Pianist Herbie Hancock tells a story of going into the recording studio with Miles Davis, circa late-1960s, and not being able to find a piano. Confused, he asked Miles what he was supposed to play. Davis pointed at a Fender Rhodes electric piano in the corner, and said, “Play that.” The rest is history.

More than a tribute album, Chris Kelsey & What I Say: The Electric Miles Project is an original, unaffected take on Davis’s electric legacy by musicians whose early love of that music was the first step in a lifelong journey of exploration – a journey characterized by a love of jazz, sure, but more importantly, a love for the wider world of creative music, regardless of genre.

Saxophonist Chris Kelsey and the individual members of What I Say were kids when Davis first scandalized the jazz world by plugging-in. Too young and open-eared to be outraged, they were, instead, fascinated. Davis albums like In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew became crucial elements in their musical education. In the years to come, while they learned from many sources, the Miles influence remained fundamental.

It makes sense, then, that after distinguished careers playing every kind of music under the sun (leavened by more than a decade apiece working in a milieu as famously experimental and eclectic as the Downtown New York scene of the ‘80s and ‘90s), they would revisit their youthful infatuation with Miles’s electric music.

Saxophonist Chris Kelsey has spent much of the last two decades playing his own form of cutting-edge acoustic jazz. Yet his early experience playing fusion and his love for electric MIles made their mark, and in 2011, a long-contemplated Miles project hit his front burner. In forming a band to realize the music, Kelsey reached out to two old friends with whom he’d played a great deal over the years, bassist Joe Gallant and guitarist Jack DeSalvo. On drums, Kelsey chose a relatively new friend, his near-neighbor in the Hudson Valley, Dean Sharp. When Gallant suggested as second guitarist Rolf Sturm, a great sound sculptor and lead player who Kelsey knew from his work with the bassist’s Illuminati Orchestra, the lineup was set.

The nature of that lineup distinguishes What I Say from other well-known electric Miles projects, many if not most of which are all-star and/or ad-hoc aggregations. What I Say is a band; it came together organically, and comprises a group of musicians who share many years of experience in-common … in particular, years of experience on the Downtown scene, where disregarding convention and flouting tradition was a way of life.

That lack of reverence for the tried-and-true exists alongside an openness to anything and everything, which is another thing that sets the band apart. All are superb jazz players, to be sure, but jazz is just one aspect of their art, jostling for position with rock, funk, punk, classical, r&b, blues, ambient, and virtually any other style one could name.

The organic nature of the band’s construction and diverse nature of their collective experience results in the direct, no-frills approach they bring to such Davis tunes as “Agharta Prelude,” “Ife” and “Sivad.” There’s nothing gimmicky about this music, no high concept fueling the project. At bottom, What I Say: The Electric Miles Project reveals a collection of highly simpatico and gifted improvising musicians doing their infinitely multi-faceted thing, whilst holding in mind their personal relationship to a music that in so many ways helped them become the endlessly curious, passionate, and innovative artists they are.

The finished product becomes, in part, a hint at how post-1980s jazz might have developed had it not become bogged-down with traditionalist dogma – an example of what happens when the music’s custom of incorporating the best aspects of other forms is allowed free rein, resulting in a music that more accurately reflects its own time.

Called “a provocateur in the best sense of the term: a player (and writer) who thrives on pushing buttons,” by Derek Taylor of All About Jazz, and “at the forefront of the fiery reedists today,” by Greg Applegate Edwards of Gapplegate Music Review, Chris Kelsey’s music follows in the tradition of individualism and innovation of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman. Kelsey made his reputation with a series of albums for the C.I.M.P. imprint in the ‘90s and ‘00s, as well as several for his own Saxofonis Music and Tzazz Krytyk labels. From the early ‘90s, he’s maintained an active presence on the Downtown NYC music scene, performing at many of the city’s most important venues, including frequent appearances at the Knitting Factory. Kelsey has a parallel career as a music journalist, contributing to such publications as Jazziz, JazzTimes, The All Music Guide to Jazz, and others, as well as serving as an Associate Editor for the website Jazz.com under the author/pianist Ted Gioia. Kelsey recently published a book of his original compositions, entitled Attack of the Contrafact.

The Electric Miles Project

  1. Agharta Prelude
  2. Mad Love Pt. 1
  3. Directions
  4. Ife
  5. Sivad
  6. Mad Love Pt. 2

Chris Kelsey, electric saxophones

What I Say: Rolf Strum, electric guitar • Jack DeSalvo, electric guitar • Joe Gallant, electric bass • Dean Sharp, drums

Recorded July 29, 2011 in Canaan, NY
Engineered by Steven Walcott
Edited, mixed, and mastered by Chris Kelsey
Released under license from Chris Kelsey