Henry Kaiser (featured in the February 2014 issue of GP) recorded three studio albums with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith under the moniker Yo Miles!: Yo Miles! (Shanachie, 1998), Sky Garden (Cuneiform, 2004), and Upriver (Cuneiform, 2005). Featuring shifting lineups that at times included guitarists Chris Muir, Mike Keneally, Nels Cline, Steve Kimock, Dave Creamer, and Elliott Sharp in addition to Kaiser, and grounded by Michael Manring's deep bass grooves, the various groups respectfully explored the music from Miles Davis' "electric period" both on record and in concert (Yo Miles! Live at the Fillmore, March 4, 2000, remains unreleased.) Here, Kaiser talks about that experience.
You’ve done a lot of work with Miles Davis' material.
Specifically, I’ve done a lot of work with Miles Davis' mid-'70s electric material—stuff that comes after Bitches Brew, and not a lot of people have played that stuff. People play the Kind of Blue material to death, but not that. I had the pleasure of working with one of my heroes, the great trumpet player Wadada Leo Smith, and I discovered one day that he loved that electric music, too, which most trumpet players don’t. I said, “Well, let’s try to play some of it.” So, we studied it and decoded it and figured out how it worked. It wasn’t exactly "tunes," it was little recipes that Miles had or little experiments where there would be different results every time he played. And so I know all of that material really well. And we were fortunate to have, I think, the best electric bass player in the world, Mr. Michael Manring, because the bass lines are the most important compositional element in that music.
So Michael Manring played a big role?
We could not have done it without him. It would not be anything like it was without his participation.
From a guitar perspective, what did the decoding reveal? How were guitars used in that context?
In that context, it doesn’t matter. You could have anybody play it. You could have Brian Setzer play it. You could have Segovia’s ghost play it. You could have Kaki King play it. It doesn’t matter. It’s the way everything fits together and you’re just a part of a whole. The guitar idiom thing, it’s not so important. It’s a great way to make music that was unique that Miles discovered, that you could do with any instruments in any combination.
I saw Yo Miles! live and you were sort of the traffic cop. How does one go about organizing such a large band playing that music?
You do exactly what Miles did. You have people who are really good at playing together. Some of them may understand the goal, and some of them may not, but they’re willing to take direction, and you just try to keep the ship running and not hit any icebergs. It’s not about recreating what Miles did or playing a tune, it’s about discovering new things with the recipes that Miles came up with. And because the audience likes that music, sometimes you will play something that’s reminiscent of someone in Miles’ band. But then sometimes you say, “Okay, what would it be like if Terje Rypdal was playing with Miles instead?” And then you stick that on top of it.
What is a typical structure? Say I’ve joined your band, now what do you want me to do?
The only structure is that there is a bass line and it could be played in any key or at any tempo, it doesn’t matter, and there may be a melodic fragment that Miles plays, and there may be a harmonic climate. But the harmonic climate can be changed. You could play the harmonic climate of one tune on top of a different bass line, you could play a different tune on top of another—everything is switchable. They wouldn’t superimpose them a lot, but sometimes you’ll find them superimposed. I went and listened to 20 or 30 live concerts on bootlegs and audience recordings from that period to understand how they played the same tunes on different occasions. Sometimes they’d be the same and sometimes they’d be so different. I talked to the guys in the band about it, and I talked to guitarists Reggie Lucas and Pete Cosey a lot about it, and I’m pretty sure I got a good handle on what was happening. Teo Macero called me up and complimented us on it and said, “You guys got it.” When we made the studio albums we also had to do Teo’s job in the studio, where you edit together things and sometimes superimpose because Teo was another part of that.
A few others tried similar things at roughly the same time.
People messed around with Bitches Brew and that stuff but not so much with the other material. I remember years before we did this I saw John Abercrombie with Mark Isham play the whole Jack Johnson album at a club in Berkeley and I was like, “Whoa, look, they’re actually playing that!” And about the same time we did Yo Miles!, Mark Isham did a Miles tribute project, so it was in the air there. In fact, Mark called me up and had me come play in his band a couple of times because he knew I understood, and that was a really nice, kind thing for him to do.