Saturday, August 24, 2013

CD Review: Chris Kelsey & What I Say - The Electric Miles Project

Chris Kelsey & What I Say
The Electric Miles Project

From the way Dave Liebman described his time with Miles Davis in the '70s, there was not a lot of group interaction. It was very much a case of "play when I give you the cue, stop playing when I give you another cue." It's not the way some jazz musicians wanted to roll, but when you have a solid electric rhythm section churning out a fat riff and you know your time is limited, it forces you to really put on a good showing.

That's what saxophonist Chris Kelsey channels on The Electric Miles Project, a set of tunes from Davis's funky electric period, along with two improvisations inspired by that era. The songs he picked to play in his quintet are more like riffs or, at best, sketches with a melody to occasionally restate to know where you are. The rhythm section is responsible for starting a fire and keeping it burning at a high level, in order for the soloist to take flight.

Because of this approach, the album doesn't become #246 in an unending series of fawning tributes to a jazz god, nor does try to put the music in a new-and-ridiculously-incompatible context. It finds inspiration in the original sources and calls on the band to come up with something new and vital. Which is exactly what happens for the majority of the album.

One thing that immediately makes this album stand out is that it's a Miles Davis tribute album with no trumpet. Nor are there any keyboards. There is however Kelsey (on soprano sax and straight alto), guitarists Rolf Sturm and Jack DeSalvo, six-string bass guitarist Joe Gallant and drummer Dean Sharp. Everyone storms out of the gate on "Agharta Prelude," with Gallant holding down the vamp with his bassline. But it's really Sharp who keeps things exciting with his variations, going from ride cymbal to high hat for example, or bashing hard. His accents are a key part of this album. Following one of the sudden stops in "Directions," Sharp reenters with an urgent flurry of eighth-notes on the hi-hat that takes the whole thing up a notch without varying the pitch or tempo.

Sometimes Kelsey seems content to make a statement and step back to let the band take over rather than have himself come across as the leader. Which is to say the guitars get as much if not more of the spotlight as him. Not to say that he's overshadowed. In "Directions" while the rhythm section sounds locked in and focused, Kelsey is free to fly all over the place, knowing that he can get chaotic and always have a place to land. This session does have some of the heaviest sounds to come from a soprano sax in quite some time.

Of the guitarists, both Rolf Sturm and Jack DeSalvo balance frenzied solos and wild atmospheres. Each has their own channel, though there's at least one instance where the high volume seems to bleed through into both channels. (Which is mentioned here more to cover the chances of getting them mixed up.) In the beginning of "Directions," Sturm's rhythm playing adds to this tense piece with an atmospheric quality that sounds like a rattled sheet metal. When he takes a solo later in the track, he unleashes some fantastic howls.

DeSalvo's wah-wah gets the whole set whipped up when he takes the first solo in "Agharta Prelude." He also gets to slowly open "Ife," bridging the gap between Pete Cosey and David Gilmour. He slowly evolves from atmospherics to structure before Gallant cues the two-note bass line. At 16 minutes, this track is the one piece on the album that doesn't completely sustain itself. Gallant does insinuate some chord changes and variety at some points, but the tempo and space in the riff lack a little of the staying power heard in the other tracks. Fortunately, it's followed by the extremely funky "Sivad" which captures the snare crack and elastic bass like it could have come straight out of 1972 (give or take a year).

Mention should also be made of the two "Mad Love" tracks, excerpts from a bigger improvisation, which like Miles' electric work, is cut into smaller pieces. Kelsey states accurately in the liner notes that the trumpeter never gets credit for his contributions to ambient music, which can be traced to albums like Get Up With It. Whether he cared to or not, the Prince of Darkness knew how to use space in music as well as someone like Brian Eno and these two tracks find the band doing the same. Part One is three minutes of free, atmospheric group play. By Part Two, which closes the album, they've settled into a groove, which relates as much to Miles as it does to progressive rock (I hear remnants of a Gong bass line in there).

Some tribute albums seem to tread lightly as they go about their business, almost worried about what the honoree would think. Kelsey explains in the notes how he came to this music (very well, it should be noted), but when the tapes began rolling, he and the band cut to the chase. Just like Miles.

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