Henry Kaiser, Wadada Leo Smith, Rova Saxophone Quartet
All Music Guide
The electric, post-Bitches Brew Miles Davis (i.e., the period covering the years 1970-1975, or better said - it's an analytically important distinction - the years 1973-1975) was one of the decisive formative influences for the versatile, multiple-approach guitarist Henry Kaiser. A few years ago Kaiser decided to assemble a line-up that had to be good enough to pay homage to the illustrious jazz musician by playing part of his past repertoire and - more important - good enough that it could use the same highly personal logic that Davis had used during that (then-highly controversial) period. Without a doubt, the crucial element was the trumpet player. Fortunately, the right person materialized in the form of Wadada Leo Smith, a sensible and versatile musician from the afro-american avant-garde. Smith was to be one of the key players of the line-up alongside bass player Michael Manring, guitar players Nels Cline and Chris Muir and the explosive ROVA Saxophone Quartet sax team.
Released in 1998, Yo Miles! was the first, excellent fruit of that idea, a long double album that was the right reward for the efforts made towards a goal that could have been said to be impossible to reach (who would have bet on the chance that that music could be "reproduced"?). First things that come to mind are the tracks called Agharta Prelude, Calypso Frelimo and the medley titled Themes From Jack Johnson. But the best piece for this writer was the long track called Ife, where Kaiser appeared to remember another genre that he had witnessed during about the same time period: "psychedelic cosmic rock", with its guitaristic explosions.
After some very successful concerts, Sky Garden is the new episode, with some interesting twists. Whereas the previous album had been a normal studio album, overdubbing included, here the whole group has been recorded live, the way Miles used to do. This sounds like the right choice here, with the percussive element - and the collective groove - more to the fore when compared to the previous effort. About half the tracks are not penned by Davis, though they appear to share the same aforementioned logic. Again we have Kaiser, Smith, Manring and Muir, joined here by saxophone players Greg Osby and John Tchicai, drummer Steve Smith, keyboard player Tom Coster, percussionists Karl Perazzo and Zakir Hussain and guitarist and keyboardist Mike Keneally, who had already played with Kaiser in The Mistakes. The four ROVAs also appear, although quite briefly.
The album opens brilliantly, with the reprise of It's About That Time/The Mask, with a very good trumpet solo by Smith and a soprano solo by Tchicai. The following track, Jabali (Part One), has a good groove. Penned by Smith, the long Shinjuku could in many ways be considered the gem of the record: nice timbral solutions, jumpy grooves, a vivacious solo by Osby on alto sax and a very nice guitar solo (by Keneally?) starting at 10'32". Then we have a very long (maybe a bit too long?) version of Great Expectations, where the famous theme, played by the group, alternates with some duets between Zakir Hussain's tablas and percussions and trumpet, alto and soprano. Nicely closing the CD is a version of Zawinul's Directions, which says a lot in less than three minutes.
Opening the second CD is a medley of Sivad/Gemini Double Image/Little Church, which brings us back to the album Live/Evil; there's a beautiful contrast between the parts arranged by Steve Adams and played by ROVA and the dry unisons between the drums and an electric guitar that's obviously reminiscent of John McLaughlin. Maybe the least indispensable moment on the album, Miles Star is followed by the long - and also Smith-penned - Who's Targeted, the most "cosmic" moment, with its blues guitars and the tablas conversing with Tom Coster's organ (Coster's electric piano being the real glue of the record). The second part of Jabali highlights Perazzo's percussions, while Willie Dixon is an almost free duet between alto sax and drums. Cozy Pete (obviously dedicated to Pete Cosey) is the collectively-penned final track, maybe not too ambitious but definitely appropriate as the closing track.
In closing, it has to be said that this is a double-layer album, with a CD layer (the one that I listened to) and a SA-CD layer (which needs a dedicated player). While in the liner notes Kaiser swears by the latter, I can only say that the CD layer sounds very good, in some ways superior to the already remarkable sound of Yo Miles!
-Beppe Colli 2004