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V/A - Miles from India

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Artist: V/A

Album: Miles from India

Label: Times Square

Review date: Apr. 15, 2008

Ever since John Mayer and Joe Harriott collaborated in the groundbreaking Indo-Jazz Fusions in the ’60s, there have been questions about the compatibility of jazz and Indian music. The original version of that group tended to alternate passages of the two rather than achieving any real fusion. The ’90s version – reformed by Mayer after Harriott’s death – did achieve a more convincing amalgam, as did John McLaughlin’s ’70s group Shakti, but there has not been a stampede to combine jazz and Indian music. It’s been more common to juxtapose contrasting elements rather than attempt to fuse them.

Now that The Complete On the Corner Sessions has brought Sony’s Miles Davis reissue program to an end, leaving fans with enough luxury box sets to last a lifetime, its producer Bob Belden has moved on. Here, he produces a project that directly arose from discussions about Miles’ use of Indian instruments during the On the Corner sessions.

Miles from India brings together an impressive array of alumni from the Miles finishing school (including McLaughlin, Jimmy Cobb, Ron Carter, Chick Corea, Pete Cosey among many others). It combines them with just as impressive a group of Indian musicians, including members of Shakti and Louiz Banks’ Silk, India’s best known jazz group. Tabla player Badal Roy, who recorded with Miles in 1972, is the only one with a foot in both camps. In fact, “brings together” is not strictly true; the Indian musicians laid down the foundations of the tracks in India, the alumni added their parts in the States and Belden edited it all together – although it is impossible to spot the seams.

With one exception (the title track, a new McLaughlin composition), the material here was originally recorded by Miles. Three tracks come from Kind of Blue, with the rest dating from Miles’ electric period, notably two each from Bitches Brew and Big Fun. The music is as successful as any in integrating jazz and Indian elements into a coherent whole. This is partly because there is now something of a jazz tradition in India – exemplified by Silk itself. On the opening track here, “Spanish Key,” the atmosphere is set by a wordless vocal intro from Shankar Mahadevan, leading into a dialogue between the vocals and Wallace Roney’s trumpet (throughout, Roney effortlessly carries the burden of filling Miles’ shoes). There follows an alto solo that had me checking which alumnus was playing, only to find that it was Rudresh Mahanthappa, the U.S.-based rising star… and compelling evidence for a burgeoning Indian jazz tradition.

The interactions between the Indian percussionists and the jazz drummers are a definite highlight. The key of “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” was changed from F to D in order to accentuate the pitch of the bottom drums, and their call-and-response with Lenny White’s kit drives the track along. By way of contrast, “Ife (fast)” (there are two versions of the track – one fast, one slow) is propelled to a storming climax by wordless rhythmic vocals coupled with the drums.

There are some things here that will certainly shock die-hard Miles fans. Most notably, the prolonged intro to “So What” – employing chanted voice percussion – renders the piece unrecognisable until Carter lays down that familiar bass figure, soon joined by Corea’s piano for a stunning solo. But surely the point of a project such as this is not to soothe die-hards but to use familiar material as a launching pad and finding fresh angles on it. Another criterion of success is that it sends one back to Miles’ original versions, to listen afresh. On both counts, Miles from India succeeds. I’d list it alongside the original Yo Miles! and Panthalassa as one of my three favourite Miles tributes.

By John Eyles

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