Miles Mosley Runs the Voodoo Down

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Miles Mosley. Photo by Aaron Haxton.

Kamasi Washington’s three-LP masterpiece The Epic was the biggest story in jazz in 2015, but his barnstorming live shows, which brought the artists’ collective known as the West Coast Get Down to festivals and theaters, were even more important than the album in making their name among fans who might not ever consider sitting down at a table in a tiny jazz club. Taking the stage with a strutting confidence reminiscent of an old-school R&B revue, Washington and his compatriots—including trombonist Ryan Porter, vocalist Patrice Quinn, keyboardist Brandon Coleman, drummers Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr.—set up hard-driving grooves as a platform for fierce solos.

Upright bassist Miles Mosley’s presence was central to those West Coast Get Down shows. A tall, muscular, stone-faced player in black aviator sunglasses and a Panther-style beret, his instrument, made from unfinished-looking wood, had a slate panel on the front that bore chalked messages, which he changed every night. And his solos, fed through distortion pedals, were post-Hendrix explosions of feedback, noise, bowed drones, and breathtaking technique. He was amazing to watch, and when it was announced that he would be releasing a solo album, it was thrilling for fans and critics alike to imagine what it might be.

Uprising, Mosley’s debut as a leader, is here now, and it’s both surprising and perfectly aimed at funk and groove fans who like Washington, but aren’t jazz purists. In addition to Washington, Porter, Coleman, and Austin, the album features trumpeter Dontae Winslow, saxophonist Zane Musa, and pianist Cameron Graves. Like The Epic, multiple songs are augmented by an orchestra and a choir. That’s really the only similarity, though. Uprising is a ‘70s-style soul album much more than a jazz date. Mosley sings on every track, and the arrangements have more in common with Earth, Wind & Fire than Pharoah Sanders. But in the middle of the organic, strutting grooves (part funk, part soul, and at times part Latin), fierce horn charts, and lush orchestration, Mosley’s bass erupts into distorted, roaring solos that frequently sound like an electric guitar, more Ernie Isley than Bootsy Collins. The contrast is deliberate, showcasing Mosley as a virtuoso player without overriding the glory of the songs themselves or the entire collective of musicians who play on the record.

Like The Epic, and potentially forthcoming albums by other members of the West Coast Get Down, Uprising was recorded at a marathon December 2011 session. “We recorded something north of 170 songs in 30 days,” Mosley says by phone from L.A. “This is my contribution to that effort.”

“My approach to this record,” he explains, “is that when Tony Austin, who’s a drummer but also produced it with me and is my right-hand man—he’s kind of the Danger Mouse of the West Coast Get Down, he handles all the heavy thinking when it comes to the technical end of things—what we decided was, in order to get the bass to really, really shine, it could be the only thing that was effected. So everything else had to be as real as possible… whatever was in the room was in the room. And the only thing that has an effect on it is also real, and that’s the bass. You don’t hear it coming, because nothing else on the record is doing stuff like that. It’s a really modern, forward-thinking upright bass sound slapped on top of honest-to-God arranging and songwriting.”

Mosley is deeply devoted to the bass; he studied with jazz legends Ray Brown and John Clayton, and is happy to dive deep into discussions of wood, and pickups, and the specific ways in which his instruments are modified to create his unique sound. “I started [bass] in junior high as a way to get an easy A,” he laughs. “It was the only instrument in orchestra you could play and not have to take home with you. But the moment I touched it and played the first note, and saw the power of that instrument and how human beings hear music from the bottom up and how much power it had in an orchestra, I fell in love, and was really good really quickly at some of the harder elements of the upright bass. So because of that natural dexterity and really good intonation and natural vibrato, I attracted some really great teachers.”

Still, the tracks on Uprising are songs, not platforms for improvisation, and the lyrics are as important as the music. Mosley sings them with a clear, warm style reminiscent of John Legend’s, the horns shadowing him like they would on a classic Stax album. “There are universal themes that music has always helped us with,” he says about songs like “More Than This” and “Reap a Soul” (the latter of which begins with one of the most straightforward lines imaginable: “My baby don’t love me no more”). “Love and hurt and pride and betrayal, classic themes, and anytime you write something from an honest place that’s attempting to provide you with hope or solace, those themes stand the test of time. We as the human race will always need songs that lift us up and songs that make us feel comfort, to know that somebody’s feeling the same as you, or understanding your hesitations.”

The question is, of course, whether Uprising will get the attention it deserves from R&B and soul fans, considering that Mosley is best known as a jazz bassist. He’s not worried, though. “I think we’re in a really fascinating time for jazz right now,” he says, “and I think that my age group has opened up to the category of the jazz idiom, as long as it’s not boring them. And the West Coast Get Down is a group of musicians that’s appealing to their peer group by not worrying about the conventions of jazz, and making the jazz that they’re going to call their own moving forward. For a long time now, obviously, jazz has been an under-seller, but it’s more important to be part of a movement that’s heralding and some say rescuing an idiom that we feel passionate about than it is to worry about the classification of it. Because as an artist, it’s not my job to classify my music. I think the record’s gonna perform well, and the name ‘jazz’ is working its way out of being a dirty word, and going back to being something that it was before – something provocative and dangerous and healing; it’s been a part of America’s history, and we are in a new chapter of that, and I think the sound that we make represents that. So I don’t have those fears.”

Phil Freeman

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