The contradiction is so apparent it could pass for a Zen koan - how do you pay tribute to the man who changed the course of jazz five times and stay focused? How do you render homage to the jazz master whose most effective tools were silence, the short line, a barmen mute, the question mark hanging in the air? Because for all his prodigious talent, Miles Dewey Davis was above all a cipher, a shaman, and his bands were a channel, a conduit through which music from a higher place seemed to flow. His trumpet a juju stick, Davis orchestrated and directed the spontaneous creation of a new jazz in a succession of radically differing ensembles, each with roots in the jazz tradition and its head in the clouds of freedom and abstraction.
The possibilities run the gamut from sticking safely to the timeless melodies and changes of Miles milestones - like the Miles Davis All-Stars - to evoking a particular period, say early electric Miles - a la Joe Henderson - or tipping your hat obliquely to the man with the horn, as Keith Jarrett's Standards Trio does on Bye Bye Blackbird. Here, the distinguished World Saxophone Quartet, and Miles Davis alumnus Jack DeJohnette are up to something infinitely more ambitious - a comprehensive, intuitive exploration of what made Miles Miles, that elusive spirit, presence, and style that galvanized the world of jazz and often dictated its direction, from the melancholy introspection of 1959's Kind of Blue to the extreme violence of 1972's Live/Evil.
Like Miles, Oliver Lake, David Murray, Hamlet Bluiett, and John Purcell have radically explored conventional jazz structures over their collective 22 years as the WSQ - standards, blues, R&B, Ellingtonia - almost to the point of disintegration, yet always within an accessible framework, as if they were bursting to play free while still playing time. Also, like Miles' second classic quintet of the mid '60s, the WSQ are capable of generating intense, straight-ahead 4/4 swing while suggesting a spectrum of multiple rhythms and cross rhythms from within the basic tempo at hand. The addition of African percussion to their palette in the early '90s has only strengthened and deepened their rhythmic finesse.
So while they give the melancholy "Blue In Green" (one of the most beautiful things Miles ever recorded, and argued by some to be written with Bill Evans) a smoky, yearning rendition, nailing the exquisite balance of relaxation and tension Miles sustained throughout Kind of Blue, they turn the title cut of 1967?s Nefertiti inside out on "The Road To Nefertiti." Pitched between bracing arrhythmia and spirited swing, "Nefertiti" adapts the original - where the horns played the simple songlike melody and the rhythm section shifted the context and weighed the possibilities - by passing the elliptical melody around from marimba to flute to African chant while the other horns spar playfully on top.
On "Selim," guest drummer Jack Dejohnette gets to revisit the exorcism on vinyl that was Live/Evil. Here, the emphasis is on the contrast between keening, floating brass chords soaring over a ground bass of ritualistic African percussion and passages of robust free interplay from the horns. And in the swaggering "Tutu" - truly Miles' last laugh at his naysayers - we see the whole arc of the jazz tradition telescoped into one great rollicking blast. Recalling the great spontaneous collective improvisation - rolling along like a fired-up New Orleans front-line - that characterized Miles' greatest ensembles, the baritone walks a funky line while searing barrelhouse solos are let loose over a deadly bed of polyrhythmic funk.
With the astonishing command Lake, Murray, Bluiett and Purcell have over the various instruments in their bag and the uncanny ESP they display making them sound tonally and texturally like each other, the music they play here conjures up the intangible, joyous communal spirit that is at the heart of the best jazz. The brilliant addition of African percussion takes their homage to Miles one step further, recalling the seminal early LPs of the great Art Ensemble of Chicago ? themselves channelers of a great black art hundreds of year old. "Selim Sivad" is a new high point for the WSQ - as bold and brave as the music Miles was making circa 1965 - astonishing, telepathic group interplay, cutting edge, almost avant-garde stylings soaked in the blues, a few keening notes from a lonely trumpet, and plenty of gone.
-Andrew Jones, April 1998
Andrew Jones is a freelance contributor to many publications, including "Wire', "Option" and "Jazziz." His most recent book, °Pataphysics, Plunderphonics and Pop Mechanics" was published in 1995 by SAF Publishing (London).