The Methodical Madnessof Yo Miles!

Miles Davis’ controversial, mid-’70s electric-fusion period still leaves conservative listeners scratching their heads—even though the late trumpeter’s dark, funk-infused, improv-based soundscapes continue to influence countless jazz, rock, and jam bands. Perhaps the greatest exponent is Yo Miles!, a group led by guitarist Henry Kaiser and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. Also featuring guitarists Chris Muir and Mike Keneally, tabla master Zakir Hussain, drummer Steve Smith, saxophonist Greg Osby, and bassist Michael Manring, Yo Miles! specializes in reinterpreting nuggets from Davis’ electric catalog—as well as performing new pieces inspired by the era—on its three double CDs, including the recent, Upriver [Cuneiform].
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“We studied a lot of Miles bootlegs to figure out how things worked,” explains Kaiser, “but we went into the studio without any rehearsals. We said, ‘Okay, we’re going to do “Spanish Key.” You do this, and you do that, and everyone else use your best judgment.’”

“Miles’ electric music wasn’t about predetermined tunes, melodies, and harmonies,” adds Muir. “It was more about recipes that had a harmonic climate and a bass line with almost everything else left open. So, you can’t learn this music. It has to be absorbed into your blood.”

Davis was notorious for challenging his musicians in order to coax left-of-field ideas from them, and Smith did the same when introducing his own material. “Wadada would tell someone the bass line without telling anybody else,” says Kaiser. “Then he’d tell somebody something else without letting the others know. He provided information on a need-to-know basis.”

In the hands of lesser players, chaos might ensue, but the members of Yo Miles! understand that doing this music successfully requires acute listening. “You have to be confident about what you’re doing in order to march forward with the group,” says Muir, “and if you’re going to diverge, you have to ensure the vector you go off on is compatible with everything else.”

Much to Kaiser’s delight, Yo Miles! received a stamp of approval from Teo Macero, the legendary producer responsible for the sound and structure of the original Davis recordings—which resulted from editing endless hours of tape. “Teo said, ‘This is great. You got it,’” says Kaiser. “And that was terrific, because what we’re doing is as much an appreciation of his work as that of Miles.”