Monday, February 28, 2011

Miles Davis "Bitches Brew Live"

Many years ago when there was evolution and revolution in music, change was palpable. Today, too much music is just churned out by the latest technology. Only the faces change. The music machine is fueled by “product” and (or) stuff that sounds too much like something that’s already been done before.

But as the 1970s dawned, jazz was losing a lot of its audience to indifferent music and the onslaught of rock. Miles Davis, keenly aware of this transformation, watched as his audience dwindled. He discovered the sounds of Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone and it could hardly escape his attention that their audiences were significantly larger than his.

Over two days in August 1969, Miles Davis waxed Bitches Brew, a historic double album that could be considered his magnum opus had he not waxed several others of this caliber before. But there was nothing like Bitches Brew. No one had ever heard anything like Bitches Brew. Although it wasn’t the first record that fused jazz with rock, it is considered the first successful union of jazz and rock. When it was released in early 1970, it became the jazz trumpeter’s fastest-selling album and was one of the first jazz records to “crossover” and find pop chart success.

This “fusion” of jazz and rock was bubbling beneath the surface in Miles’ live performances before and after the birth of Bitches Brew. At the time, Miles Davis hardly ever “previewed” or rehearsed songs before he recorded them and, oddly, rarely performed material from his latest records. But he must have sensed that he was doing something different with Bitches Brew and maybe he sought to test the waters with something that sounded like nothing he’d ever played before.

Bitches Brew Live chronicles two live performances that Miles Davis gave during this period that have never been officially released before.

The first of these two performances originates from an appearance Davis made at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 5, 1969 – three weeks before the release of In A Silent Way and six weeks before the recording of Bitches Brew – with a line-up including Chick Corea on electric piano, Dave Holland on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums (Wayne Shorter was supposed to appear but got stuck in traffic).

The audience, mixed with old-school jazz fans and a much younger rock crowd, probably had no idea what to expect. But it was electric in every sense of the word.

The brief set features one of the earliest known recordings of “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” sounding considerably different here than it would for the final studio version, Wayne Shorter’s “Sanctuary” and “It’s About That Time,” oddly rounded out for a brief few seconds by Miles’ standard set-closer “The Theme.”

The band is tight and generates as much excitement on disc as is evident among the crowd. No doubt inspired by such bands on the bill that day as John Mayall, Frank Zappa and the Mothers and Gary Burton (one of the earliest progenitors of mixing jazz with rock), the band is really tuned in to not only this new direction in music but to its audience as well.

Without Shorter’s counterpoint, Davis solos more than he is known to. But he trades off solos as if to provide his own counterpoint. Chick Corea is simply magnificent on electric piano, personifying the instrument in a way very few could. Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette are, predictably, outstanding, rhythmically omnipotent and definitely providing something new to the section that wasn’t there when Ron Carter and Tony Williams were in it.

Miles and company (with Shorter) would take the show to Switzerland for the Montreux Jazz Festival later that month (a performance that has been bootlegged), mixing these tracks with some of Miles’ older repertoire, before waxing Bitches Brew. In November of that year, the quintet would perform a mostly Bitches Brew program in Paris (bootlegged) and Copenhagen. The last of these sets was captured on DVD and included as part of last year’s brilliant Bitches Brew 40th Anniversary box set.

Quite a number of other performances of the Bitches Brew material were captured thereafter, but usually as medleys given different names and with varying personnel.

After the release of Bitches Brew, the band changed dramatically. Wayne Shorter left the group and was replaced by Gary Bartz. Keith Jarrett’s organ (!) was added as a counterpoint to Chick Corea’s electric piano and Brazilian percussionist Airto Moriera added his exotic flavor to the soundscape.

This band performed at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts, on August 18. 1970, a terrifically exciting performance also included on the aforementioned Bitches Brew 40th Anniversary box set.

Miles Davis then jetted off to England for the third (and last) Isle of Wight music festival, performing on a bill that boasted Joni Mitchell, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, The Doors, The Who and Sly and the Family Stone. Acknowledged as the largest music festival of the time – attracting even more patrons than Woodstock – the Isle of Wight festival presented one of Miles Davis’ most long-sought after shows.

Many bootlegs of Miles’ Isle of Wight performance surfaced and the performance can be seen on the 2004 Eagle Rock Entertainment DVD Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue. Bitches Brew Live represents the first time the entire Miles Davis live at the Isle of Wight performance has ever been made officially available on CD. And it’s worth the wait.

This is a sensational performance; as assured and creative as it is searing and searching and as eclectic and sensible as it is electric and natural. The European audience, which seems to know what to expect – and is also probably better integrated among its seemingly different fan bases than the American audience – clearly approves.

The 38-minute performance was delivered as one long medley, treating the various “songs” as little more than themes to improvise upon. Starting with Josef Zawinul’s “Directions,” the band melds into “Bitches Brew” (the longest single exploration here) to “It’s About That Time,” through a brief bit of Wayne Shorter’s “Sanctuary” to Spanish Key” and winding up with the obligatory “The Theme.”

This required a specific chemistry for each of the seven musicians. It’s clearly evident that each player is attuned or musically connected to every other one in the group. Each is led without any trepidation whatsoever into differing directions by Miles’ whims. But whim is probably the wrong word. There is a telepathic understanding here of when enough is enough and exactly when it’s time to move to some other plane of now. Such telepathy is evident today in band member Keith Jarrett’s trio with fellow traveler Jack DeJohnette.

On top of that, everyone is at their best here – strong and strong-willed, communal and communicative and genuinely excited and exciting.

Producers Richard Seidel and Michael Cuscuna have beautifully enhanced the sound quality of this exceptional performance without breaking any of the medley into its individual parts. The CD, however, does identify each of the individual themes, coding program breaks between each, without ever breaking up the performance.

It’s a remarkable set, beautifully packaged with insightful annotation by author Michael Azerrad as well as excellent discographical information from the producers and many never before-seen color photographs of Miles Davis. It is the perfect companion to last year’s spectacular Bitches Brew 40th Anniversary box set and contains one of Miles Davis’ very best electric concert performances with the bonus of an additional like-minded concert of a very high caliber.

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