The Miles in the Sky Ensemble
Albert Island, Ottawa River
Friday, August 21, 2015 - 11:30 p.m.
When Miles Davis turned his jazz electric in the late 60s and early 70s, it was much more than a change in instrumentation. The new music was fused with rock concepts, it was run through effects generators, it was amplified, and it was charged with excitement.
That excitement was captured by the Miles in the Sky Ensemble in its late-night show at the Arboretum Festival Friday. In their 90-minute show, the ensemble produced a highly interactive and often thrilling performance, playing pieces from four of Davis' electric/jazz fusion albums (although, oddly enough, none from his Miles in the Sky album).
It might not have been what the mostly-under-35 audience was expecting – the printed schedule described the show as “PHREAK OUT: a psych-funk after party” – but the ensemble's rock-like presentation and high energy appeared to connect with many who danced to and listened to the music.
The show was the brainchild of local jazz pianist and DJ Adam Saikaley – and a successor to his group's successful tribute last year to another Miles Davis album, Filles de Kilimanjaro. That 1968 album showed Davis in transition from modal/acoustic to electric; this show followed Davis further along that process, paying tribute to four electric-era albums released from 1969 to 1974.
More than half of the pieces were from Davis' landmark and award-winning album, Bitches Brew, including its title track. But, as with the Filles tribute, this show was a conversation with the material, rather than a note-for-note re-creation. Saikaley rearranged the pieces for his much smaller sextet, keeping essential instruments like trumpet and soprano sax – but Ed Lister wasn't copying Miles Davis, nor Linsey Wellman copying Wayne Shorter, and there was a great deal of improvising within the songs' frameworks.
The show opened with “Black Satin”, an intense showcase for Lister's trumpet and Alex Moxon's electric guitar. A commanding drum rhythm from Mike Essoudry started the music, and with Marc Decho's electric bass joining in, quickly became funky and compelling. My notebook was vibrating in my hand with the powerful beat from the stage. Then trumpet and guitar sliced through the sound, calling out.
By the end of this number, the room was filling up fast as listeners came from the Main Stage, where the night's main act had just finished. It was a mixed crowd – some listening intently or dancing, some more interested in socializing.
Then came three pieces from Bitches Brew. The fast-paced “Spanish Key” featured alternating sparkling lines on Rhodes from Saikaley and soaring trumpet lines from Lister, as well as needle-sharp guitar lines from Moxon. “Pharaoh's Dance” began with hard-edged trumpet over rumbling drums, and fuzzed guitar. Partway through, Lister softened the sound with longer, more melodic lines, but then Wellman entered on soprano sax, rough and high. Trumpet and sax lines entwined, spiraling upwards in a joyous anthem, before the piece returned to to its rumbling beat.
“Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” was a slower number, featuring bluesy trumpet lines over atmospheric riffs on the Rhodes. “Ife”, the last-recorded of the songs, was a funky number with Decho's bass and Wellman's bass clarinet both adding to the deep underpinnings in the music.
By this point, the ensemble had been playing for an hour and the crowd had started to thin out somewhat. But, in fact, the last two numbers were the most memorable of the night as the band was fully warmed up and thoroughly into the music. “Shhh/Peaceful” featured Wellman on bass clarinet, in a dramatic, extended, East-Indian-influenced solo, which, as Lister joined in, became hard and punctuated and demanding.
The sextet closed with “Bitches Brew”, beginning with a cacophonous wall of sound, vibrating and atonal. With a hard thumping beat heightening the energy level, Lister's trumpet circled over, accompanied by deliberate, fluid guitar lines from Moxon. But it was Wellman on soprano sax that really went all out, with fast notes popping out, punching higher and higher over repeated riffs from the Rhodes, bass and drums. Lister added knife-edged trumpet lines, and the whole room shook with the sound before they finally let the music fade out.
The show animated an old brick and wood industrial warehouse on Albert Island off Booth Street, mid-river between Ottawa and Gatineau and just north of the Canadian War Museum. The island is part of the former Domtar industrial lands recently bought for a major condo/commercial redevelopment, and the festival was the first public event held there in several hundred years.
The gritty, industrial vibe of the location and its stripped-down feel suited the intensity and occasional harshness of the music. However, I wasn't convinced that the sound engineer had fully allowed for the large space, huge wood and metal columns, and high ceilings in the warehouse, or the reflectivity of its walls and concrete floor – and for certain the volume was turned up far too high. Both photojournalist Brett Delmage and I were forced to wear earplugs for much of the show to attenuate the loudness enough that it stopped hurting and to protect our hearing.
The excessive loudness meant that some of the subtleties in the music were lost – there were times when I could see Wellman playing his bass clarinet or Saikaley's hands skimming over the keyboards, but not hear them. Saikaley's introductions to each piece were also often muffled. I was sitting in front of the sound board, 15m back from the stage, which should have been a good place to listen from.
If you listen to the original Bitches Brew CD, for example, there's a large dynamic range and even some silence in the music. It may have been electric, but that didn't mean it lacked variation – and I think part of that was lost by constantly cranking up the volume too high in the live show. This was supposed to be an end-of-evening chill-out – it could have reduced by decibels by one-quarter or one-third and still have put out plenty of energy for the dancers.
But I was still very impressed by the dynamism of this music and the care and beauty that the musicians brought to it. The duets between Wellman and Lister were quite extraordinary. I'd love to hear this tribute again, further refined, in a more listening-friendly venue.
– Alayne McGregor
Set list (all pieces by Miles Davis unless otherwise specified)
- Black Satin (from On the Corner, 1972)
- Spanish Key (from Bitches Brew, 1970)
- Pharaoh's Dance (by Joe Zawinul, from Bitches Brew, 1970)
- Miles Runs the Voodoo Down (from Bitches Brew, 1970)
- Ife (from Big Fun, 1974)
- Shhh/Peaceful (from In a Silent Way, 1969)
- Bitches Brew (from Bitches Brew, 1970)
Read the related story on OttawaJazzScene.ca: The Adam Saikaley Quintet brings Miles Davis' Filles de Kilimanjaro to vivid life