Although the purists may scream and wail even after all these years, there is something enduringly fascinating about late-era Miles Davis. Sure, it was wild, it was buggy, it was chaotic and willfully spastic, but it was also electrically charged, occasionally brilliant and never less than engrossing. There is something intimidating about the many perfect albums Davis recorded before Bitches Brew, a certain chilled self-possession on records like Birth of the Cool and Kind of Blue that renders them almost inert to the modern critical faculty. Davis’ fusion, on the other hand, is full of jagged edges, unrequited passion and recondite allusions; the sonic equivalent of a man with a book of matches going nuts in a house made of gasoline-soaked tinder.
The interplay between control and chaos was crucial to Davis’ fusion arrangements. Although he could be imperious and downright unpleasant to the musicians who worked with him, he made up for it in terms of the generosity he accorded them onstage. Anyone who has ever heard any of Davis’ performances, from any era, can attest to the fact that the kind of incredibly intricate jazz Davis played required absolute trust on the part of his groups, and this is especially true for the post-Bitches Brew fusion combos that toured incessantly in the ‘70s. The spontaneity and energy that was essential to the appeal of tracks like “Spanish Key” and “Black Satin” just couldn’t have been achieved without a healthy dose of danger.
This element is exactly what’s missing from Fusion For Miles. Although my curiosity was initially piqued by the album’s concept—some of the best modern guitarists tackling the horn parts in new arrangements of Davis classics, with a special focus on the fusion era—the execution leaves a lot to be desired. I’ve been struggling to find an appropriate way to express what exactly is missing from this recording without sounding downright pejorative, but I’ll just come out and say it: this CD sounds really, really white.
There’s a pinched exactitude about the playing and arrangements on here that almost strangles any life from the compositions. I would not have thought that later Miles could ever be turned into Muzak—that isn’t exactly what happened here, but it comes frighteningly close in places.
Jeff Richman’s arrangement and production is just too damn polite. Vinnie Colaiuta’s drums are spot-on for the entirety of the disc, but his precision is too subdued to really hit the needling sensuality that undercut Davis’ later material. I have to give props to the consistently excellent Bill Frisell for delivering an appropriately harried interpretation of Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti”. Although his name is only vaguely familiar to me I’ll be on the lookout for more work from Bill Connors on the strength of his fevered fret board workout on “Eighty One”.
But unfortunately, those are the only real highlights. Eric Johnson, never my favorite guitarist to begin with, gives a positively somnolent performance on “Jean Pierre”. I had some hope that Warren Haynes might be able to inject some energy into “It’s About That Time”, but unfortunately he doesn’t seem to really get into it beyond a brace of sub-Stevie Ray blues licks.
Perhaps expecting a truly funky interpretation of some really wild music from a bunch of pasty looking white guys was a bit much. I dunno if that has anything to do with it. But if I was in charge of a disc like this, I’d track down one of those young psychotic bands—Lightning Bolt or the Mars Volta—lock them in a studio with a bag of magic mushrooms and ecstasy, with John Zorn on the boards, and then come back a week later. It probably wouldn’t be the most technically proficient Davis tribute ever, but it would probably be loud and angry and sexy, without a hint of the professional politesse that mars this release.