Last summer, a gifted young pianist and composer sent me and everyone else in his address book an e-mail urging us to show up for a concert he said would mark a departure for him. “I’ll be playing solo, which is something I rarely do,” he explained, “and versioning other people’s music, which I almost never do.”
Versioning? Computer lingo referring to software modification, it’s also reggae talk for putting a new vocal over a melody or rhythm lifted from a previous hit. I’d never heard it used in jazz before, and that was just fine with the part of me that sniffs at “privilege,” “foreground,” and “reference” as verbs and wishes we could let nouns be nouns. So why have I fallen in love with the word? Maybe because “cover” still reeks of Pat Boone and Jersey bar bands, “interpretation” implies classical subservience, and “contrafact” sounds like something accomplished in a lab. Playful in the way that postmodernist terminology hopes to be but rarely is, versioning is somehow le mot juste for jazz appropriations from Armstrong’s “Sweethearts on Parade” and Parker’s “Ko Ko” to John Zorn’s Ennio Morricone and Don Byron’s Mickey Katz—though, with apologies to Thelonious Monk, I’d prefer version-a-ning.
Whereas Upriver, the third double CD by Yo Miles!, the ad hoc jam band led by Henry Kaiser and Wadada Leo Smith, reversions (reverts to?) post-Bitches Brew Miles Davis, Pork Chop Blue Around the Rind, the debut CD by Gary Lucas and Phillip Johnston’s Fast ‘n’ Bulbous, treats Captain Beefheart to boisterous, full-scale version-a-ning, raising a curious point about tribute albums in the process—you can enjoy the better ones without being all that keen on the honoree. Except for a few cuts from Trout Mask Replica, Beefheart’s primitivist dada never reached me, maybe because I’d already heard Howlin’ Wolf and Ornette Coleman, and as inspired an idea as it was to conflate them, Beefheart never pulled it off. Johnston’s arrangements do—and then some.
Johnston’s whimsical compositions for the Microscopic Septet are among the overlooked jazz treasures of the 1980s. Fast ‘n’ Bulbous are also seven pieces, with former Micros Richard Dworkin on drums and David Sewelson on baritone—but substituting trumpet and trombone for two of the Micros’ saxes, and Lucas’s guitar for Joel Forrester’s piano, allows Johnston’s charts for this outfit a swagger befitting material imported from rock. Beefheart gets a close reading that plumbs his unfulfilled ambitions; his affinity to free jazz, for example, is more evident from the shrieking saxophones on this “When Big Joan Sets Up” than it was from the sputtering ones on the original.
The musicianship is top-notch. “Kandy Korn,” reconceived as a New Orleans march and then a round, climaxes with lengthy, cascading ensemble passages that must have been a bitch for the horns to finger (just whistling along is tough, since there are no obvious rests). Yet you never get the feeling Johnston set out to “improve” Beefheart, all of whose edges are left jagged. Even someone unfamiliar with most of the tunes might spot them as Beefheart’s just from Lucas’s rustic bottleneck and slide, which Johnston frequently voices with the horns to telling effect. Former Magic Band member Lucas is rightly given the most solo space, but Johnston (on alto, rather than his usual soprano), Sewelson, smear trombonist Joe Fielder, and trumpeter Rob Henke (Beefheart’s instrumental surrogate on “Abba Zaba”) all come through loud and clear when called on. And what a pleasure it is to hear Dworkin, who’s been laying low since the demise of the Micros, playing grand marshal in Johnston’s parades again.
What puzzles me about Yo Miles!’s Upriver isn’t the title, a reference to Vietnam that makes sense given the early-’70s vintage of the material and the larger conflicts it was once heard as embodying (Whitney Balliett once likened Davis to a character in Apocalypse Now). The puzzle is why I find myself responding to Upriver and its predecessors, Yo Miles! and Sky Garden, as I never did (and still don’t) to Agharta and Pangaea. It could be that fusion is no longer a threat, just one of many places jazz occasionally revisits. Anyway, my problem with electric Miles was never the electricity, but that for Miles (oh, what the hell) foregrounding rhythm meant simplifying it. Starting with In a Silent Way, the beats he worked off grew more layered and intense, but weren’t nearly as varied and complex as those he got from Tony Williams.
Even so, his approach of the 1970s was influential, and Kaiser and Smith convince me not all of its potential has been exhausted. The two discs total over two and a half hours, and as with Davis’s own doubles, there’s far too much bravura noodling and empty bump. But Zakir Hussain flavors a jam on themes from On the Corner with his tabla and water drums, Kaiser and the other guitarists are possessed by the spirit of Pete Cosey, and Smith, belying his reputation as an abstractionist, captures not just Davis’s easily imitated mid-’70s quack but also his existential aura. And best of all, even though Steve Smith is no Tony Williams, alto saxophonist Greg Osby superimposes his own brand of rhythmic complexity (one fully worthy of Wayne Shorter) on the rhythm section’s static vamps every time he steps forward. If Pork Chop Blue Around the Rind proves the wisdom of going outside jazz for material, Osby’s urgent introspection on Vietnam-era Miles is a reminder there’s still a lot to be said for looking within.