Sometimes it seems as if every other jazz article I write has some sort of Miles Davis connection to it. But as a lover of the early style of fusion as well as just about any form of adventurous jazz, it's hard to ignore the man's vast influence.
Starting around ten years ago Miles' early electric period was finally starting to get the recognition it deserves, boosted in part by Bill Laswell's excellent remix of the trumpeter's tapes from the period, the end result being called Panthalassa (1997).
Since then, you started to see more fusion artists covering many of the tunes of that era – like Mark Isham – and others writing originals directly inspired by the master. Some of Dave Douglas' more recent releases more or less follow the latter template, and I heartily recommend those. Another fine example of the latter is by New York City-based blues-jazz guitarist David Stryker, a Steeplechase release titled Shades Of Miles.
Omaha, Nebraska native Stryker is a guy who started out playing Clapton and the Three Kings (Freddie, B.B. and Albert) but later got into jazz, having cut his teeth in Jack McDuff's and Stanley Turrentine's bands. Immersing himself in the records of Pat Martino, Wes Montgomery, and Grant Green without entirely chucking the rock and blues influences has provided Stryker with a hybrid style of his own.
Stryker's blues background serves him well for this project; to play this music most effectively, you can't play jazz notes. Miles discouraged John McLaughlin from doing so and he later brought in guys like Pete Cosey, Mike Stern, John Scofield, and Robben Ford more for their ability to play blues and rock than jazz. Stryker wisely follows the same path.
In writing the compositions that make up this album, Stryker builds around simple, looping bass lines, and just allows the musicians to play off of that. No one is trying to stuff too many notes into each chord, the playing is relaxed and more thoughtful. In doing so, a balance between texture and improvisation is achieved — the very characteristic shared by Miles' best fusion albums. It's a record that works for both chilling out and intense listening with the headphones on.
Each track effectively recreates the feel of early fusion Miles without quite replicating him. So for instance, "Topaz" evokes the mood of “Shhh/Peaceful” in the beginning, then sounds vaguely like “What I Say” later on. Meanwhile, "Orchid" reminds one of “Sanctuary”, while "Sienna" recalls “Black Satin”. The band’s configuration consisting of trumpet, woodwinds, organ, electric piano, electric bass, percussion, and drums, along with Stryker’s guitar, pretty much mimics what was used for Bitches Brew, although the overall sound is not nearly as thick as on that vintage record. Honestly, you can hear echoes of Jeff Beck’s Blow By Blow throughout, too. It was probably not intentional, but unavoidable, since Beck was clearly influenced by the same original recordings himself.
A consistent, enjoyable listen from beginning to end, Stryker’s Shades Of Miles relives a time when rock/jazz was more about feel and gradually developed ideas, not endless wanking and speed soloing. For those of you who are not that much into in-your-face displays of instrumental prowess but still want top notch musicianship, this is your fusion album.
P.S. If you also dig the greasy soul-jazz from a guitar/organ trio, then Stryker's latest, The Chaser is also a strong recommendation. His old boss McDuff would be mighty proud of this one.