Miles from India: A Celebration of the Music of Miles Davis
Douglas Heselgrave's #1 album for 2008
First Appeared in The Music Box, May 2008, Volume 15, #5
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Sun May 25, 2008, 12:30 PM CDT
By his own estimation, Miles Davis was so ornery and cantankerous that anyone ought to have thought twice about messing with him. Nevertheless, as a player, composer, and bandleader, he created some of the 20th Century’s most enduring and challenging music. From the lyrical genius of Kind of Blue to the fractured modernism of Live Evil to his variegated final recordings — which texturally explored everything from synthesizer soundscapes to hip-hop beats — Miles Davis was an artist without equal. He was a modern-day Mozart, and it will take decades — if not longer — to appreciate the breadth of his musical creation fully. To paraphrase the sentiments that Albert Einstein expressed about Mahatma Gandhi, the time will come when we can scarce believe that such a one walked among us.
Covers of Miles Davis’ compositions are nothing new. Since the early days of his career, his works have been adapted by musicians everywhere, and in the years following his demise, several fine tribute albums have been recorded. Even so, in terms of musical interest and sheer interpretive chutzpah, there has never been an album as daring as Miles from India: A Celebration of the Music of Miles Davis. Produced by Bob Belden, this two-disc set explores material from several different phases of the trumpeter’s career with an interesting twist. Each cut features performers who had worked with Davis and now are playing alongside classically trained Indian artists. This combination suitably cranks the improvisational nature of the songs up a notch.
In every instance, the selections on Miles from India are unlike any of the previous attempts at covering Davis’ work. How many versions of So What have been foisted on the public in the past decade? Is there a jam band in the world that doesn’t play the song to death on the road, night after night? Taking this overused staple as a test, I listened to So What first. The way I understood the piece was completely altered by its new presentation, which featured a trio of Indian percussionists chanting the opening coda before giving way to the sound of Ron Carter’s bass. Comparing it with Davis’ original version, I soon realized that the Indian musicians were picking up and emphasizing a counterpoint that I never before had noticed. After hearing it reflected in Chick Corea’s amazing piano line, So What became new and vital for me again. Similarly, All Blues and Blue in Green — which, like So What, are from the overexposed Kind of Blue album — are given new life with challenging arrangements that deftly manage to honor Davis’ original recordings while at the same time completely changing the emphasis of the tunes’ compositional structures. On the former track, the way in which Ravi Chary’s sitar transforms Bill Evans’ classic piano riffs is — in itself — a revelation.
Admittedly, it can be a daunting task to approach difficult and challenging music that has been reinterpreted through the aesthetic lens of another culture. However, the time and patience that one must invest in comprehending Miles from India will prove to be rewarding. Davis’ fans will find their own favorites amongst the selections featured in this generous collection. Personally, I found the cuts from Bitches Brew — Spanish Key and Miles Runs the Voodoo Down — to be the most interesting. Again, the discipline of the Indian players provides a structure that — through their improvisation — comments on and illuminates the original compositions. The playing is thrilling — as it is throughout the endeavor — and it’s a real pleasure to hear alumni of Davis’ various outfits — from Mike Stern to Jimmy Cobb to Badal Roy — re-exploring this classic material.
The only new composition on Miles from India is its title cut. The song was written and produced by guitarist John McLaughlin, another former collaborator of Davis who has been championing Indian music for more than four decades. The inclusion of this track — which features members of McLaughlin’s Shakti outfit as well as Davis’ own bands — gives the collection a kind of thematic unity. A thrilling seven-minute odyssey through a variety of styles, McLaughlin’s opus provides a perfect finale to the set.
Miles from India is the best kind of tribute album: Rather than contenting itself with being a reverential reinterpretation of its subject’s original material, it is ferocious and uncompromising. It is contentious, troubling, and difficult, yet, it also is ultimately sublime. Somewhere out there, Miles Davis probably is smiling — at least, that is, as long as no one is looking. ½
Of Further Interest...
Miles from India: A Celebration of the Music of Miles Davis is
available from Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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