by S. Victor Aaron
I freakin’ love the music of Miles Davis. I once named a dog “Miles Davis.” I’ve written tons about Miles Davis. Even compare most every artist who’s doing something cool and expansive to Miles Davis. And when a musician takes on a project projecting the music of Miles Davis, I’m gonna listen to it and chances are, I’ll dig it. Especially that dark, enigmatic early electric period of 1969-1975. Former Miles sideman Dave Liebman did that a couple of years ago and I jumped at the chance to cover his results. Wadada Leo Smith and Henry Kaiser made a series of records faithfully replicating the sound and soul of Miles’ trailblaizing fusion. Mark Isham gained mucho street cred in my book for making a record covering this period of Miles, without overdubs. And now comes drummer Gerry Gibbs who a couple of years ago assembled a rather large band (an orchestra, if you will) and also paid tribute to these electric, enigmatic groove-jams, and do so live in the studio, all in one day, releasing half of them on a two CD set, titled The Music Of Miles Davis 1967-1975.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. First, a little background on Gibbs, as Miles Davis needs no introduction on this space…
Gerry Gibbs is the son of famed vibrist and bandleader Terry Gibbs. But Terry’s offspring picked up drumsticks instead of mallets and had gigged with Buddy DeFranco, Woody Shaw, Ernie Watts, Alice Coltrane, and Alice’s son, Ravi, his childhood friend. In fact, Ravi served as a sideman on Gibbs’ first album back in 1996. Over time, Gibbs earned the nickname “Thrasher” and his diverse sonic palette makes him a good fit for a variety of settings. Like his dad, Gerry evolved into a bandleader role and he’s led bands large and small. For instance, last year’s release, Moving On, Never Looking Back was a quintet. For his Miles tribute, Gibbs leads an thirteen piece band.
He calls this band the “The Electric Thrasher Orchestra.” See, even the band name is cool.
This orchestra is actually a spinoff of an earlier one Gibbs led, The Bitches Brew Orchestra based out of San Antonio, and functioned as a tribute band to the electric period of Miles. Gibbs wanted to commit to wax, so to speak, the music they made, but the band had already dispersed. Luckily, Gibbs was able to bring back the entire nucleus of Andy Langham (keyboards), Rob Hardt (bass clarinet, flute, piccolo) and Brandon Rivas (electric bass) into a Los Angeles studio, as well as some new players to make this record. As the trumpeter, Brian Swartz obviously plays a pivotal role in these recordings. In additional to these players, there’s a soprano saxophonist (Doug Webb), an electric guitarist (Mike Hoffmann), acoustic bass player (Essiet Okon Essiet), spoken words and vocals (Gabriel Herrera, Dwight Trible), and percussionists (Felicia, Nelson & Chrissauna Chery)
Since there’s been so many Miles tribute records made, even covering his more impermeable early electric period, it’s gotten to be more challenging to make such a tribute album in a way that chooses an angle not previously taken. Gibbs, to his great credit, avoided getting caught up in such false dilemmas. His attitude toward this was to not so much consciously replicate the music but to instead focus on how Miles made the music. He threw together all 13 players in a studio one morning, where they commenced playing starting at noon for twelve hours straight while the tape rolled. By midnight, they had produced four sets of music covering about 40 songs. Live, largely unscripted jams using the formal compositions only as touchstones to set a vaguely-defined root chord or set the general tone and direction of the jams…just as Miles had done it. The results you hear on this record weren’t predetermined; only the process was. The two CD set that made it to release represents two of those four sets: one disc for each set.
As a result, these tracks stays true to the spirit and sound of the vintage performances (not to mention the 2-LP length of some of Miles’ albums from that period), but “staying true” in this instance also means performing them within the present moment, not like the moments they were played before. One consistent distinction from the original approach is that these pieces were kept to lengths that are easier to digest but long enough to allow full expressions. It’s not easy to figure whether to attribute that to studio discipline or just some darned good editing, but regardless, it’s one welcome departure from Miles’s approach.
The double-set of twenty-six tracks gets going with a concert favorite “Directions.” It sets the tone the right way, as this Joe Zawinul composition is so wide open, it allows the musicians to improvise with little constraints, just as long as its short theme is revisited every now and then. “Bitches Brew,” with the most sinister bass line ever, is a song that few bands can capture correctly, but the Thrasher Orchestra’s got this one down cold. “Little Church” is notable for its floating quality, an often overlooked side of Miles from the early seventies, outside of In A Silent Way. And speaking of that album, the title song is represented here, in a way that honors the sublimely pretty melody that soon makes way for the hypnotic “It’s About That Time.”
Astute Miles fans will notice the period covered by this album, because the beginning of it is in 1967, not the 1968 or 1969 years that are widely regarded as the beginning of Miles’ fusion period. The selection of a couple of pieces from the two acoustic albums (Sorcerer and Nefertiti) might seem an odd decision at first, until you consider that Miles was laying the foundation for his electric music with circular, loosely structured songs while he was still leading an unplugged, traditionally-configured quintet. For the three songs represented by this transitory period, “Nefertiti,” “Pinocchio” and “Masqualero,” the band speaks the hard bop language while employing the tempo and energy of an electric band, in essence, straddling both sides of the fence that separates these two distinct eras.
Gibbs scores not only as a bandleader but as a drummer on this project. Liebman describes his playing as “non stop fiery drumming” to describe the relentless pulse he provides. It isn’t all about sheer force with Gibbs, as his intricate snare/hi-hat work on “In A Silent Way” will attest. Gibbs asked a lot from his colleagues, but he always gave more than what he asked, providing propulsive beats, inspiring fills and dictating tempo changes. This energy that oozes from all corner of the album originates from that drum kit. Oh, and Swartz? His trumpet is a bang-on impersonation of Miles, circa 1970.
Gerry Gibbs set out to add to the bulging pile of Miles Davis tribute albums, but the reason why this one demands the attention of all real Miles fans is because Gibbs did it the hard way…by approaching this body of work much the same way the old master himself did. In a sort of ironic way, this is the approach that’s most likely to produce the most unpredictable, surprising and artistic results. That is why, as another Miles alumnus Billy Hart stated, “his music has truth, depth and maturity.”
The Music Of Miles Davis 1967-1975 went on sale last month and is offered by Whaling City Sound Records.