November 14, 2004

Contempo November 2004

jasonmiles.jpgBased on Jason Miles’ incredible track record producing all-star tribute recordings these past few years, fans picking up a copy of the cleverly titled, star-studded Miles to Miles (due in January from Narada Jazz) are bound to think it’s the keyboardist’s latest homage to another deserving legend — his old friend Miles Davis. He started the current decade inviting top fusion, smooth jazz and R&B names (Brecker Brothers, Joe Sample, Chaka Khan, Dave Koz) to record the classics of Weather Report (Celebrating The Music of Weather Report, 2000) and the late Grover Washington, Jr. (To Grover With Love, 2001). In 2001, Miles received a Grammy Award certificate in conjunction with Sting’s Best Male Pop Vocal win for “She Walks This Earth Alone,” part of A Love Affair: The Music of Ivan Lins, ode to the famed Brazilian singer-songwriter.

Miles insists, however, that his current project is not a tribute at all, but rather a multi-faceted, rhythmically diverse musical chronicle, telling the never-a-dull-moment tale of his five and a half year professional relationship with Davis from the mid-80s till the trumpeter’s death in 1991. Although there’s a lush update on Kind of Blue’s “Flamenco Sketches” featuring Keiko Matsui’s ambient keys and Marc Antoine’s Spanish guitar, the album is “new music, my music, not Miles music. It’s about him and the great influence he’s had on me, almost like a poem that captures different moments we shared together. Each song is a single impression of the overall experience.”

Miles entered the sacred realm in the mid-80s as synth programmer for Marcus Miller, who produced from 1986-89 Tutu, Music From Siesta and Amandla, Davis’ first three Warner Bros. recordings after decades with Columbia. At their first encounter, Davis told the young keyboardist in his inimitable rasp, “Hey, kid, I like your name.” Later that session, the legend was about to toss a sketch of a stick figure woman in the trash. When Miles asked for it as a souvenir, Davis doodled a small trumpet and wrote on it, “Miles To Miles”; the framed piece has long been on proud display in Miles’ home.

“It wasn’t just being a kid around a famous icon,” says Miles. “He honestly had a glow and an aura that came out. He had this incredible, powerful spirit that lived up to the myth. The original approach was, Marcus is the artist and I am the paint. Miles thought I had my own air of mystery because he didn’t know how I used my synths to get all these sounds he was hearing. We were trying to bring a new edge to his music, and he treated us well. On my website (, I even have a rare photo of him with me, smiling. He’d always say, ‘Make the music you feel you have to make.’ I always took that to heart.”

The joy of Miles to Miles is the personal scrapbook of anecdotes the living Miles brings to the party. This personal touch makes the collection far more than a breakneck journey through a lot of wild funk, ambience and hardcore fusion with cats like Gerald Albright (whose blistering sax on the bubbling blues funk of “Butter Pecan” has more punch than most of his smooth jazz output), Michael Brecker (the hip-hop scratch jam “Ferrari”), Randy Brecker (the strutting, similarly scratch happy “King of the Bling”) and Nicholas Payton (trumpeting gently over a lilting African flavored seduction of “Love Code”). There’s also a three song “Street Vibe Suite” inspired by the New York neighborhood around The Bottom Line, where Miles saw Miles play organ for an hour before switching to the horn in 1975; Bernie Worrell’s descending organ line on “Voices on the Corner” reflects this experience. “Guerilla Jazz,” featuring the late Bob Berg and cool-throbbing bass of Me’shell Ndegeocello, reflects the danger and adventure Miles felt Davis always brought to his music.

The New Yorker’s stories just keep coming: “I was in L.A. working with Luther Vandross and had the day off. Miles was at his house in Malibu and invited me out for a ride in his ‘Ferrari’. He drove like a wildman on Pacific Coast Highway, and the song captures that energy. ‘Butter Pecan’ is totally crazy, but so was the ice cream story that inspired it. In 1988, I brought over an Alesis drum machine and we were working out tunes and beats on it. He was afraid to shut it off for two days before my next visit. We’re busy and all of a sudden he calls my wife Kathy and asks her to pick up some bread, milk and Haagen Daas Butter Pecan ice cream. I reminded him that he was diabetic, but he didn’t care. The tune has something of a James Brown beat, and that’s the kind of stuff we were working on that day.”

Miles believes the secret to Davis’ success was that the trumpeter always surrounded himself with the “best of the best, which offered him the chance to reach new creative heights.” Taking a cue from the master, and building on the success of his tribute albums, Miles earlier this year masterminded, co-wrote and produced Coast To Coast, a eclectic, melodic and groove-intensive session under the name Maximum Grooves on Telarc Jazz. Despite the presence of both the fusion and smooth jazz elite (Albright, Michael Brecker, Andy Snitzer, Russ Freeman, Jay Beckenstein, Jeff Kashiwa), the disc — truly one of the most dynamic contempo releases of the year - has been hard pressed to get mainstream airplay in the format. Miles is excited about alternative outlets like Satellite XM radio’s Watercolors station (where he first heard Kashiwa’s solo work), but like many others, laments the lack of true jazz creativity in increasingly corporate controlled, demographically driven program choices.

“I like music with a real pulse, and I think commercial melodies and individuality can both be part of the smooth jazz radio experience,” says Miles, who’s had slightly better airplay luck with his recent projects by Gato Barbieri, Eric Marienthal and vocalist Cassandra Reed. “I think listeners are open to taking more chances than the powers that be give them credit for. I’m tired of albums that sound the same from cut to cut. To me, the spirit of America is that of individual expression, not a corporate culture that takes that away. Sometimes, it’s as if an a new release can’t fall beyond the 100% safety net, and that mindset does little to encourage real innovation from up and comers who have something significant to say. Miles blazed trails in his time because he was slightly dangerous and unpredictable. I love catchy grooves and melodies, but I’m never going to abandon the spirit of uniqueness that I experienced with him and which continues to inspire me.”

In a cynical time like ours, it’s always good to have a musical pied piper who looks beyond today’s headlines and reminds us that in America, we can still partake of The Good Life — the title of pianist David Lanz’s second disc for Decca (after 2002’s similarly upbeat Finding Paradise). A new age icon in the 80s and 90s — his 1988 hit Cristofori’s Dream was #1 for 27 weeks and sold platinum — Lanz has shifted to smooth jazz in recent years. Finding Paradise had just enough of the old Lanz vibe for him to refer to it as “smooth age,” but on The Good Life, he surrounds his catchy, to the point melodies with thick, soulful grooves and occasional dashes of brass, courtesy of the usual smoothie suspects — Paul Jackson, Jr., Michael Paul, Eric Marienthal, Jeff Lorber, Rick Braun, the Jerry Hey horns and producer Steven Dubin. Amidst the radio friendliness, the most compelling cut is the Vince Guaraldi-inspired “Sorry Charlie” and for fans of the Lanz of yore, there’s the orchestral grandeur of “A Song For Helen.”

Pieces of a Dream, the R&B driven Philly pop-jazz ensemble led by keyboardist James Lloyd and drummer Curtis Harmon, celebrated its 25th anniversary as a unit on 2001’s Heads Up debut Acquainted With The Night. As teenagers, they were discovered and originally signed to a production deal by Grover Washington, Jr. and they since evolved into one of smooth jazz’s most enduring units. Their latest, No Assembly Required, is cheery, light in the pocket light funk at its finest, with Lloyd writing or co-writing every track. In the jubilant tradition of labelmate Joe McBride (who makes a cameo on background vocals on the Earth, Wind & Fire cover “Devotion”), “Swerve” and “On Her Wings” are bright showcases for his playful keyboard persona, but the project is generally sax dominated. The best of these sax tracks are “It’s Go Time” (Eddie Baccus, Jr. and Jeff Robbins) and “Who U Wit?” with Jason Davis.

Like his first two R&B influenced hit albums Power Forward (1995) and In The Zone (1996), Hang Time, the title of bassist Wayman Tisdale’s debut on Dave Koz’s Rendezvous Music, is a fond glance back at his previous career as an NBA All-Star from 1986-97 with the Indiana Pacers, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns. His 1998 album Decisions reflected his choice to retire from the hoops and focus on music full time, and after a three year hiatus from smooth jazz recording, he was back fully in the limelight last summer as part of Dave Koz’s A Smooth Summer Night Tour. Show highlights included the 6’9” Tisdale picking up and carrying the petite saxman around, and a crowdpleasing run through the disco classic “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” which is also Hang Time’s first single. Other highlights are the bouncy retro-soul flavored opening tracks “Ready To Hang” and “Creative Juices” (the latter featuring the Rhodes shimmer of Jeff Lorber) and the moody romance “Better Days” which features a gentle soprano sax-bass conversation by Tisdale and Koz.


1) Ray Charles, Genius Loves Company (Concord) – Just months before he passed, Brother Ray left us a tremendous, musically diverse gift with this vibrant, Phil Ramone produced, blues and jazz oriented collection of duets with legends from all genres—Elton John, Norah Jones, Willie Nelson, BB King, Van Morrison, et al.
2) Shades of Soul (Narada Jazz)
3) Forever, For Always, For Luther (GRP)
4) Dotsero, Fresh Pants (Cinderblock)
5) Eva Cassidy, Wonderful World (Blix Street)

Posted by Jonathan Widran at November 14, 2004 6:13 PM