Thinkin' One Thing and Doin' Another

Henry Kaiser and Wadada Leo Smith have paid Miles Davis the highest honor: They've interpreted his fusion work by refusing to imitate it

A couple of years ago, Henry Kaiser and Wadada Leo Smith set out to revive a body of music many would have liked to see remain dead. Critics have called the work "a sellout," "precious ... dissipated," likened it to "a three-day drunk on white port wine," described its creator as "stalking around a stage in what looked like a left-over Halloween fright suit," and finally applied that most damning criticism of all, "trendy and faddish." So until recent years, not much love has been wasted on Miles Dewey Davis III's infamous early '70s fusion phase.

To understand the righteous indignation many critics and old-time fans felt, it's important to realize the depth of Davis' apparent betrayal in the context of its time. By the late '60s, jazz had become more and more abstract and visceral, hewing less to any recognizable harmonic structure than to pure improvisational expression. Meanwhile, pop, folk, and proto-funk had exploded, and Davis was listening.

In 1969 Davis released Bitches Brew, introducing the world to his concept of fusion: a huge rhythm section, supported by up to three drummers, three electric pianists/keyboardists, and two electric guitars, playing a steady rock and R&B rhythm while several horns soloed freely on top. All this was happening on album-length jams that bear more resemblance to Grateful Dead shows than Davis' spare, earlier work.

The new New Thing: Wadada Leo Smith and Henry Kaiser.
Karen Miller
The new New Thing: Wadada Leo Smith and Henry Kaiser.

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Many considered Bitches Brew, and the fusion concept in general, a Frankensteinian creation best left dead on the operating table. And no matter what Davis said, there was a touch of commercialism about his fusion; Columbia took advantage of his new look to dub him "The Prince of Darkness," and a light show was added to his concerts. Thousands of new, young fans made Bitches Brew his best-selling album ever, and huge crowds flocked to his shows.

Henry Kaiser was one of them. "I heard that [fusion] about the time I picked up a guitar, and I went to see those [Davis'] bands many times, during that period," he says. "So it's something very, very close to my heart, because I grew up listening to it, sitting 10 feet away from Miles in a club, and talking to [guitarist] Pete Cosey afterwards." Kaiser, then in his early 20s, went on to become an important member of the "second generation" of free improvisers who emerged during the '70s. The Bay Area guitarist had no qualms about melding influences as diverse as Davis, England's Derek Bailey, and Captain Beefheart, as well as music from India, Korea, and Vietnam. The long roster of musicians he's collaborated with includes Herbie Hancock, Jerry Garcia, Diamanda Galas, and Michael Stipe, though perhaps Kaiser's best-known work is five CDs of Malagasy music called A World Out of Time, the second volume of which was nominated for a Grammy in 1992.

One thing Kaiser had long wanted to do was an album of Miles Davis' neglected fusion music, but that only became possible in the last few years. Columbia issued five double CDs of Davis' live music from 1969 to '74 in 1997, while Bill Laswell "reconstructed" and remixed Davis recordings from the same period on an album released last year, Panthalassa. Hip-hop artists and other musicians began to acknowledge a debt to Davis' grooves and ideas, and critics finally came around to recognizing his huge influence on everything from disco to funk to rap to house music. When Kaiser recruited musicians for a studio project, among the first he approached was L.A.-based trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. "I was in a solo concert of Leo's and I mentioned to him I was going to do [the album]; he said, 'That's my favorite stuff of Miles -- count me in.'" The result, released last year on Shanachie, was Yo Miles!, a compelling double CD of Davis' late fusion compositions performed by Smith, Kaiser, and an all-star improv band.

"It's very unusual for that to be a trumpet player's favorite period," says Kaiser, and that's especially true, at first glance, of Smith, who has stood firmly in the avant-garde almost his whole career. At about the same time Davis began fiddling with electronics in 1967, Smith moved to Chicago and joined the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) with Anthony Braxton; he co-founded the Creative Construction Company with Braxton and Leroy Jenkins later that year. By 1970 CCC had disbanded, and by the mid-'70s -- around the time Davis "retired" -- Smith was studying ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University. Since that time his music has focused on creative improvisation informed by his study of African, Japanese, Indonesian, European, and American music cultures.

But Smith argues that his avant-garde jazz and Davis' supposed concessions to the marketplace aren't that different. "Well, if you listen to the Miles Davis legacy, particularly the electronic music, you find that all those elements -- world music, improvisation -- is all right there, except that it has been taken to a level that defies instrumentation," says Smith.

"For one thing," he continues, "the bass lines, all of them, are pitched in a particular tonality, and the structure on top of that is all improvised. So that's a dynamic, at that time new understanding, and unexplored after him, notion about improvisation. ... We have to look at them [the compositions] as being generators of fresh specimens, of a new piece of music each time it's played." Far from wondering what kind of music to call it or whether Davis "sold out," Smith marvels at his invention.

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