Point of Departure: Agartha at the Dakota

 "I love it when a plan comes together." --John "Hannibal" Smith, The A-Team

Agartha--a project dedicated to the music of Miles Davis' electric period and the brainchild of guitarist Luke Polipnick--has been a long time coming. But then again, music as game-changing, challenging, and flat-out weird as what Davis and his revolving cast of musicians made from 1969 to 1975 is not something to be taken lightly. It begins with In a Silent Way and proceeds through a trio of live albums (including the one Agartha takes their name from) that are restless and forward-thinking. We're talking about the earliest, fiercest work of John McLaughlin, the most propulsive, funkiest playing of Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette and even some of the most beautiful and haunting solos by Davis and players like Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea. In short, musicians at the top of their game. And at the time, a lot of jazz fans disowned it as a desecration of their sacred tradition.

So for Agartha--led by Polipnick with brothers J.T. and Chris Bates on drums and bass, Bryan Nichols on electric piano, Patrick Breiner on tenor and soprano saxophones, and Paul Krueger on trumpet and flugelhorn--the stakes, to quote De La Soul, is high. Throw in the last slot of the night at the Dakota (following two sets that J.T. also played) and their even later start time thanks to the difficulty of getting Barbara Dennerlein's Hammond B3 and Leslie off the stage, and you've got a tall hill to climb to musical greatness. But all they really need to do is trust it.

© John Whiting 2009
J.T. Bates (l) and Patrick Breiner
As the group lays into "Pharoah's Dance," the lead cut from Davis' massive Bitches Brew, things seem almost a little stiff. This is, after all, the combo's first time on stage anywhere. It takes Miles a good two-and-a-half minutes to come in on the record, and when he does drop in, it's like the arrival of the king, even if he's kind of slipping in through the back door. That's an awful lot of pressure for Krueger to shoulder.

But they make it through "Pharoah's Dance" and then keep going deeper into Bitches Brew, and I'm reminded why it's a wonderful and rare thing to see a group play together for the first time. At some point, I'm struck by the sheer weight of the sound the group is making, J.T. more reined into straight timekeeping than I've seen before, his brother Chris playing the circular, simple riffs without embelishment. Somewhere into the third or fourth song--they bleed into one another and are hard to keep straight--I begin to have a new appreciation for how this music must have hit people when they heard it back in the '70s.

Nowadays, we receive it as canon. The revolutions in recording and composition brought on by In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew have been absorbed and refracted back into popular music. If anything, modern electronic music and rock are more informed by those records than mainstream jazz is, and now I can see why. The drums aren't fluid and responsive in that bop way; they still respond, but oftentimes they're almost argumentative. And the bass isn't walking through changes--it's anchoring the music down. Changing the bass and drums so fundamentally shifts the way the soloists play, and you can see it almost happening in real time.

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