July 17, 2002

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Voodoo children

IN HIS RECENT book, Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991, Paul Tingen calls the legendary trumpeter's James Brown- and Sly Stone-influenced experiments with jazz-rock "paradigm shifts that affected not only the jazz community but also those beyond." Yet until recently you rarely heard musicians cite the Davis "electric" period as their holy grail, the way others might identify Hank Williams, Charlie Parker, the Beatles, or John Coltrane. Now a host of bands, including the Bay Area's Bitches Brew and Henry Kaiser and Wadada Leo Smith's Yo Miles!, exist to play pieces from and inspired by the electric jazz-funk repertoire from Davis's seminal 1970-75 period.

Strangely, the musicians who originally performed on such recordings as Bitches Brew, A Tribute to Jack Johnson, On the Corner, Live-Evil, and Agharta have been conspicuously absent in this renaissance. Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and John McLaughlin, of course, advanced the cause of fusion in the early '70s with their own bands – Head Hunters, Return to Forever, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra – and went on to explore other avenues. But many of the players who made the music of the later electric period ferociously intense and so unique – including guitarists Pete Cosey, Reggie Lucas, and Dominique Gaumont, saxophonists Dave Liebman, Sonny Fortune, and Sam Morrison, drummer Al Foster, bassist Michael Henderson – either dropped off the radar or veered into more mainstream musical pursuits.

Henderson might seem the least likely to spearhead an alumni coming-out party. After spending six years with Davis, the former Detroit session player settled into a comfortable pop niche as an R&B songwriter and singer. He hooked up with Norman Connors ("Valentine Love," "You Are My Starship"), enjoyed solo success in the early '80s ("Wide Receiver"), and collaborated with Phyllis Hyman, Bobby Womack, Johnnie Taylor, and the Dramatics. But Henderson was also the only consistent member of the Davis electric bands, playing on virtually everything from 1970's Jack Johnson to 1975's Agharta and Pangaea, as well as the so-called unknown sessions of 1976, just before Miles slipped into a five-year retirement.

In a phone call from his home in Las Vegas last week, the 51-year-old Henderson rambled on about what has compelled him to put an electric Davis tribute band together: A trip back to Motown "reminded me that my first love is my bass guitar"; his bass lines have been sampled "millions of times" by LL Cool J, Snoop, Queen Pen, and others; rap groups and bands "like the Red Hot Chili Peppers" have been acknowledging their debt to Davis's jazz-rock-funk ("Chuck D said Public Enemy got most of their music from On the Corner"); and "I've got 19-year-old kids coming up to me saying, 'How did you guys do that?' They've never seen how that was put together or what it looks like to have the original guys actually play it. So why don't we just get on the stage and show them how it was done?"

Apparently that's been easier said than done. Henderson says he ran up against initial resistance from promoters. "They think we're gonna come in there and light a candle and get down on our knees and have bats fly all around the room or something," he says. Back in the '70s "people thought it was witchcraft, voodoo. It was only funk. We were only funking, man. There's nothing to be afraid of; it's only music." When it was first announced, the band was called Children of Agharta, co-led by Henderson and Pete Cosey, with saxophonists Gary Bartz and John Stubblefield, trumpeter Akbar, drummer Doni Hagen, percussionist Don Alias, tabla player Badal Roy, and "other members as required." But the lineup for Yoshi's is now called Children on the Corner and features saxophonist Sonny Fortune, drummer Ndugu Chancler, and keyboardist Michael Wolff joining Henderson and Roy. Henderson says Cosey has "other obligations," but rumor has it he's leading his own electric Miles band, maybe even with overlapping personnel. Henderson adds that a "mystery guitarist," one who knows the music inside and out, has been invited to sit in.

Tidy preparation wasn't a priority for Davis, who disdained rehearsing with his electric bands. "How are you going to rehearse the future?" he reportedly asked. In fact, two and a half decades ago Henderson and company were rehearsing for this future. "We want people to see how we did that stuff," he says. "Not that it's a great mystery. We just play our asses off."

Children on the Corner performs Tues/16-Wed/17, 8 and 10 p.m., Yoshi's, 510 Embarcadero West, Jack London Square, Oakl. $20. (510) 238-9200.