Sky Garden
Cuneiform Rune 191/192

One of the most memorable — if not the most memorable — tributes to Miles Davis, the exultant Yo Miles! band makes its case for a variety of reasons.

First of all, it leaves the BIRTH OF THE COOL and ALL BLUES emulation to the neo-cons and instead concentrates on Davis’ little-appreciated 1971-1975 electric period. Second, unlike younger fusion bands that have recorded embarrassingly overwrought electric Miles imitations, Yo Miles! bandleaders — guitarist Henry Kaiser and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith — are old enough to have heard the sounds when they first appeared. Third, the two and their sidefolk approach the concept languidly, having worked on and refined their ideas — while involved in other projects — since 1998.

Like Davis, Kaiser and Smith mix musicians from both jazz and rock on this two CD set — big name musicians at that. Danish tenor and soprano saxophonist John Tchicai, for instance, was an early New Thinger; alto saxophonist Greg Osby an early M-Baser; keyboardist Tom Coster played with Santana, and drummer Steve Smith was in the band Journey. Plus tabla player Zakir Hussein — featured on two tracks — and the ROVA saxophone quartet — featured on one — don’t exactly show up on every studio session.

The strength of the musicianship is such that SKY GARDEN was recorded live off the floor directly to stereo DSD. Unlike Davis, however, what was recorded is what you hear. No Teo Macero or Bills Laswell types edited and reorganized the sounds afterwards.

This non-linear approach gives the minimum of 10 and maximum of 16 players two CDs of more 75 minutes each in which to uncoil. However SKY GARDEN’s strength is also its weakness, because there’s only so far you can go with electric guitars, electric keyboards and a drummer leaning on the backbeat. That’s why the most memorable tracks are those which bring Smith and Kaiser’s individual musical personalities forward.

Smith’s composition “Who’s Targeted” at first depends on chunky rhythm guitar line and clanging tabla manipulations from Hussein, who founded Shakti with ex-Davis guitarist John McLaughlin. But very soon the output moves past jazz-world music fusion. Kaiser, whose associations have included folk-based pickers like Amos Garrett and David Lindley plus ethnic musicians from Hawaii and Madagascar begins stretching his guitar intervals to suggest mountain-music flailing. Adding to this primitivism, Mississippi-born Smith, whose exposure to rural music precedes his academic prowess and gigs with experimenters like Anthony Braxton, wriggles out an echoing timbre that could come from an melodica or even a Mississippi trumpet: the harmonica. As the almost 21½-minute tune sinuously slithers from mid-tempo to adagio and into prestissimo, mutated Farfisa organ-like nodes mix it up with cowbell and hollow log drum beats as well as something that could be a bean bag shaken with a metal stick — South Asian percussion perhaps?

Hussein’s tabla pulse is maintained, as are Kaiser’s licks which seems to recall cowboy as well as rockabilly tones. As he picks southward, Smith’s grace notes also descend and both mix it up with the sine wave loops from the electronic keyboards. By the end you’d swear Kaiser is playing a steel guitar, while the finale is signaled with a definite woodblock whack from one of the drummers.

That’s also one of the few definite end points in any of the compositions, for most of the tracks mesh seamlessly together with no pauses.

Another standout, this time written by Davis with some help, is the more-than-10-minute “Sivad/Gemini Double Image/Little Church”. Gorgeous, legato reed harmonies from ROVA give the piece some added spaciousness, especially at the very end when vibrations shift polyharmonically from Tchicai’s tenor saxophone to the saxophone quartet. Earlier Kaiser’s bent note flanges move into psychedelic territory then dissolve into note shards as the beat is maintained by the twin, burbling keyboard runs of Coster and Mike Keneally. Unlike his work other spots, Steve Smith’s drumming is comfortably sympathetic, suggesting the attack he used in Journey can sometimes be altered.

Then there “Great Expectations”, which at almost 35½-minutes, would have been an entire LP in itself 30 years ago. Climax and resolution here is a set of duets — some between the tabla and the trumpet and the others between the tenor sax and the tabla. Smith and Hussein are at it almost from the beginning, trading fours and eights —or is it fives and sevens plus half tones — as soon as the piece begins. Soon, the trumpet’s plunger tones are submerged by electric piano runs, a steady funk rhythm from bassist Michael Manring and clunky, feedback-laden guitar runs by the three guitarists. This expanding tonal color easily distributes the themes among several different instruments.

Tchicai’s double tonguing and finger vibrations meet up with carefully positioned smacks from the tabla until a choppy bass guitar run leads onto another section. Smith’s slowly descending trumpet runs make themselves heard again, joining Hussein for a set of stop-and-start note sprinkling. Cymbals shading and an organ vamp percolate behind them until Tchicai’s sourer version of what would have been Wayne Shorter soprano saxophone line intrudes. With a heavier backbeat from the percussionists expanding, Coster’s low-intensity slides and glissandi flash and octave jump to keep things interesting. Eventually, the finale is reached with speedy tabla strokes and Smith backing out of this climatic duet with animalistic flutter tonguing that turns softer and mellower.

Just as long as ostinato bass lines, lead guitar exhibitionism that could have come from Santana and Ten Years After at Woodstock and this-side-of circular-motion hit everything Heavy Metal-like percussion dramatics are kept to a bare minimum Yo Miles! succeeds on its own terms.

When excess reaches the surface, however, the reasons for jazz-rock fusion’s rapid decline to irrelevance are highlighted. Luckily that happens infrequently. Instead the listener is usually treated to slippery, elastic guitar runs; trumpet lines distorted through a wah-wah pedal, percussion tones that are so subtle they could be played with a whisk broom and broken octave polyphony and buzzing cadenzas from Tchicai and portamento alto saxophone smears from Osby. There’s even a point on “Miles Star” where the muted trumpet and nonchalant electric piano fills presage jazz-inflected slurred thumb picking that could come from Wes Montgomery and probably come from Dave Creamer in his one appearance, rather than Kaiser, Keneally (who is playing second keyboard) or Chris Muir.

Died-in-wool Davis and fusion fans will probably treat this, the band’s second album in five years as the aural equivalent to touching part of the shroud of Turin. It definitely puts lesser fusion syntheses to shame. But with both discs adding up to a total of 2½ hours, judiciously, exploration of a couple of tracks at a time will probably make more of an impression for most listeners.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Disc 1: 1. It’s About That Time/The Mask 2. Jabali (part I) 3. Shinjuku 4. Great Expectations# 5. Directions Disc 2: 1. Sivad/Gemini Double Image/Little Church* 2. Miles Star^ 3. Who’s Targeted?# 4. Jabali (part II) 5. Willie Dixon 6. Cozy Pete

Personnel: Wadada Leo Smith (trumpet and electric trumpet); Greg Osby (alto saxophone); John Tchicai (tenor and soprano saxophones); Henry Kaiser and Chris Muir (electric guitars); Mike Keneally (electric guitar and keyboards); Dave Creamer (guitar)^; Tom Coster (keyboards); Michael Manring (bass); Steve Smith (drums and electric guitar); Karl Perazzo (percussion); Zakir Hussein (tabla and percussion)#; ROVA [Bruce Ackley, Steve Adams, Larry Ochs, Jon Raskin (saxophones)]*