[17 April 2008]
This bills itself as no less than “the next step in the evolution of Indo-American jazz fusion,” attempting to update excerpts from some of the most iconic and influential albums ever recorded… not much to live up to then! Instigator Bob Belden must be used to herculean tasks by now, though, with last year’s On the Corner box set being about as exhaustive as jazz gets. It was while trawling those sessions that he apparently came up with the idea of Miles from India, its title perhaps an unwitting pun on just how far out the original On the Corner record actually was; miles from earth, never mind the subcontinent.
For the most part, this is a much more recognisable fusion, not so far removed from the albums referenced in the press release (Talvin Singh’s Anokha, Bill Laswell and Zakir Hussain’s Tabla Matrix, etc.), from the excellent Indo-fusions not mentioned in the press release (Charles Lloyd’s Sangam, current UK press raves The Teak Project), nor—check the sarod reincarnation of “In a Silent Way (intro)”—even from the spirit of Ry Cooder and V.M. Bhatt’s celebrated A Meeting by the River.
Less recognisable is its genesis: percussion tracks recorded in Madras and Bombay, with the Americans laying their parts over the top from the comfort of their respective cities, some of them via Skype-assisted video conference. If that sounds far too hi-tech for its own good, not to mention terminally removed from the reality of Davis’s ‘70s sessions (await the call, plug in and jam, with no guarantee of when—or if—anything recorded would actually surface), it does echo to a certain extent the cut-and-paste strategy of Miles’s late producer, Teo Macero.
And judging by the paranoid stomp of “Great Expectations”, it achieves to some degree as aback-takingly brazen a result, even if it can’t quite hope to zone in on the otherworldly oscillation of the Joe Zawinul-penned original. Coming on like John Surman with a rictus grin, Marcus Miller’s bass clarinet furrows relentlessly into places it shouldn’t, hammered on by Vince Milburn’s drums. Miller and Milburn are, of course, both Davis alumni from the ‘80s, but the real thrill here—and the thrill of much of the album in general—is hearing Pete Cosey afforded the chance to time travel, his staccato, scrapmetal harangues hurling us right back into the mid-‘70s, while at the same time imparting a visceral sense of what Bitches Brew and Big Fun might have sounded like had he got in on Davis’s electric act just a few years earlier. This is multicultural fission: Ravi Chary’s sitar burns opaque, his fingers ripping through the scales, and it’s here, more than anywhere else on the album, that Wallace Roney’s trumpet sounds as random, detached, and dangerous enough to suggest the ghost of ‘70s Miles on the lam.
As well as being the most compelling track on the album, “Great Expectations” is ironically—along with a fairly faithful “All Blues”, in which it’s almost a novelty to hear Chari trace the melody line on his sitar—one of the less overtly Indian in content, doubly ironic given that the album it originally surfaced on, 1974’s Big Fun , remains Davis’s most obviously Indian in influence. But then Miles embraced Indian music as but one of many ways to sonic enlightenment, employing Badal Roy’s sitar and tabla, for example, as just another link in the circuitry of On the Corner’s rocket-funk. Roy’s here too, of course, linking with Cosey for the tabla trance of “Ife (Slow)”. In many ways, Miles from India is a reimagining of Davis’s career, a fantasy of what his records might’ve sounded like had Indian phrasing and instrumentation in fact loomed much larger in his work than they did. And while it couldn’t hope to recreate the frazzled, interplanetary craft-ed soundworld of those years, it attempts to communicate with it in the language of a future Miles never lived to see. The end result is an ingeniously conceived and arranged, flawlessly executed, and intermittently blazing fusion appealing perhaps as much to the casual world music fan as the dedicated electric Miles obsessive.
Opener “Spanish Key” sets the tone: a frighentingly acute recreation of Davis’s vaporous horn (Roney is the only man for the job), matched by Louiz Banks/Adam Holzman’s equally lifelike Zawinul-isms. Whether this is actually a good thing is probably best gauged in the degree to which these players accommodate the Indian talent around them, or at least the degree to which the diffuse recording process makes it sound that way, entering into an exploratory dialogue with the wordless supplication of Shankar Mahadevan, before a raft of drums and subcontinental percussion lock the whole thing into its twenty-minute course. Mahadevan’s mystic scat—swelled by Rakesh Chaurasia’s flute—becomes the fulcrum of the East-West exchange, which, as the pugnacious funk of Rudresh Mahanthappa’s alto suggests, surges in both directions.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the record is the way in which it uses its foreigness to draw parallels between different stages in Davis’s career. Witness how Mahadevan’s vocals apparently join unlikely dots between the late ‘60s and the late ‘50s, between the balladry of “Blue in Green” and the dynamism of “Spanish Key”. But what really impresses is the groove, a polyrhythmic insistence at odds with the the creeping pulse of Bitches Brew, and which reasserts itself—initially through snapping vocal percussion—on both a Ron Carter/Chick Corea steered “So What” and a mercurial, Cosey-piloted, Henderson-hypnotised “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down”. “Ife (Fast)” tones down the percussion, but ramps up the contrast, building around Michael Henderson’s bass and lacerated in turn by the tonal slice of Kala Ramnath’s carnatic violin—itself taking centre stage on a radically reworked “It’s About That Time”—and Cosey’s sclerotic flange, climaxing in a virtuoso flourish worthy of a cossack. All the while the disembodied spirits of the original compositions hover under the surface, communicating in code, occasionally, disarmingly, revealing their true idenity.
The sole original composition is John McLaughlin’s title track, programmed as the closer, and—in its curiously Dave Gilmour-esque overtones—very different in feel to the rest of the album, more an extended epilogue. About the only thing that might have Miles rolling in his grave is the intro/outro of “Jean Pierre”, which seemingly approximates the whistling frequencies of Tuvan throat singing, a faux pas in as much as it smacks of unnecessary gimmickry as for the fact that it jars with the sprightliness of the theme. And on a purely subjective note, it would’ve been great to hear some reworkings from Get Up With It, still arguably the most underrated of Davis’s ‘70s studio records. Perhaps these Indian players could have afforded new insight into the coiled obscurity of Miles’s Ellington tribute, “He Love Him Madly”, or turned “Maiysha” on its beautiful behind. But let’s be thankful for what we’ve got, a coruscating cross-continental celebration of one of popular music’s most revelatory cul de sacs, simultaneously avoiding the slavishness of the average tribute and affording a rare showcase for some of the subcontinent’s most talented classical musicians. Who knows, it might even turn the uninitiated on to the original albums. Could anyone involved hope for more?