Celebrating music legend Miles Davis’s lasting, electric appeal

Drummer and nephew of late, great jazz artist brings his interpretations of “uncle Miles” music to Calgary with the Miles Electric Band.

The first time Vince Wilburn, Jr. says “uncle Miles” it doesn’t seem that odd.

And then you realize the contrast between the familiarity of the sentiment and the enormity of who that relation is.

Miles Davis.

That’s Wilburn’s uncle.

That’s the man he grew up watching, he’s the man who bought him the first Yamaha drumkit he played (he’s now endorsed by the company), he’s the man who he would go on to play with, and he’s the man whose legacy he helps keep alive through helping to manage his estate and, on a more artistic level, performing his songs with the Miles Electric Band.

The group, which was put together for a celebration of “uncle Miles’s” music just over a half-decade ago, focusses on his electric period, from the late ’60s to the mid ’70s, when he released rockier, funkier classics such as Bitches Brew and On the Corner.

Prior to the group’s Thursday night concert at the Jack Singer Concert Hall, Wilburn spoke with theYYSCENE.

Q: I’ve seen so many interviews where you say you thought your uncle was a superhero. When did you first come to that realization?

A: Well, when I was a little boy — I grew up on the south side of Chicago, and he used to come and play in Chicago. My mom would take me. And instead of sitting out in the audience with my parents, I’d stand in the wings with uncle Miles, and I would stand to the side when he was playing. And I was just mesmerized … I was always just fixated watching him in the wings, as a kid I knew that’s what I wanted to do.

Q: When was the first time you played with him?

A: I sat in with him as a little kid in a club called the Plugged Nickel in Chicago … And then we did (the 1981 album) The Man With the Horn. He flew my band out to New York to record it. He used to call Chicago and have my mom put the phone down and he would critique after we got done playing. And one day he said, “Do you guys want to make a record?” Well, yeah. (Laughs) So he flew us all to New York to make The Man With the Horn.

Q: And that was his comeback (Davis was retired for six years at the end of the ’70s). You did hang out with him during the time he was retired, didn’t you?

A: Oh, yeah I used to spend summers and spend time with him, talk to him on the phone almost every day. I don’t want to say that I was instrumental in bringing him back, just encouraging him, just talking to him, because he always wanted to know what was happening out there. He would show up at clubs and sit at the back of the club — so he wasn’t a total recluse. There were “Miles sightings,” as they called them.

Q: How were you not intimidated by him? How did you get to the point where you weren’t playing with Miles Davis, you were just playing with another musician?

A: Mike, if this makes sense, it happened so fast and so quick and you had to be so prepared that you didn’t have time to be afraid. When your number’s called — “OK, coach, put me in” — you’ve either got to shoot the ball or stand there with the ball and let somebody steal it from you. And I wasn’t going to do that … You don’t have time to think about how intimidating it could be or “This is Miles Davis” because he wants you to step up to the plate.

Looking back at it, I mean, we were all young. We were young, we wanted to play, it was just one of those things where you just go for it.

Unknown Object

Q: Well, now you’re keeping his music alive and you—

A: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa hold, Mike. His music is very alive. What we’re doing is just doing an interpretation. And it’s not a tribute band. It’s just an interpretation of this great music and the love we have for the great music … The music is alive and well. (The estate) just won a Grammy for the soundtrack for the (Don Cheadle biopic) Miles Ahead. Long after we’re gone, the music will still be around.

Q: Why his electric period?

A: I’m always interested in groundbreaking things. And the Fender Rhodes, the electric piano was brought out by Herbie (Hancock) and played first by Herbie, and uncle Miles introduced the electric piano to Herbie. And it changed the whole trip of music, from acoustic to electric. And he was into Sly (Stone) and Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Miles. And that was the period I was into. Even though I love the acoustic period, but I love rock and funk and hip-hop.

Q: I’ve seen you say that you think if he was still with us he would be fully immersed in hip-hop right now.

A: He’d probably be into Kendrick Lamar, Radiohead, Kanye (West) — who knows? The Weeknd. He had no limits.

Q: For those who are coming to the show, what can they expect?

A: Just have an open mind. We’re just playing this great music that uncle Miles recorded and we’re putting our spin on it.

Miles Electric Band performs Thursday at the Jack Singer Concert Hall in Arts Commons. For tickets go here.