Charles Pillow Large Ensemble – Electric Miles – MAMA, MAA 1055, 61:15 [6/22/18] ****:
Putting Miles Davis’ music into a sizable ensemble jazz setting is not a new idea. Arranger Charles Pillow, however, decided to take material from Davis’ early electric period (1969-1972) and recast eight tunes into large band arrangements. The result is the hour-long Electric Miles, which utilizes 18 musicians to bring to life compositions from Davis albums such as 1969’s In a Silent Way, 1970’s Bitches Brew, 1971’s Jack Johnson and 1972’s On the Corner. Pillow is no stranger to interpreting other composers or artists via a large jazz assemblage. In 2005 he released Pictures at an Exhibition, where Pillow re-imagined Mussorgsky’s classic orchestral work and reorganized it for a jazz group. In 2010 he offered the chamber jazz outing, Van Gogh Letters, an original tone poem based on letters between Vincent van Gogh and his brother. Pillow may not be as recognized as fellow big band jazz arrangers such as Maria Schneider or Michael Gibbs, but he’s doing some fine efforts and Electric Miles is must-hear for large group jazz fans.
Pillow begins with a nine-minute version of Joe Zawinul’s “Pharaoh’s Dance,” which opened Bitches Brew. Pillow’s arrangement reduces the piece’s irregular details but does not lose any of the original’s potency or specifics. Highlights include solos from trumpeter Tim Hagans (who has worked with Schneider and Bob Belden) and Pillow on alto sax. The fusion edge is sustained by Julian Garvue’s electric piano and Chuck Bergeron’s grooving electric bass. And then it’s on to the eight-minute title track of Bitches Brew, which again features improvisational spotlights for Hagans (who has a clearly defined, Davis-like tone) and Pillow (again on alto sax). The original had a distinct darkness. Pillow keeps some of that dim ambiance, but the massed horns also deliver a brighter facet which acts as a balance to the shaded portions. Pillow also dispenses with any studio effects or other electronic aspects which permeated Davis’ original. The only composition from In a Silent Way is the title track, also penned by Zawinul. While Davis’ famed arrangement had an atmospheric tonality, Pillow heads into a different, opposite direction and provides an engaging adaptation with an upbeat and upfront approach which supplies space for Hagans to soar above the rhythm section and the other horns. “In a Silent Way” also has a short but memorable drums/percussion interlude.
Liebman is heard on two cuts. First, he’s on the funky, groove-gesticulated “Black Satin,” from On the Corner, an LP which Liebman played on. The eight-minute rendition of “Black Satin” has a comprehensive arrangement which moves in several ways without ever losing the groove foundation. Liebman solos on soprano sax and there are other noteworthy solos from trumpeter Clay Jenkins and trombonist Michael Davis. Liebman also contributes to a 9:27 translation of “Yesternow,” a tune which emanates from the Jack Johnson sessions. Liebman was not a member of the Jack Johnson studio crew so it is interesting to hear him solo and be a part of this somewhat moody number. Other limelight moments come from Pillow (who switches to alto flute) and Jenkins.
Pillow also includes music performed on stage during the 1968-1972 period which Davis did not necessarily use on studio dates. Zawinul’s soul/funk groover “Directions” was employed by Davis as a live staple. The 7:35 “Directions” may not be as well-known as other tunes in Davis’ repertoire, but this high-jumping cut is a definite stand-out on Electric Miles, with stimulated solos from Hagans, Davis and tenor saxophonist Luke Norris. Pillow concludes with another one from Bitches Brew, the strong “Spanish Key,” which focuses on the large ensemble’s communal togetherness but leaves space for Jenkins’ lofty trumpet improvising and more of Pillow’s alto sax expertise. Electric Miles may not be replete with the electricity that the CD’s title suggests but it does achieve and accomplish two things: it is a new and exultant Davis tribute and it presents a fresh and enjoyable examination of Davis’ fusion material.
Charles Pillow – arranger, executive producer, alto and soprano saxophone, flute, alto flute; Colin Gordon – alto and soprano saxophone, flute; Luke Norris – tenor sax, clarinet; CJ Ziarniak – tenor saxophone; Karl Stabnau – bass clarinet; Michael Davis, Abe Nouri, Jack Courtright – trombone; Gabe Ramos – bass trombone; Tony Kadleck, Charlie Carr, Clay Jenkins, Tim Hagans – trumpet; Julian Garvue – electric piano; Chuck Bergeron – electric bass; Mike Forfia – acoustic bass (tracks 4, 6); Jared Schonig – drums; David Liebman – soprano saxophone (tracks 3, 7)
In a Silent Way