Charlie Hall | photo courtesy of the artist

Charlie Hall is many things. He’s a drummer (you might recognize him from The War on Drugs), he’s the leader of an incredible a cappella group (check out The Silver Ages next January), and he’s a pretty knowledgeable Miles Davis enthusiast. On Wednesday, August 24th, the Philadelphia resident will combine two of those talents when he performs with Get Up With It, a group of musicians from Philly and NYC who will bring Davis’ music to Johnny Brenda’s for a rare live appearance.

We caught up with Hall over email to hear about his nearly life-long exploration and education of Davis’ catalog, how that morphed into a live ensemble and where he finds Davis’ legacy in contemporary music; read what he has to say below, and pick up tickets for the 21+ show here.

The Key: First, can you just give us some background on how Get Up With It got started?

Charlie Hall: This project dates back to 1997 or ’98 in San Francisco. Ezra Gale (bass), Mitch Marcus (tenor sax and Fender Rhodes), and I had a shared interest in exploring this period of Miles Davis’ catalog, spanning In A Silent Way (1969) to Agharta & Pangea (1975). We were playing more traditional jazz in various configurations in the Bay Area, and naturally just started to incorporate some of the ideas and motifs that Miles was playing with during this period. So we put together a big group and started doing weeklies and monthlies at various spots – Bruno’s on Mission St, the Jupiter in Berkeley, Yoshi’s in Oakland, wherever. Then we got into doing the jazz festivals and stuff, moving around a bit – Big Sur, and all that. There’s something kinda fun and in the spirit of the boundary pushing that Miles was up to by taking this music to traditional jazz venues, but it’s also music that is as much rock and roll as anything so it really works anywhere – jazz clubs, rock toilets, concert halls, back yards, parties, whatever. It’s party music, really. It’s wild and loud and pretty boundless. Anyway, I left San Francisco in 2003, and eventually Ezra and Mitch made their way back to New York City where they’re both from, so we decided to get an east coast version of this thing going when schedules allow and bring together musicians from Philly and New York to stretch out and jam.

TK: What was your introduction to Miles Davis?

CH: At some point when I was a kid, after a pretty heavy Grateful Dead phase in middle school, I decided that I wanted to get further out into the jazz world. All I really knew up until that point was Dave Brubeck (who lived in my hometown of Wilton, CT) and stuff like that. Someone told me I had to check out Kind Of Blue by Miles Davis, which is honestly great advice for literally any human. So that was my in. And I was IN. Hearing that record for the first time is like WOW. The modes, the atmosphere, the vibe. That recording is incredible – you can hear the air moving in the room. So much space.

I think maybe next I got Round About Midnight, which is totally classic too. A little earlier than Kind Of Blue…a little more of a hard bop record. So I’m just working my way around the Miles catalog a little. Then, and I’ll never forget this, I was in New York City. I must’ve been 15 or 16, going to see Chick Corea at, like, Lincoln Center or something, and I went to Tower Records and they had all these new “Columbia Jazz Masterpiece” CD reissues. Remember those? With the blue trim. So I’m looking at all these and see On The Corner and just have to have it. I’d never heard of it. But that cover. Miles had Corky McCoy draw that cartoon cover depicting young African Americans in funky ass 1972 clothes and all that. I’d never really seen an album cover like that. (And, likewise, in 1972 I’m sure a lot of folks hadn’t). So, I take it home and put it in my CD player. And goddamn I’d DEFINITELY never heard music like that. It sounded like a traffic jam. I’d skip to the next song and hear this same pulsing, dense beat with all kinds of sounds, both electronic and percussive, that I’d never heard before. Metal clanking. Beeps beeping. I thought the CD was busted. This was the punkest music I’d ever heard. Real talk: it still sounds extraterrestrial.

So, that was my introduction to the electric, 1970s era Miles. I would literally just put that album on periodically trying desperately to understand what the hell was going on. Time and time again. Eventually working backwards to Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson, and In A Silent Way I think gave me a better understanding of where On The Corner was coming from. While Bitches Brew is widely regarded as Miles’ crowning achievement of the time (rightfully so, I would say), On The Corner remains his boldest, densest, most wild and far reaching statement.

TK: Where do you find strains of Davis’ sound and influence in today’s music and artists?

CH: Miles’ influence can be heard all over popular music today. Two of the most recognizable examples that come to mind, to me, would be Kendrick Lamar and Radiohead. If you listen back to Bitches Brew, in particular, I think you can hear the roots of what they have been scratching away at going back all the way to Kid A. OK Computer, even. But the Miles influence gets more pronounced as you go on through the Radiohead catalog of the past ten/fifteen years. “Pharaoh’s Dance”, which opens Bitches Brew is a study in tape edits and loops, and the way rhythms and textures are layered echoes throughout Radiohead’s music. I felt my worlds collide a bit when Radiohead sent out a ‘College EP’ to radio stations when Amnesiac came out and the song “Kinetic” came on, which is built completely on a loop from “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down” (from Bitches Brew). So it’s not like I’m making some kind of musicological groundbreaking observation here. I’m pretty sure that they were deep in it.

I think the influence on this period of Miles’ music is pretty clear on the Kendrick stuff too – both in spirit and in terms of process. The way Kendrick surrounds himself with highly creative dudes who all contribute (Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin, and on and on) and help shape his whole thing is very much in the spirit of what Miles was doing with Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, and countless others. Those guys are all heads and I’m sure have schooled Kendrick pretty heavily in this stuff.

TK: When you’re in a Miles Davis tribute band, is it about recreating the songs note-for-note, or is it more about embracing the exploratory headspace of Davis’ performances?

CH: I would caution against calling this a tribute band, but I suppose that’s just a matter of semantics. What we’re trying to do is use these concepts and create a thing where we can communicate musically and have fun exploring the outer reaches of this intersection of heavy rock, outside jazz, European avante-garde, krautrock, Indian modes, African rhythms, and stuff like that. A lot of this music is built not on traditional arrangements with chord changes and melodies, but rather a defining groove and some sort of loose tonal center. Some of the tunes definitely have some sort of melodic refrain, a “head” I guess that we try to latch onto, and some tunes will take shape truly in the moment as we play them. I make a road map/notes for each jam for everyone, and sometimes they are extensive and sometimes it will literally say “This is a jam in Bb minor 7.” This whole exercise is very much about just trying to approach the process of playing music together in this way and, most importantly, have fun. It’s a killer group of musicians and a totally ego-less affair.

It’s going to be such a pleasure to hear the explosive dual-guitar assault of Kevin Hanson and Ross Bellenoit, for example. And I can’t wait to do double drums with Joe Baldacci. I’m also honored that Frank LoCrasto (from NYC) is both sharing the bill with us and playing in the band on Arp and Jupiter synths. It is a rare treat to get to see him do his thing. We’ve got Chris Aschman on trumpet, Dan Scholnick on tabla, Robin MacMillan on percussion, and of course Ezra (bass) and Mitch (tenor and Rhodes) my partners in crime. It’s actually going to be insane. Also, the show will also feature the premiere viewing of Frank LoCrasto‘s new Shaking Through Weathervane episode that I am honored to have been a part of.

TK: How did you choose the songs for the show’s setlist?

CH: We’ve got sort of a canon of stuff that we have played throughout the years with this project and we like to always find new vibes to explore too. I like to pick “songs” that will give everyone the best opportunity to just be themselves and do their thing. And “songs” that best represent what Miles was going for – so I want to make sure that there’s stuff that’s both challenging and fun at once. As much as there’s tension and chaos in this music, there are also times where it’s like a big ‘James Brown “Cold Sweat” on acid’ throwdown. Again, it’s heady, but it’s party music.

TK: What are your absolute Miles Davis must-hear tracks/recordings?

CH: Oh man. I feel like I’ve spent the past 20 years immersing myself in this music and I’m still scratching the surface.

In terms of records, I think there’s a reason why Bitches Brew (1970) is so celebrated, and I think that’s a really great entrance point. While “Spanish Key” opens side three, I always felt it would’ve been a good side one track one. That’s a good single starting point.

I really appreciate that there are all these extensive box sets available nowadays (though I bet Miles is fucking pissed), but at the same time I feel like it can sometimes make it tough to really know where to dig in, as the original records get sort of obscured within these behemoth track listings. I would really encourage people to try to seek out the original records first before diving in to all the unedited takes, unreleased tracks, etc.

After Bitches Brew, I think In A Silent Way (1969) is a good one to take in. The whole thing. Then I’d say wrap your head around Live/Evil (1971), which is a favorite of mine. “Sivad” and “Little Church” are great tracks. Then I think it’s time for Get Up With It (various, but released 1974) which is STACKED with crushers. “Rated X” and “Billy Preston” are a couple favorites of mine. Then I think you’re ready for On The Corner (1972). I think that is one that should be taken as a whole, too. Start to finish.

Then just know that Jack Johnson (1971) and Big Fun (various, but released 1972) and about a zillion others await.

Charlie and his Get Up With It crew perform at Johnny Brenda’s with Frank LoCrasto for the premiere of LoCrasto’s Shaking Through Session on Wednesday, August 24th. Tickets and information for the 21+ show can be found here.

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