Arts, Culture & Media

Miles Davis and India

"East is east, and west is west, and never the 'twain shall meet." So said Rudyard Kipling in his poem "The Ballad of East and West." Often overlooked though are the words that come two lines later. "But there is neither East nor West, border, nor breed...when two strong men stand face to face." And perhaps that was on the minds of the record producers who just released the album "Miles from India." The World's Marco Werman tells us about the project.

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The whole idea of "Miles from India" may seem to some like a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. Hey, you got Miles Davis on my sitar. Hey, you got sitar on my Miles Davis.

On first listen, it's the perfect concoction of east and west. But really, the recording was only mildly concocted. Yusuf Gandhi is the executive producer of this concept album.

For Gandhi, the concept began to germ when, well, you'd have to go back to the early sixties when he was a young man living in Bombay. He was getting into Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, and collecting lots of records.

�I grew up listening to a lot of jazz, so I did listen to Miles in India, I mean I had his records, I mean I had "Kind of Blue" and "Bitches Brew" and all the records. We had them in India, I would have people bring them for me. So I used to listen to his music. At that time jazz music was sort of in the major cities, it wasn't a national thing. But the people who went to college and were a little more westernized audiences, they listened to jazz music, they knew who Miles was, they knew who Cannonball was, they knew who Horace Silver was. They listened to the music.�

Some forty years later, Yusuf Gandhi was visiting with renowned jazz producer Bob Belden. Belden was remixing the Miles Davis jazz-funk-fusion record "On the Corner" for CD release. And during the mixing session, Belden commented to Gandhi...

�I was surprised at the amount of Indian music influences on that album. And I said, "Yeah." So he says, "How would it feel to have Indian musicians doing music from Miles Davis?" That's when I said "Miles from India," and the whole project just took off.�

It wasn't an easy undertaking. Yusuf Gandhi runs a small independent record label. And to get former Miles Davis bandmates together in the same studio with the best Indian musicians of the moment just wasn't in the budget.

So Gandhi and producer Bob Belden came up with their dream list of musicians and decided that the Indian artists would be recorded in Mumbai and Chennai.

And the US-based musicians would base their parts on what they heard from those sessions in India. Gandhi says the American jazz players liked the idea...in theory.

�Before we went to India, we had sounded off a lot of the musicians, they all said 'Wow, that sounds like a great project, we'd like to be a part of it,' but they were still wary about what it would sound like. But once we had recorded the Indian musicians, and then we sent the tapes out, basically everybody who heard it, heard the Indian musicians, said 'We want to play on this project.'�

You could argue that with the Indian and American musicians contributing their parts separately, the resulting sound doesn't reflect a group effort.

But as it turns out, the way Bob Belden and Yusuf Gandhi planned these sessions, the musicians really got to learn their parts and dig in to the process.

For example, if horn player Wallace Roney was a bit wary at first, he tucked right into the producers' vision when he arrived at the studio. Roney is a Miles Davis disciple. He's also the trumpeter on many of the "Miles from India" tracks.

�American musicians got a chance of really listening to the music before they came into the studio and play it, because remember they are working in, some of them are in different time signatures and different scales, and they have to work with it. And even Wallace when he came in, actually he was not supposed to be on so many tracks. We thought he'd do two or three tracks, but it came out so well, and he himself said, "I'd like to do more songs," you know. And he came and he came in and did more songs because once he realized he could interact with what was happening, they were having fun.�

The fun is evident on "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down."

Another track that excelled in bringing out the best of Indian and American improvisation was the cover of the classic "Blue in Green." It features something the original never had, a vocal part.

Its ethereal performance is courtesy of Shankar Mahadevan:

�Shankar is a major pop star in India, for people who don't know, and he's a Bollywood music director, he's a singer, he's one of the most sought after music directors in films in his own right, but he's a classically trained musician, but he's also into western music. You know he sites his early musical influences as Weather Report and musicians like that, so, to get Shankar in this was a no-brainer actually because he's listened to all types of music. But he made time to come. He said 'I start my sessions at 11 o'clock for my films, so I'll come at 8 o'clock to do my parts,' and he came at 8 o'clock, did his parts within two hours and left.�

Producers Yusuf Gandhi and Bob Belden were overjoyed with the results. For Gandhi though one of the best parts of the whole project was watching Belden -- who had never been to India.

�The fun was to see Bob get excited when he saw these musicians play. And you know, he would suddenly pick up the phone and call Joe Zawinul and put the phone to the speaker and say, 'Listen Joe, listen to what's happening,' he'd call Herbie Hancock and tell Herbie, 'Listen to this!' It was like that, it was fun watching him get excited, it was like a kid in a candy store just hearing these guys playing.�
It's an inevitable question: what would Miles Davis have made of Miles from India?

Yusuf Gandhi believes it's wrong-headed to ask it though.

After all, says Gandhi, Miles never really expressed what he was thinking when he wrote sitars and tablas into his own compositions.

Miles would just show up and play.

�One of the things about Miles was he never really told anyone what was in his mind. He just wanted to do something and did it, from what I know, and from what I've heard of from stories of musicians who've played with him. No one really knew what his motivations were anyway, it's like, if he liked a sound, he incorporated it, that's it, you know?�
Miles from India has just come out.

The musicians are planning three live performances of these unique versions of Miles Davis: in New York on May 9, and three weeks later in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

For The World, I'm Marco Werman.