Upriver – Yo Miles!/Henry Kaiser and Wadada Leo Smith
Cuneiform Records 201/202
Upriver brings up a whole set of problems for the critic. Should I address it based on the notes themselves, or is it okay to bring in the instruments which produce the notes, or the historical implications of the way that these notes relate to previous notes? From one perspective, Upriver is a fine piece of work, but from other viewpoints, these two jam-packed CDs (both close to 80 minutes) add up to a lot of not much.
Yo Miles! is a group of jazz, rock and fusion musicians gathered by guitarist Henry Kaiser and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith to pay tribute to Miles Davis's initial (1969-75) run of jazz/rock. Last year, one two-CD set (Sky Garden) emerged from a marathon 2000 session, and Upriver gives us two more discs. What paying tribute to this period of Miles means here, in practice, is performing the compositions from those albums, adding a few by Smith in a similar vein, and generally remaining close to the styles of playing exercised by Miles’s bands.
Perhaps even more than Sky Garden, Upriver has its virtues. Some of the players (especially saxophonists John Tchicai and Greg Osby and percussionist Karl Perazzo) rival their counterparts in Miles’s groups, and the telepathic exchanges between tabla player Zakir Hussain and the horn players on "On the Corner Jam" flesh out the notion of Indian/jazz combinations more than Miles ever managed. There are a few effects-laden flights of fancy from Kaiser (although surprisingly few considering his top billing) and several outings from Smith that recapture, though don’t surpass, Miles’ blend of assertiveness and vulnerability. It’s impressive that they managed to find David Creamer, a guitarist previously known only for an appearance on On the Corner. As well, the gesture of tribute itself has meaning — it shouldn’t, but — in an era where otherwise thoughtful people still consider Miles’s work as nothing more than an attempt to jump the gravy train — it does.
The easiest way to explain why Upriver, like Sky Garden, comes up short is to highlight Yo Miles!‘s rhythm section. This points to the problems mentioned above — keyboardist Tom Coster, bassist Michael Manring and drummer Steve Smith are certainly capable of excellent music, and it’s not fair to expect them to recreate historical conditions which are far removed from those of 2000. But the fact remains: the tension in Miles’s jazz/rock albums, which helps them exude that who-cares-if-you-listen aura even today, comes partly from pianists saddled with dinky or distortion-laden early electric keyboards, bassists either schooled in jazz but straining to deal with funk (Dave Holland) or vice versa (Michael Henderson), and drummers forced into weirdly inflexible time patterns on studio projects such as In a Silent Way or On the Corner. The Yo Miles! players, by contrast, have polished gear and seem at ease. Too much so, unfortunately: as this music got easier, it lost much of its meaning (an issue shared by Miles’s 80s bands). When the head of "Bitches Brew," perhaps jazz’s answer to Beethoven’s Fifth in its original recording, sounds like it would hardly disturb a dip in the jacuzzi on Upriver, something’s awry.
Despite these complaints, Upriver is a perfectly nice tribute. If Miles were around, though, I suspect he’d say that his preferred tribute would be for these players to come up with their own statements, as most of them have on other CDs. Put Upriver on your shopping list if you want two CDs of familiar, well-executed jazz/rock, but be sure to put these players’ recordings of their own music on the list as well. Not to mention all of those sparkling new issues of Miles’s 1969-75 sessions.