Bitches Brew Live

Miles Davis

Columbia/Legacy, 2011

REVIEW BY: Jedediah Pressgrove


Miles Davis was more and more disgusted with jazz throughout the 1960’s as documented by Leonard Feather’s “The Blindfold Tests.” Davis’ comments on artists like Sun Ra, Eric Dolphy, Al Hirt, and Cecil Taylor were unflattering, profane, and even hilarious. Meanwhile, jazz critics were taking aim at Davis more and more, especially with the release of his jazz-rock albums In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Many people in the jazz community were dismissive of rock and thus missed the idea of “good music,” a term Davis preferred to “jazz” (he said the latter was a “white man’s word”).

You can hear such defiance on Bitches Brew Live, a collection of tracks from Davis’ 1970 Isle Of Wight performance and three previously unreleased tracks from the Lost Quintet’s performance at the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival. Not only did these performances typify the defiance I speak of, but the events represented the bold culture of fusion. The 1969 Newport Jazz Festival broke ground (and troubled traditionalists) by featuring rock bands like Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull. The 1970 Isle Of Wight Festival was a tremendous rock event with 600,000 spectators, and Davis was the only jazz artist there.

Because the three Newport tracks are new, I will spend most of this review talking about them. The aforementioned Lost Quintet was Davis, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Chick Corea, bassist Dave Holland, and drummer Jack DeJohnette. They were “Lost” because they never recorded an entire album as a quintet. Recorded live performances of the quintet are rare, so anything you can hear by them is special. What makes the tracks on Bitches Brew Live even more special is that traffic prevented Shorter from playing the concert. This album features a Lost Quartet.

Okay, so I was disappointed about Shorter’s absence initially. He is a brilliant saxophonist. But then I remembered: jazz is not about the expected.

The Lost Quartet’s playing on these tracks is ferocious for the most part, and the best way to understand this is to listen to the album versions of the songs before or after you put on Bitches Brew Live. The album version of “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down” is deliberate and has a lot of things going on so as to envelop you. Here, the song is straightforward like a punch to the teeth and captures the idea of Miles running something down better than the album version; however, one must keep in mind that this performance came before the album version, so it’s not that the former is deconstruction so much as the latter is expansion. Corea’s electric piano is jamming and rains notes in the midsection of the song. DeJohnette’s drumming is adventurous and driving. You can barely hear Holland’s standup bass, but with headphones you get subtle tastes of his fine playing. Davis quietly returns for a second solo and gets coy before screeching to the end.     my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The next track, “Sanctuary,” isn’t as electrifying as the other two Newport songs but is nonetheless an interesting truncation of what would be recorded for Bitches Brew. Davis has to survive without Shorter, the composer of “Sanctuary.” I do think the album version is clearly superior, but Davis’ trumpet is punchier on this version and, like all his playing on Bitches Brew Live, resembles the style he would use on his 1971 rock-jazz masterpiece, A Tribute To Jack Johnson.

The last Newport track is “It’s About That Time,” which isn’t featured on Bitches Brew but on the equally important In A Silent Way, released in 1968. This performance hardly resembles what appeared on the album. Perhaps the biggest reason is DeJohnette’s fiery drumming, a turnaround from Tony Williams’ uncharacteristic laidback playing on In A Silent Way. Chick Corea’s electric piano on the album version mainly provides melodic texture, but on the Newport track it is much more dissonant and improvisational. Davis is restrained on the album version –appropriate given what was envisioned for the record. On the Newport track, Davis is playing like a rock star, taking risks and going for the knockout. As Peter Keepnews (what a name for a journalist!) said, if The Lost Quintet had made an album, a suitable title would have been In A Violent Way. Even with Shorter missing, you get that concept with the Newport tracks.

The remaining six tracks on Bitches Brew Live are from the 1970 Isle Of Wight Festival. These cuts were originally released as part of the massive (and very tempting) Miles Davis: The Complete Columbia Album Collection. The tracks feature the quartet from Newport playing with saxophonist Gary Bartz, organist Keith Jarrett, and percussionist Airto Moreira. As on the Newport tracks, Davis holds back nothing, cutting phrases short and utilizing high-register notes. This time around, Dave Holland is on electric bass (and very funky), so you don’t have to struggle to hear him. Bartz’s best part is a distinctive and nasty solo on “Bitches Brew,” a track far removed from the album version with its stomping tempo about four minutes in. Jarrett matches Corea’s intensity throughout the tracks. And Moreira is a crazy bag of tricks in the background. I should note that one can gain a lot of insight about Davis’ musical philosophy by comparing the Newport and Isle Of Wight “It’s About That Time” performances. He pushes the limits of what one can do with the song with different results in each case. (Unfortunately, the Isle Of Wight version of “Sanctuary” doesn’t hold up to the Newport version due to the former’s running time of about one minute.)

Admittedly, Bitches Brew Live had more of an impact on me because I had not heard the Isle of Wight tracks. At the same time, that performance is monstrous and demonstrates why one can call Davis a rock star. In any case, the Newport tracks would be worth it alone for me. I hope to hear more of the Lost Quintet so that they seem less like a dream.

Rating: A-

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© 2011 Jedediah Pressgrove and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Columbia/Legacy, and is used for informational purposes only.