Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Miles From India, but Not So Far Off

For some reason the idea of "high concept" has infiltrated the jazz world recently. Many albums seem to be created through sentence long pitches ("Dee Dee Bridgewater meets Africa," "Chick and Gary reunited," "Wynton Marsalis and Willie Nelson, two American legends," etc.) as opposed to artistic drive. That said, though, a lot of those albums turn out to be extremely good; a lot of the best albums of last year fell in that category, including Dee Dee Bridgewater's aforementioned "Red Earth" and even, oddly enough, Robert Glasper's "In My Element" ("young piano player takes on contemporary R&B without smoothing out the jazz part"). "Miles From India," a new album from too many different artists to name here, is without a question one of those albums. The sentence long "sell" for the album is as follows: "Miles Davis sidemen play Miles Davis tunes with Indian classical musicians."

For the most part, that encapsulation holds. With the exception of Rudresh Mahanthappa and Wallace Roney, who are neither Miles' sidemen nor Indian musicians (Mahanthappa is Indian-American, which I suppose counts, and Roney is the clear Miles stand-in), everyone here has played with Miles or works out of India. The really odd thing about this album, however, is that neither aesthetic really takes over the album. Everything manages to sound like an outtake from one of Miles' mid-70s records while still showing Indian influence in troves. Even the "Kind of Blue" stalwarts (with the notable exception of a pretty bloodless "Blue in Green") sound both very Miles and very Indian. "So What," which contains some of Chick Corea's best piano work I've heard in a long time, opens with Indian classical rhythmic chanting courtesy of Shankar Mahadevan and Sikkil Gurucharan, before moving into a 9/8 jam, while the famous melody of "All Blues" is played on sitar before some pyrotechnic saxophone work from Mahanthappa and Gary Bartz takes the tune out.

The tracks that don't work, however, such as "Blue in Green" and a "fast" version of "Ife," seem to go on forever. The playing is pretty good, but overall the tracks are just too jam-intensive. That said, on a whole "Miles From India" is a pretty good album; the few duds don't serve to drag the entire two disc affair down, and the ability to hear Pete Cosey play guitar for the first time in God-knows-how-long makes it worth sitting them through. As with any of these particularly good "high concept" jazz records, I'd recommend it to anyone who hears the concept and thinks "wow, that sounds like it'd be killin'."

Next time I'll have a review of James Carter's "Present Tense," and perhaps a review of John Ellis' "Dance Like There's No Tomorrow."

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