East Meets West

In his liner notes, producer-arranger Bob Belden calls this meeting of Miles Davis alumni and Indian musicians “a grand gesture at reconciliation between disparate cultures bound together by a universal truth. Music.” That word “reconciliation” is a bit off, since Indian music has influenced everyone from the Beatles to Zappa. Miles himself famously added sitar and tabla to his early 1970s bands, notably when recording On the Corner and Get Up With It (his 1972 recording at New York’s Philharmonic Hall, In Concert, made exceptional use of Khalil Balakrishna’s sitar and Badal Roy’s tabla). Miles’ embrace of Indian music was about more than just instrumentation. His use of modal forms recalled Indian raga forms and the droning sitar strings served the same purpose as Michael Henderson’s resonating bass, providing soloists firm bedrock on which to build their improvs.

Balakrishna isn’t to be found here, but percussionist Roy appears as well as some 15 other Indian artists and nearly a score of Miles’ sidemen, ranging from Jimmy Cobb and Ron Carter to Benny Rietveld and Adam Holzman. Wallace Roney, in a familiar role, is the Miles stand in. What they come up with over two CDs is a mixed bag with more hits than misses. Generally the older material—“All Blues,” “So What”—is less successful. The exception is “Blue In Green” with Roney’s muted trumpet and Shankar Mahadevan’s vocals hovering eerily over Louiz Banks’ piano and Mike Stern’s guitar. Of the later material, “Jean Pierre” strikes the only off note. Without Miles making something of his little ditty, the song remains just that: a ditty.

Everything else ranges from good to excellent. It’s great to hear lesser known tunes like “Ife” and “Great Expectations” from Miles’ electric period covered in this format. Ravi Chary’s sitar solo on “Expectations” stands up to the frontline with an attack that recalls Mahavishnu era John McLaughlin. McLaughlin himself contributes disc two’s final cut, a respectful coda to what was obviously a labor of love. It’s not news that Roney, both in tone and phrasing, can sound like Miles when he wants. Here, he’s especially haunting when muted and a bit more athletic than Miles on “Great Expectations.” He calls up memories of the master in every note, whether working his way slowly into “Spanish Key” from Bitches Brew or adding funky punctuation on the slow version of “Ife.” And how wonderful for those of us who cut our teeth on electric, post-Bitches Brew Miles to hear guitarist Pete Cosey, bassist Henderson, drummers Lenny White and Ndugu Chancler, saxophonists Gary Bartz and Dave Liebman (who takes a turn on Indian flute) and keyboardist Chick Corea playing this music again. The surprise here is the Indian pianist Banks whose work is sharp and distinguished throughout. Then there’s alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa who ignites “Spanish Key” with his fried-in-butter tone. This is not the Indian-electric hybrid that Miles pioneered. It’s richer on the Indian side of the equation, thick with percussion, humming with strings and spiced with voices. The more we listen, the more we like it. Released June, 2008. Recommended.—Cabbage Rabbit

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