautifully. The ensuing mid-tempo jam, however, becomes somewhat aimless and noodly as each of the soloists embark on a fevered competition for solo space that continues well into the over-long closing rubato section. This minor flaw aside, these performances succeed in presenting Davis' most oft-played pieces as something new and truly surprising.
The newer material, mostly from Bitches Brew, Big Fun and We Want Miles, fares extremely well and benefits hugely from the contributions of Stern, Bartz, Roney, Adam Holzman, Dave Liebman, Pete Cosey, Michael Henderson and Lenny White. Banks, Chary, sarod master Pandit Brij Narain, violinist Kala Ramnath and flutist Rakesh Chaurasia all contribute remarkable solos. Each of the Indian percussionists turns in spectacular work, often replacing a second drum kit part (as on "Spanish Key", both versions of "Ifé," "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down" and "Great Expectations") and driving the music forward with a seething, organic energy. Compared to the original versions, these renditions have an undeniable studio-savvy polish and the playing is more measured and thoughtful, as one might expect. The generous length of each piece enables the soloists to really stretch out and make bold improvisational statements, something that both the Indian and American musicians capitalize on throughout this terrific 2 CD set.
On the first disc, "Spanish Key" starts with a lyrical, tender duet between Roney and Banks which intensifies as Banks switches to the Fender Rhodes and Roney goes to the Harmon mute. The Indian percussionists set up the familiar loping rhythm as Roney ad-libs over the theme. Mahadevan’s somewhat mournful sounding vocalizations incisively parallel Benny Maupin’s bass clarinet work from the original, while Roney’s trumpet work is redolent of Miles’ sound without being imitative. This dialogue gives way to brief, but passionate and beautifully developed improvisations by Maranthappa and flutist Rakesh Chaurasia over turbulent dual drumming by Lenny White and Gino Banks (Louiz Banks’ son). Stern squeezes in some significant guitar pyrotechnics over the closing theme. Violinist Kala Ramnath is prominently featured on both Ifé (Fast)" and "It’s About That Time." Of all the Indian musicians featured on Miles From India, her playing seems the most firmly rooted in Indian Classical traditions, yet she seems perfectly at home in an electric jazz setting. While I am not sure whether to credit this to Ramnath’s incredible musical skills or to the flexibility and accommodating nature of Davis’ timeless music, the result is breathtaking. The somewhat reclusive electric guitar genius Pete Cosey, from the band that helped Davis create mid-70s classics such as "Agartha" and "Pangea," also contributes brilliantly twisted solos to both tracks.
Cosey is also featured on "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down," "Great Expectations" and "Ifé (Slow)" from the second disc. Of all the pieces on Miles From India, "...Voodoo..." is perhaps the truest to Miles’ original version. It's a quality I attribute to the incredibly funky rhythm section work of Michael Henderson, Lenny White and Indian percussionists A. Sivamini and Vikku Vinayakram. Brilliant, but rather brief solos by Roney, Adam Holzman and Cosey intensify the rhythmic heat, which climaxes in a massive percussion break by the hand drummers, after which Cosey returns with more kaleidoscopic guitar work. "Great Expectations" follows a similar curve, though it is taken at a significantly faster tempo than the version from the Big Fun LP. Henderson and Marcus Miller, the latter on bass clarinet, anchor the rhythm section with sweetly pulsing bass lines as solos by Roney, sitarist Ravi Chary and Pete Cosey whip by in rapid succession. Replete with slithery subsonic electric bass, wild fuzzed guitar and Badal Roy’s percolating tablas, the delightful "Ifé (Slow)" seems to take a stylistic cue from Bill Laswell’s many recorded works in this vein.
This wonderful journey to India closes with the title track, John McLaughlin’s original piece commissioned specifically for this collection. In his opening solo, McLaughlin seems to refer to some of the things he played during his time with Miles, but he does this in a way that emphasizes the changes that have occurred in his artistry and life since then. The ensuing exchange between McLaughlin, Banks, mandolinist U. Shrinivas and vocalist Sikkil Gurucharan is deeply moving.
Any fan of Miles Davis’ music, especially those who enjoy the music he created from around the time of In a Silent Way to the end of his incredible life, will not want to miss Miles From India. This improbable-seeming 2-CD set is packed with timeless compositions and jaw-dropping virtuosity.