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Music Review: Various Performers Miles…From India

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There's a difference between using the sound of another's culture's instrument in your music because you think it's cool, and those same instruments being used as equal partners in the creative process that brings a piece of music to life.

In the first instance you usually end up ignoring the structure of the music that the instrument was designed to play and using it like you would any other instrument at your disposal. In the second instance it is played as it's meant to be played – drawing upon the traditions that govern the instruments usage.

In the case of Western popular music and its relationship with the instruments of Indian Classical music, the sitar and tablas predominately, it was more often than not the first instance, with the sitar being used more like a "neat" sounding guitar than anything else. The time signatures and structure of Indian Classical music precluded pop musicians from doing more as the differences between the two were seemingly insurmountable. It wasn't until musicians like Harry Manx took the trouble to properly study Indian music – a minimum of a twelve year commitment – that the two have began to be blended successfully.

On the other hand, Western jazz music has had more of a successful history when it comes to the incorporation of Indian instruments. With its openness to experimentation in time signatures, and musician's improvisation skills, there have been successful attempts at integrating the two styles of music for some time now. Notable examples of this were John Mclaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra's first releaseThe Inner Mounting Flame in 1971. Subsequent McLaughlin releases, Shakti in 1975 and Remember Shakti in 1999 only confirmed his abilities when it came to fusing the two styles of music.
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Therefore, McLaughlin was the obvious choice to create an original work for a unique collaborative project between American jazz and Indian classical musicians honouring the music of Miles Davis; Miles… From India, released on Times Square Records. Where else were the producers going to find someone who not only played with Miles at one time (1969 – 72) but also had his history of experience with Indian music? "Miles…From India", the title track of this new two disc set, is a perfect example of what the producers hoped to create with this release in that it brings together the two traditions to create a unique work inspired by the music of Miles Davis.

In 1972 Miles Davis incorporated tablas and sitar in his recording On The Corner, and it's the music from that release that inspired this music. Co-producers Bob Belden and Yusef Gandhi came up with the idea of revisiting Miles' Indian influenced music, (his 1972 recording On The Corner included tablas and sitar), utilizing both musicians who had appeared in the original sessions and Indian Classical musicians. The began by having the musicians in India record their parts for each song, and then took these tracks back to the States where the American jazz musicians were asked to improvise to them. None of the American musicians were allowed to listen to the music prior to the time they actually sat down in the studio to record, ensuring that they were only able to react to what they heard and not pre-plan anything.

As far as I can tell the purpose of this was to ensure that they wouldn't be influenced by any preconceived notions they might have had about the music based on their own experiences. The result of their only being able to react to what the Indian musicians created was not only the creation of almost completely new pieces of music, but an almost perfect fusion of the two styles of music.

While it's difficult for me to pick out specifics to cite as examples, experiencing the music as a whole is overwhelming and it was far too easy to just let myself drift with the sounds and rhythms generated by the musicians, a couple of moments stand out in particular. Vocalist Shankar Mahadevan is one of India's most popular singers and his voice is used in numerous Bollywood productions. On Miles…From India he uses his voice like an instrument so that on "Blue In Green" and "Spanish Green" he "sings" the melody of the tunes.

Most of the time Jazz vocalizations, scat, are staccato exhalations of sound that accentuate the rhythm more than the melody. That's not the case with Shankar's work on these songs, instead he has taken the role of a horn or other lead instrument and recreated their parts with his voice. The result is that both songs have a warmth and emotional depth that can only be achieved via a human voice. Shankar Mahadevan's range and breath control are such that he is able to bring the same sort of expression to his "solos" as that of a horn player, which in turn allows American Wallace Roney's trumpet an opportunity to create beautiful counterpoints and harmonies.

It's only when you hear the Carnatic Violin played that you realize the differences between it and the violin those of us in the West are used to hearing. There's something about the quality of its sound that makes it seem somewhat unearthly. On "It's About That Time" Kala Ramnath's playing caught my ear right from the start and it was the main thread that I followed throughout the whole piece. Even when it was mixed into the background for another's solo, its flavour could still be heard in how it coloured what the other musicians were creating.

In the past I've never been fond of jazz violin, it always seemed to lack a certain fullness of sound and felt scratchy and weak when compared to the horns or woodwinds. Perhaps it's the way its been recorded in the past, or the way other musicians have related to it, but whatever the reason I've always thought it sounded out of place. Kala Ramnath's Carnatic Violin on the other hand felt like it was perfect instrument for "It's About That Time". Not only did it sound wonderful on its own, but it worked beautifully in tandem with the other players.

Miles…From India is a remarkable collection of music featuring some of the best musicians of contemporary American jazz, Indian jazz, and classical Indian music coming together to honour one of the most brilliant composers of our time. Miles Davis not only created remarkable music on his own, but he provided the inspiration for some of modern jazz's best and most creative minds. Everybody from Wayne Shorter to Chick Corea and John McLaughlin played with and were influenced by Miles and his innovations. While some of them might have pushed the envelope of fusion much further then he did, he was the one who put their feet on that path.

It is only fitting, therefore, that a collection of music in his honour is such a bold attempt at fusing two such disparate types of music. The fact that it is so successful is surely a testimony to his genius as a composer. Miles…From India is not just an example of how to properly bring East and West together musically, it is as magnificent collection of jazz music that you are liable to find anywhere these days.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.