Miles Davis Electric Band: Simply Put, Fusion at its Finest

I’ve been a devoted Miles Davis fan for almost 50 years. I own 100+ albums and CDs of his music. I saw him perform in Clearwater in c. 1986. I’ve written often about fusion music. I interviewed Miles’s nephew Vince Wilburn about the current Miles Davis Electric Band. I wrote a preview about them.

None of that mattered. No matter how prepared I thought I was for last Thursday’s MDEB concert at The Capitol Theater (November 17th) in Clearwater, I wasn’t.

Because it was titanic. Stunning. Electrifying. Magnificent. And you are welcome to tack on all the superlatives you want. It was that amazing.

Drummer Wilburn and keyboard master Robert Irving III were with Miles in 1986 in Clearwater (and although the 1981-1988 bands and beyond). It was incredible to see these two gentlemen and a monster band take the music of the late great master and move it… Miles beyond.

Debashish Chaudhuri, seated on the floor stage right, introduced the evening with a beautiful tabla intro while Dwayne Mono Neon Thomas, Jr., provided a bass drone backdrop. Suddenly that burst into flames as Thomas’s bass led the ensemble into “Jack Johnson!” David Gilmore (no, NOT that one) blistered the first of many fine guitar solos on the evening.

 

As Wilburn had explained in a phone interview last week (you can read it AND hear it here), the trumpet chair for this band is a rotating position. Despite the incredible list of gentlemen who have filled this role in the past, it is difficult to imagine anyone doing a better job than Michigan State professor of music Etienne Charles, resplendent in hat and blue-rimmed glasses. His muted trumpet soared throughout the gorgeous Capitol Theater.

And there was Antoine Roney, joining the fray on soprano saxophone. Friend and critic Muhsin comments that there aren’t many who truly know how to play the soprano; be assured Roney IS one of them. Gilmore came back for one more pass on the “Jack Johnson” theme. Charles was front and center again on “New Blues,” a beautiful song that the band cherished and honored. Gilmore again stood out.

“New Blues”

Over on stage right was Robert Irving III with an array of keyboards. Although initial focus was justifiably on Charles, it became evident that “Bobby Irving,” as Wilburn introduced him later, was the center of the action. He had a gorgeous, long Fender Rhodes interlude that developed into Zawinul’s pastoral “In a Silent Way,” which of course shifted into “It’s About That Time,” an abbreviated version with Charles and Roney, still on soprano, soloing.

“It’s About That Time”

About that abbreviating. Yes, it would have been awesome to hear the band stretch this out to 20 minutes or so. However, when the program is only 100 minutes long (plus encore), the correct decision was made to get a dozen songs into the setlist. Every second of this program was mind-blowing.

About Wilburn, percussion and sound. Band leader Wilburn stayed in the background — physically — the entire set. His superb drumming, however, did not, propelling the band from start to finish. I was prepared with ear plugs (as always), but the sound in the hall was pristine and perfect. So perfect that, atop the other six members of the band at times in deep electric mode, Chaudhuri’s tables were always audible, as were all of the toys that percussionist Munyungo Jackson brought with him. Bravo, house engineers!

Music moved from the deep groove of “It’s About That Time” back to a pastoral theme, this time an interlude featuring “Sanctuary.” This was a magnificent set-up for Irving, who took to grand piano for a solo take on “Nefertiti,” the earliest Davis recording featured in the program (1968). It was breath-taking. As the band fell in, Roney had a wonderful moment on tenor followed by more Charles.

Jackson, left to his own devices, gave us a stunning percussion class on triangle and others of his toys. And it was tough to decide which was better — his playing or his joyful facial expressions. The band then exploded into “Decoy,” the most recent composition on the setlist (1983). The power was overwhelming, Charles, then Roney on soprano, and Irving on synthesizers. Roney came back for more, then searing Gilmore guitar, and more synths. All the while, and all night long, Thomas was blowing it up. Thomas, who wasn’t even born when Davis recorded all of this music. Incredible.

“Decoy”

Irving offered a fine Rhodes intro to “Pharaoh’s Dance,” and Roney picked up the bass clarinet. He demonstrated he was equally adept on all three reeds. That tone was glorious. Rhodes, trumpet and bass clarinet intertwined, Charles with some shofar-like blasts. This developed into a wonderfully trippy section. Next up was “It Gets Better” from 1982’s Star People. Charles’s muted trumpet and Gilmore’s whammy-bar guitar tones were highlighted. Roney’s soprano entered the conversation near the end.

Everyone left the stage except Chaudhuri as Jackson walked to stage front, shekere in hand and bells adorning one ankle. He gave us an exuberant show, dancing and shaking and grinning ear to ear, making us laugh on occasion. Eventually, he sat down next to Chaudhuri on a cajon, a wooden drum box. He and Chaudhuri began to have conversations back and forth between cajon and tabla. At some point, Jackson removed his left shoe so that he could use his heel to alter the sound. It was simply a master class.

Irving’s synths then joined in as the band returned for “Ife” from Big Fun (1972). It revolved around Irving’s keyboard work, but Gilmore underneath was amazing. Next, they turned Thomas loose, and we saw why his resume included being Prince’s last bass player. And that led into set closer “Jean Pierre,” a great tune from We Want Miles (1981). It’s almost nursery rhyme-like lilt got the heaviest treatment of the night, Charles, then Roney on tenor, Chaudhuri, and Gilmore in on the action.

And, as it was on every song, Wilburn, Thomas and Jackson provided the deepest of pockets for the band to work in.

The band met at stage front so that Wilburn could introduce them; this was the first time anyone had spoken! His pleasure at making sure we knew who these wonderful players were was clear. At the audience’s begging, they agreed to one more song.

“Footprints!” YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS! This was almost too much, too wonderful, too… everything. Almost, but not quite. And this one goes back to Miles Smiles in 1967 (and Wayne Shorter recorded his composition first on The All-Seeing Eye in 1966). Charles, Roney and Irving soloed, but everyone stood out on this electrifying encore.

Wilburn reminded us that the band would be doing a meet and greet in the lobby afterward, as they do at every show (that is how you do it, kids). They were warm and receptive and engaging and truly enjoying the opportunity to meet all of us who stayed.

PUT THIS BAND ON YOUR *MUST-SEE* LIST. BECAUSE YOU MUST.

[Tabla intro & bass drone > Jack Johnson, New Blues, In a Silent Way > It’s About That Time, Sanctuary, Nefertiti (piano), Percussion solo > Decoy, Pharaoh’s Dance, It Get Better, Shakeree solo & table trade, Bass solo > Jean Pierre; E: Footprints]

Clearwater setlist same as Columbus Jazz & Rib Fest

Vince Wilburn, Jr., drums; David Gilmore, guitar; Dwayne Mono Neon Thomas, Jr., bass; Munyungo Jackson, percussion; Robert Irving III, keyboards; Etienne Charles, trumpet; Antoine Roney, bass clarinet / tenor sax / soprano sax; and Debashish Chaudhuri, tabla.

[Ed. note: Photography was not permitted at The Capitol, and there were no official photographers there. Fortunately, several friends surrepticiously snapped a few shots. Thanks Jeff and Al!]

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