Saxophonist Chris Kelsey and his co-conspirators on The Electric Miles Project (guitarists Rolf Sturm and Jack DeSalvo; bassist Joe Gallant; drummer Dean Sharp) are some kind of brave and crazy. They have tackled some of the most wild-assed work of Miles Davis’ career in a manner that comes across as being both respectful and fearless – and the end result is an album that feels more like the next chapter for these tunes rather than a look-back-over-the-shoulder tribute.
Davis’ move to get electrified and funkified and psychedelicized in the late 60s/early 70s was seen as a risk and a brash move by many at the time, but it actually was the logical direction for the man and his music to go in. The need to explore prevented Davis from playing it safe at any point in his career; plugging-in was simply a means to go even further, beginning with 1968’s Miles In The Sky album.
Kelsey and company tackle this period of Davis’ music the way it was born to be: the covers (three Miles compositions plus a version of Joe Zawinul’s “Directions”) are used as launch pads by the quintet, who venture forth in the spirit of the originals while having their own way with them. And the band’s newly-birthed “Mad Love” (offered up here as two portions of one massive jaunt) nestles into the track list comfortably – which is a measure of how well they understand what Davis was seeking … or at least sense how to navigate the same waters.
The album launches – and launches hard – with “Agharta Prelude”, a multi-chambered tune full of funkified abstractions. Play it through as many times as you’d like, digging the go-rounds of nasty sax and guitars rolling and tumbling – but then put a concentrated ear to Dean Sharp’s drums. With Gallant’s bass providing the voice of supremely funky reason, Dean pushes the beat, challenging his bandmates and steadily pushing them harder and harder for the tune’s 9-plus minutes – a high-speed, high-wire performance that’ll make you flinch multiple times with its intensity. Now that’s entertainment, boys and girls.
The opening minutes of “Directions” feature some fine horn work by Kelsey – teasing/grinning/joyous horn that coils into the tightest of curls before snapping like a whip, letting loose with strings of multi-colored phrases. Rolf and DeSalvo then take turns at the wheel; the former’s guitar whinnying like a psychedelic Pegasus and the latter sounding like vintage James Hurley and Sam Andrews if they’d been part of the Mahavishnu Orchestra rather than Big Brother and the Holding Company.
“Ife” lures you in with beginning-of-life-as-we-know-it percussion rattles before segueing into whale noises and bottomless caverns of bass. It’s 17-minutes’ worth of groove evolution which takes its time without ever losing your attention. Elsewhere, “Sivad” is yet another tune that requires repeated listenings to savor the flavors: the horn and guitar solos are all worthy of attention, but Gallant’s bass is the true hero of this expedition – a lesson in tone, imagination, and walloping rump-wump. And the first portion of “Mad Love” serves up a hot bowl of curry while you’re waiting to board the mothership; the album-closing “Pt. 2” settles things nicely in the most unsettled of ways.
In short, Chris Kelsey & What I Say get it. You, in turn, need to get The Electric Miles Project – it’s as simple as that.
Brian Robbins sits with a hot bowl of curry now and then over at www.brian-robbins.com