Wednesday, May 11, 2011

You Say You Want a Revolution (We All Want to Change the World): Bitches Brew Live, or How Miles Davis Saved 21st Century Jazz



Bitches Brew was recognized as the proverbial “shot heard ’round the world” within weeks of being released by Columbia Records in April, 1970. In his musical choices--particularly the electric instrumentation, radically new editing approaches, and recent personnel changes--Miles had set off a fiery explosion that continues to reverberate throughout jazz. A good number of critics have spoken violently against it and still do to this day. Whether they were annoyed or confused by his new direction in music, it’s a case of no harm, no foul. It’s all good. The relentless hue and cry has helped introduce millions of people to jazz through the work of what Miles called the “best damn rock and roll band in the world.”
But until just this last February, no one but a small handful of people had ever heard that band play.
Not live. Certainly not recorded. Not whole tunes, or beginning-to-end performances of contiguous notes or phrases. The only people who had heard them were those fortunate few in May-June 1969, a time when the working band “played to a lot of half-empty clubs,” Miles said later in his autobiography.
Neither could you have heard this band if you had been one of the musicians or engineers, “live in the studio” at Columbia a few weeks later. Miles used the cavernous space and spread the players out, setting them up in a circle so that he could stand or move around at the center like an orchestra conductor and cue the musicians, stopping and starting them by pointing or using other gestures while the tape rolled. In some ways, he was less like a conductor and more like a film director shooting scenes—helping to facilitate what he, and more particularly, producer Teo Macero, were about to do. As the editor, Macero (with help from Miles) sliced and diced all the recorded takes to become part of a grand, interwoven and interconnected whole that bore only a resemblance to its original parts. Joe Zawinul, one of the two pianists on those sessions, is said to have walked into the Columbia offices one day after the album had been released, and asked what the music was that was playing on the PA… only to discover that he was listening to—but not recognizing—Bitches Brew.
No album was ever more aptly titled. Just the same, once all the editing and mixing had been done, the final version’s astonishingly beautiful form was groundbreaking. Despite not adhering to standard recording conventions, it soon became one of the fastest selling jazz records ever, and even more surprising (at least to many industry people) it was accomplishing what hadn’t been done on such a grand scale in many, many years: it was making new jazz fans by the score. Its commercial success, that rarity in jazz, elicited predictable outrage from the Jazz Police who recently had been fond of pronouncing the Death of Jazz—which made no difference to the young rockers who were listening to it, unless it made them feel even hipper in defiantly buying a copy.
Many millions have heard the legendary recording since then. But ardent fans and contrarian critics alike—neither present at the moment of inception—had all necessarily relied on producer Macero’s recombinant versions of what was recorded August 19-21, 1969 (the extent of Miles’ involvement in the editing and mixing is a matter of debate, and is beside the point). For 42 years, the legions who never heard the band play a complete tune had needed to content themselves with little more than rough bootlegs and the voluminous anecdotal lore about that original band’s performances.
Sure, there had been occasional glimpses of Miles’ embrace of funk and rock in his ominously heretical departures from the Church of Orthodox Jazz on 1968’s Filles de Kilimanjaro, and 1969’s In A Silent Way, recorded in February of that year. But for curious listeners, the mystery had always been that first cannonade, fired but never heard, by what the unrequited had dubbed the Lost Quintet. Columbia’s release of At Fillmore and many years later, Black Beauty (recorded live at Fillmore West) and Live at the Fillmore East, March 7, 1970: It's About That Time, gave listeners an idea of what the music eventually evolved into, but, with the subsequent personnel changes and eventual transformations in the material, could never answer the question: What did “the best damn rock and roll band in the world” sound like at the beginning—rough, ready and untamed by expectation? With Bitches Brew Live (Columbia/Sony Legacy, 2011) we finally have the answer. It is the first professional recording ever made of that aggregation. And for fans of historical symmetry, it was made, appropriately, on the same stage where rock’s supreme iconoclast, Bob Dylan, had first performed with Paul Butterfield’s electronically amplified instrumentation in 1965, in the cosmically blessed city of Newport, RI.
With the opening three tracks of Bitches Brew Live we can now hear, at last, the jazz revolution’s Battle of Lexington, the black powder musket reports that signaled the most dramatic changes in jazz since Jelly Roll Morton’s Black Bottom Stomp. Like those militiamen, Miles and company would soon face stern criticism from the starch-collared loyalists of the established order. And on this particular Saturday afternoon they were not only were out-numbered, but short-handed: when he and drummer Jack DeJohnette, pianist Chick Corea and bassist Dave Holland took the stage on July 5th, 1969, Wayne Shorter was stuck somewhere in traffic. But like the impassioned revolutionaries that they were, the truncated outfit rose to the occasion and, as a quartet, performed what are probably the most exciting, adrenaline-charged versions of “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” and “It’s About That Time/The Theme” ever recorded. “Sanctuary,” minus Shorter, gets short shrift, and at a subdued 45 seconds long, was probably used as a musical interlude, a cool-down after the athletic burner they had opened with.
The CD’s six other tracks are from the Isle of Wight, the last recording ever done with this same Lost Quartet of Miles, Chick, Jack and Dave. Wayne is gone again, this time for good, replaced for the time being by Gary Bartz, while Airto Moreira uses his cuica to enhance the music’s feral other-worldliness, and Keith Jarrett noodles on a little Fender Contempo organ. The Quartet’s the thing. You may have watched in astonishment and listened to this performance on the DVD Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue (Eagle Rock, 2004) but until you hear these newly remastered versions, you really haven’t heard all of them. This audio recording’s fidelity blows it away.
Suffice it to say, one by one, all serious histories and analyses of Bitches Brew and this band of mischief-makers will be amended or re-written as people listen to these three Newport tracks (as well as the remastered Isle of Wight tracks, to a lesser extent). Hearing these recordings captured in the earliest stage of creative development is going to change everything. Weary completists who can’t believe there could possibly be anything more to hear, need to file it in an entirely new category. Everything we’d heard until now was New Testament. Bitches Brew Live is the Book of Genesis. This was the revolution.
II. "In revolutions the occasions may be trifling, but great interests are at stake – Aristotle’s Politics, Book 5.
A year before those pivotal Columbia studio sessions, on a night in August, 1968, Miles Davis and his friend Philly Joe Jones were in the audience at Ronnie Scott’s storied club in London, there to see mutual friend Bill Evans (with bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Jack DeJohnette) perform. Between tunes they began commiserating.
Both were feeling a little out of sorts. Times had been tough for jazzers, tough enough that wild rumors were swirling, the most famous involving McCoy Tyner: supposedly, after leaving the august company of John Coltrane, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones, he had descended so far down from Mount Olympus that he’d begun playing support for Ike & Tina Turner, and when that didn’t pay the bills, driving a cab. It turns out neither were true, but such is the power of myth that these apocryphal stories have persisted. Times were indeed tough.
The year 1968 had much in common with 2011. The United States was a nation at war, which was not only hell, but very expensive. Combined with the spiraling costs of the ever-expanding social programs of the day, the Viet Nam war had created runaway currency inflation. Jazz artists were having a harder time than usual getting customers to open their wallets and come see them.
To make matters worse, despite Philly Joe’s nonpareil drumming skills, the UK Musicians’ Union was preventing him from playing while he held a teaching job in the Hampstead section of the city. Miles and his Second Great Quintet (with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams and Wayne Shorter) were working and selling a few records, but not in the volume Columbia had come to expect from their prize racehorse in years past, and certainly not in numbers comparable to the rockers. Not even close. “…jazz music seemed to be withering on the vine, in record sales and live performances,” Miles said in Miles: the Autobiography. “It was the first time in a long time that I didn’t sell out crowds everywhere I played.”
Problem is, his situation with his record company was uniquely different from any other jazz artist’s. He not only liked to take royalty advances and live well, Clive Davis and Columbia, who were unable to bear the idea of their prestigious icon leaving for greener pastures at another label, had always been willing to accommodate him. In the process they had run up quite a bill together. But that’s how Miles had always rolled, and would continue to roll his entire life. Driving his yellow Ferrari, playing brilliantly lyrical runs on his horn, assembling and leading the best musical talent in the world, all had snuggled together into adjoining chambers of the same heart that beat harmoniously beneath his breast. Art and commerce were component parts of the life he’d chosen, and contrary to popular fiction, he’d understood free enterprise long before he met Clive Davis. The problem in 1968 was that the fickle, unruly world of popular taste had all but left jazz for dead.
The difficulty was part economics, and part sociology. The older, more mature jazz fans were becoming very conservative with their money, less inclined to go out to a jazz club, whereas their carefree children were embracing the Beatles and other British invaders, madly spending their allowances on rock & roll records and shows.
Miles and Philly Joe had been left out. Just as a writer needs readers, a musician needs listeners. No musician ever spent more than two seconds pondering the philosophical quandary that asks “if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it make a sound?” Because the answer is, “of course… but who cares?” If a trumpeter blows his horn and no one else hears it, he blows the note again. The real question for him is “how do you get that guy in the forest to hear it?”
Something had clicked as he watched and listened to the young bassist playing in pianist Pat Smythe’s trio onstage, a young Brit named Dave Holland. Before Bill Evans’ trio could take the stage for the second set, the germ of a conspiracy had glimmered to life. Miles sent word to Holland through Philly Joe that he was interested in hiring him, and left for the States.
It can be difficult to grasp the kind of power Miles Davis had while acquiring players. It was this simple: Miles got whomever he wanted. He didn’t particularly mind taking someone from another leader—in fact, it was almost a mark of distinction for the cuckolded band leader that Miles had taken his protégé. He was the best known and most successful leader in jazz. He knew he had much more to offer to a musician than just a regular paycheck, that his was the premiere gig at the leading edge of the jazz frontier, and there was hardly a musician in the world who would ever consider turning down an offer to work with him. Two weeks later, Holland, who had steady work with Ronnie Scott, playing with various bands who came through the club or in the support acts, got the word that Miles wanted to replace Ron Carter and needed him to get on a plane to New York for a show in three days.
Which he did, of course. Next, Miles asked if his drummer Tony Williams would track down fellow Bostonian, pianist Chick Corea. Corea’s recording for Blue Note a few months earlier, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (Blue Note, 1968) was unquestionably brilliant, and anyone who had heard it knew his grasp of abstracted harmonies and rhythmic invention were mind-blowing. There was an upcoming gig and Herbie Hancock, on his honeymoon and stuck in South America, was confined by a doctor and told he couldn’t fly back until he had recovered from a case of food poisoning. Miles, in his famously Machiavellian way, viewed this as a fortuitous, natural juncture. Herbie had been recording his own projects and mulling the idea of getting out on his own. It was time to change gears. Several of them. Chick got a call from Tony (himself on the way out of Miles’ band to start his own band, Lifetime) who found his friend in a San Francisco hotel working to support his family by playing accompaniment for Sarah Vaughan. Could he get on a plane? Fortunately, Bob James was available to take over the job and Chick was on the first flight he could get.
Both arrived. Neither had ever played with Miles or even met him, but revolutions are like that. Neither had ever played an electrically-amplified version of his instrument before, either. It was time for new directions in music. It was time for jazz to rock and roll. Miles knew it.
III. “You say you'll change the constitution/ Well, you know/ We all want to change your head/ You tell me it's the institution/ Well, you know/ You better free you mind instead.” – “Revolution,” John Lennon
George Wein knew it, too. Since 1954 he had been successfully mounting the Newport Jazz Festival, but like the eponymous folk festival that sprang from it five years later, its ticket sales had been falling off. For awhile, after seeing the reactions to Dylan’s infamous appearance, he’d been a bit shy about showcasing amplified music, but this reluctance was overcome in 1969 by his urge to sell tickets.
There they were, jazz’s biggest promoter (Wein had also created the Playboy Jazz Festival in 1959) and its biggest band leader, trying to find a way back into their own game. In the Bitches Brew Live CD’s excellent liner notes, Michael Azerrad describes how Miles had forsaken his usual practice of staying on a rented yacht anchored nearby while waiting for his set during the annual event—performing when it was time, then getting back on board and sailing home to NYC afterward—but instead, this year remaining through the entire weekend festival and, Wein is quoted as saying: “He watched every group and he watched the response of everyone in the audience, who got the most applause, what music they were playing.”
What makes this comment so significant is who the bands were that Miles was watching. “Bebop, a revolutionary music in its time, had been absorbed into the mainstream of jazz. . . Rock was happening,” Wein told Azerrad. So in addition to Herbie Hancock, Roland Kirk, Art Blakey and Dave Brubeck, the promoter had booked an extensive selection of rockers—Janis Joplin and Johnny Winter, Brits like Jeff Beck, Jethro Tull, Ten Years After and John Mayall, plus funksters James Brown and Sly & the Family Stone.
“Be careful what you wish for,” as the saying goes. On Friday, July 4th, in a preview of what would unfold six weeks later at Woodstock, the show featured an almost entirely rock & roll lineup and drew 25,000 people, 10,000 more than had ever attended a previous Newport Jazz Festival performance. By the end of the weekend, the estimated attendance of 80,000-90,000 would nearly double the festival’s previous record, overwhelming the tiny harbor town of 37,500. So unprepared were the townspeople for anything but small, polite jazz audiences, and so disruptive were the crowds (thousands of unticketed attendees reportedly crashing fences and/or swarming a nearby hillside, some starting fires, mixing it up with security personnel, etc.) that the local city council feared a riot, and after the Saturday event’s problems asked Wein to cancel the Sunday night performance of the festival’s putative biggest draw, Led Zeppelin. Unnerved by the chaotic situation, Wein acquiesced and announced the shore story that one of the band’s members was too ill to perform, and canceled them. But when Jimmy Page, who felt Newport was an important gig for the fast-emerging band, refused to go along with the ruse and insisted on appearing, Wein reversed his position a few hours later. Thousands of disgruntled attendees had already packed up and left after hearing of the earlier cancellation, but Led Zeppelin took the stage and performed just the same. They, their fans and Wein all shared various hard feelings about the experience for some time to come. Wein would never attempt such a thing again and, in fact, would return to a strictly jazz format eventually and move the program to NYC in 1972. All’s well that ends well, though. In 1981 Wein returned the festival to Newport, and there the elder statesman and the oldest and grandest American jazz festival have ever remained.
Miles had watched the entire spectacle unfold, and couldn’t have been more intrigued with what he’d seen. He and his associates had been playing the new material for a couple months prior to their show Saturday afternoon, but when he took the stage it was with a renewed sense of purpose and urgency. After soaking up rock acts for three days, all his suspicions had been confirmed. He’d never copied the work of other artists, and he wasn’t about to start. He and his band were at this festival to play something no one had ever heard before. It wasn’t jazz and it wasn’t rock. It was jazz/rock, right at the cliff’s edge.
Six weeks later, on the morning of August 19th, 1969, less than 24 hours after Jimi Hendrix’s last notes had echoed across the hills outside Bethel, NY, Miles would bring these same musicians together again (with Wayne Shorter returned) plus Lenny White, Juma Santos, Don Alias, Joe Zawinul, Harvey Brooks, Bennie Maupin, Larry Young and John McLaughlin at a Columbia studio and commence recording Bitches Brew.
So when you hear his horn come in on “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” at Newport like he’s a fire-eater blowing propane through a Bunsen burner, know that he’d had an epiphany of Miles Davis proportions. He’d assembled an elite band composed of the heaviest hitting players he could find on planet Earth. Stories vary on the kind of direction or instruction Miles might have given these three young men that day--he never was inclined to have long chats with his musicians. But, when you first hear them start to kick it this hard, you’ll know for sure that they’d come to rock.
IV. Bitches Brew Live at Newport
Remember when you first heard the term “jazz/rock,” and the images it conjured of a big, ass-kicking rock and roll backbeat? Didn’t hear much of it. There were rock rhythms, yes, and there were jazz melodies and harmony. But there wasn’t much of that howling explosion from your diaphragm as it pounds your nervous system and takes over fibrillating your heart.
The first thing you’ll hear on “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” the opening tune, is the unison bass line, heavy on the downbeat, Corea on his Fender Rhodes and Holland on the double bass (not well amplified, better on headphones) but the first thing you’ll probably sit up and take notice of is Jack DeJohnette’s drums, coming at you like a cross between a crazy flying saucer and some high speed, three-engine Japanese locomotive getting the train to run hard and run on time, pistons pounding.
About the time you’re feeling the polyrhythmic assault DeJohnette is laying down, you’ll slip back to listening to the infectiously rock-hard bass line Corea is crafting with Holland, its obvious deconstruction of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” chugging incrementally into a syncopated funkiness, until the whole band is so tightly ratcheted into the groove that it’s necessary to start releasing the tension with solos. Wave after wave of them, Corea plays so aggressively that he’s almost daring Miles to jump in. Which the boss does, time after time, answering the pianist with blasts and showers of upper register sparks. The two of them go after it like two musical athletes, feverishly running, pouncing, leaping faster and higher and never exhausting their energies or imaginations.
In years to come he would emerge as the leading exponent of all things Fender Rhodes, as he transformed the corny rock-n-roller’s toy into an electronic Steinway. Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, Jan Hammer, all of them were listening to everything Corea did with it. No one who ever heard him play “La Fiesta” or “Spain” on those early Return To Forever recordings will ever forget it. But no recording (and likely no live performance) before or since, is preparation for exactly what you’ll hear him doing on the three Newport tracks. There have been are a lot of Chick Coreas. This is not the one who comps politely as other players take their turns, or insinuates himself unobtrusively into the musical conversation, taking a tasteful 16 bars for himself here and there; neither is this the flame-throwing technical wizard whose solos weave and soar through the atmosphere, leaving a contrail of stunned silence. Here he has become the hub of the wheel, the center of the band. Miles’ band. His fury and intensity are directed at attacking the music with a force that seems to well up volcanically through his veins, pouring out his fingers and wrapping around Holland’s and DeJohnette’s frenetic rhythmic structures and enfolding Miles—the axle of the flywheel on this machine--who is playing like a brilliantly talented surfer awakened from a dream, only to discover he is atop a terrifyingly mountainous wave.
Miles must have been blown away by this rhythm section. The three of them were welded together, a sovereign union. Earlier in the summer Holland and DeJohnette had joined Corea in recording the monumental Is sessions for Blue Note, a couple hours of freely improvised musical explorations that foreshadowed the kind of work he and Holland would do together in Circle a year later. But as connected on that Newport stage as the three of them were, harmonically abstract and rhythmically complex, they remained in a kind of synchronous orbit around Miles, who recognized the opportunity to let it fly fast and rock hard.
Shorter’s absence was an important part of atmospheric conditions that made this perfect storm possible. His influence on this unit was so great, it couldn’t have been otherwise. Under normal circumstances his soprano sax would have provided an alternate solo voice to Miles’, and the two of them would have been out in front of the rhythm section to a much greater extent. Their interplay, as witness any occasion when all five of them performed, was a defining element. The total effect of the quintet with Shorter involved emphasized a kind of wandering lyricism and tended to utilize subtler rhythms. Without him on this night, Corea necessarily had to step up as a soloist and play more with Miles, which altered his role in the rhythm section dramatically. His comping has a different set of harmonic values, a different feel, his oftentimes intellectual, Bill Evans-like touch replaced by an utter lack of restraint in the way he just goes full out. Holland is playing in such close cooperation with Corea, and in such similar timbral regions, that it is often difficult to tell his acoustic bass’ soft sonorities and the round, oak-barrel plangencies coaxed from the Fender Rhodes apart. That may sound like a bad thing, but it is not at all. On this particular day at Newport, Corea’s rental piano sounds like the Rhodes Mark 1 Stage Piano, which could be attached to an external amplifier for an aching, fat-bottomed resonance and lovely pipe organ fidelity in lower registers. If you’ve ever stood next to a propane tank or cistern and given it a sharp, openhanded slap and heard the cavernous, whale-deep utterance—he’s getting that sound out of it. Holland knew what to do with his own big, upright wooden whale in that contralto-contrabass range, and between them they were making sounds with oceanic depth. DeJohnette is playing like he has four hands, creating a percussive tsunami full of pounding surf, undercurrents, and riptides that have enough tonal range that he, too, is supporting additional orchestrational weight.
And if you listen to the trilling and double-tonguing Miles is doing, it is plain that he has joined the rhythm section himself. Nothing invigorates a virtuoso like another’s virtuosic performance. Miles is so fired up to play that he takes the same tack as Corea. Either because of Shorter’s absence or in spite of it, Miles assumes a second solo voice. The energy level on his solos is breathtaking, and every time he hears the abstracted blues harmonies or syncopated block chords Corea is engaging Dave Holland with, he leaps in with his own in ways that are even more melodic than many other nights with this band. There is an aggressive enthusiasm for the rhythmic drive of the piece that is unrelenting. No one stops. No one lays out. No one maunders. This is balls-to-the-wall musical upheaval.
This was the beginnings of “the best damn rock and roll band in the world,” the rhythm section from hell.
The dynamic reversal of “Sanctuary,” the second piece, is the clue to what Miles’ plan had been for the set from the beginning. Re-arranged and electrified, subdued, slowed down, it’s approached by him and his rhythmnists as a calm, cooler breeze than usual, using it for the release it offered musically to the audience, and for the relief it meant for the musicians. The intensity of “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” had been so great that it’s possible no other piece in their repertoire but “Sanctuary” could have been used to follow it and fill the need so aptly.
Indeed, this version of the tune without the presence of the author changed the dynamic of it. On a typical night Wayne Shorter and Miles had a variety of approaches for it… They could exchange ideas in the many ways a duet allows. Miles might play under him harmonically as he soloed, or he might anchor the root of the chord himself, as he did later in the Copenhagen (seen on the digitally restored DVD included in the Bitches Brew 40th Anniversary Edition) and let Miles attack his solo more aggressively. But in all instances, the title of “Sanctuary” was a forecast of the change of pace in the performance.
As they went into “Sanctuary” this night it’s clear that they really did view it in the spirit of its name. One easily visualizes Corea, Holland and DeJohnette all pulling out their towels and drying off, lighting cigarettes, shaking out their hands and loosening their shoulders and necks from the workout they’d just been put through. The basic melody and composition are there, but the quiet sanctum of this place is underscored as an artistic rest, a compositional pause, and feels like the musical equivalent of a back stage conversation. Each of them solos, not too hastily, in a way that somehow de-emphasizes the solo and simply contributes to the overall sound as each comps and plays fills in the same spirit, for a soothing, ambient effect.
The serenity of “Sanctuary” segues somewhat mysteriously into “It’s About That Time/The Theme,” the third and final Newport track. Within moments DeJohnette is revving up the engine with rapid-fire snare work. Corea is twisting the dials and making his Rhodes emit resonant, metallic snaps, and when Miles signals that “It’s About That Time” he starts throwing down fistfuls of syncopated block chords that make the wobbly electric keyboard sound like a big, fat Hammond B3, playing rhythms with a drummer’s sensibilities, a la Jimmy Smith (whose Newport performance may have inspired Corea the previous afternoon) in deep counterpoint that rolls along in waves, while DeJohnette’s snare fills ride inside the curl of the thundering surf as it crests and breaks. With Holland girding the bottom harmonies, they’re back at their rocked out pace, bluesier and less complex than they’d been on “Voodoo,” in a groove so fat I wanted them to stretch it twice as long.
V. The Isle of Wight
This same rhythm section made their final appearance with Miles’ working band in front of approximately 600,000 people (double the estimated audience at Woodstock) at the Isle of Wight Festival on the 29th of August, 1970. Jack DeJohnette would stay with the unit for a little while longer, but Chick Corea and Dave Holland had given notice of their intention to move on and devote their full energies to the free jazz collective they had formed called Circle. This group, whose talents also included saxophonist/multi-reedist Anthony Braxton and drummer Barry Altschul, had already signed on with the visionaries at Blue Note and had already recorded the material that was eventually released as Circling In and Circulus (and possibly Circle 2: Gathering as well, whose liner notes indicate it was recorded on March 17, 1971, seven months later—unlikely, in my mind, because they were touring in Europe at the time.)
Much has been said about the performance at the Isle of Wight. Shorter is gone, replaced by Gary Bartz. This was the last performance of that Lost Quartet consisting of Miles plus his three rhythm nationals, Corea, Holland and DeJohnette, the end of the story for “the best damn rock and roll band.” For the trip to the other side of the pond, Miles had also brought along Airto Moreira and Keith Jarrett. Airto (who says Miles never did formally hire him to work in the band) provided lots of exotic polyrhythms and ethereal sound effects, so his inclusion with this group makes sense. I’ve never known what to make of the meandering little filligrees Jarrett is playing, but they don’t often intrude. Again, the Quartet’s the thing.
But that brings me to the salient feature of these last six tracks on Bitches Brew Live. If you are an aficionado, you have already seen the DVD of the full performance and feel you have heard them. I thought as much myself. This is because I have grown to dis-trust, dis-miss, dis-regard and otherwise diss nearly any CD of a recording pitched by the record company’s marketing people as “re-mastered” or “re-mixed.” Any audiophile knows that the original recording cannot be improved. Enhanced or sharpened or sweetened, yes. Changed, no. “Improved?” By digitally sampling the analog recording? Reissues are most often a re-invention of the wheel for the record label, and hopefully a payday for the artists and/or songwriters... which isn’t a crime, but they often are a lesson in leaving well enough alone. Until very, very recently, the original mastering and mixing usually were much superior to whatever could be produced by digitizing and messing with it.
So the big news on the last six tracks of Bitches Brew Live, taken from that Isle of Wight performance—in actuality, one long suite of tunes and an un-segmented medley-style continuum… are FANTASTIC. If ever there was an argument for re-issuing a recording, this is it. The fidelity on this set of tunes is startlingly better than anything you have heard before, and would be reason enough to acquire it. Richard Seidler and Michael Cuscuna (who has made a career fashioned from labors of love, including those Blue Note sessions in 1970 with the freely improvising Holland and Corea) and the people employed to do the mastering, have taken a curatorial approach to the task of putting this package together. Like those steady-handed art restorers who gave us back the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, their decisions will be analyzed and criticized for some time. But not by me. It was like hearing a new recording, different from anything I’d heard before.
By the bye, in answer to the question, “How much did Miles want to rock?” the answer is that he was slated to have a meeting to discuss a recording project with Jimi Hendrix while he was in old London town for the Isle of Wight festival, but it didn’t happen, and three weeks later Hendrix was gone from this mortal coil.
VI. Final thoughts, un-answered questions (stupid and otherwise)
1. Did Miles “sell out” or incorporate musical forms popular in his day?
2. Is much of the music he recorded from Filles de Kilimanjaro forward an embracing of the culture around him, not an artistic prostitution or a fatally flawed compromise?
3. Did Louis Armstrong really say: "Jazz is music that's never played the same way once?"
4. Did Miles’ love of the popular music of his day—James Brown, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix—heartfelt, instead of a sign that he had joined Darth Vader and crossed over to the Dark Side?
5. Is there no real reason for the critical backlash against jazz/rock except for the fact that it made money for a few people?
6. Did Duke Ellington really say jazz is “freedom of expression?” And when that wasn’t enough, did he say of jazz that “It’s all music?”
7. Is it true, as is hinted at in Miles’ autobiography, that he and Columbia Records president, Clive Davis, and later George Butler, talked about the future of jazz sales, in particular, his sales and the hundreds of thousands of dollars he owed Columbia, and how he might approach a balancing of the books?
8. In those conversations, did Clive Davis suggest to Miles that his (Miles’) enormous affection for rock and roll and funk might be a good avenue to pursue in his own musical endeavors and artistic expression?
9. Did Clive push and cajole Miles into going along with the idea of letting the rising star and promotional genius, rock and roll’s newly-crowned impresario, Bill Graham, book him into larger venues that held larger numbers?
10. Has Sony Legacy probably got a vault of un-issued Miles Davis recordings that they intend to mine for eternity?
I love this discussion.
My own answers to all the questions I listed are either 1) yes, 2) I believe so, or 3) I hope so. I certainly hope all of those things are true. I personally want jazz artists to think of all kinds of ways to make a living with their artistry, make all the deals they can, and sell as many records and tickets as possible. I want composers to be paid all their royalties, and musicians to get paid well for every bit of their work. Because what I want most of all is for jazz artists to keep making jazz.
Drummer Bobby Previte, whose 11-piece group Voodoo Orchestra devote themselves to the music from the Miles’ Bitches Brew period, answered many of these questions about that seminal music from an artistic viewpoint for an interview with Matt Snyder in the December 1997/January 1998 issue of 5/4 Magazine, in which he said about Bitches Brew:
“Well, it was groundbreaking, for one. How much groundbreaking music do you hear now? It was music that you had that feeling you never heard quite before. It came from another place. How much music do you hear now like that? It was about, you know, a great freedom in music. There was a lot of risk taking in that music, there was a lot of soul in the music: Three things that I feel are very lacking in today’s music.”
The questions Previte didn’t answer in that interview were addressed last year when the Bitches Brew 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition was released, and one critic got an unexpected reply from Bob Belden. Belden, a fine musician and producer and one of the world’s key curators who have made sure we still have a jazz recording tradition in the 21st century, had labored long and well with Michael Cuscuna to produce these recordings for reissue, only to have some people dismiss them as unimportant or worse. His response to one reviewer, published as a comment on the jazz music website AllAboutJazz.com on 11/22/2010, got me to smile because of its forthrightness. Mr. Belden’s epistle is an excellent statement about Jazz, Economics, Miles Davis, how Miles helped to keep the art form viable, and how jazz musicians pay their bills. Jazz Economics 101 is not taught in college for a good reason: no one has written a textbook yet. But when I ran across the note from Mr. Belden, I determined that the elusive textbook’s foreword had been written. Here are a few excerpts:

Miles was well aware of the need for companies to release all of the music. He was proud of his tenure at Columbia. HE WANTED EVERYTHING TO COME OUT in order to prove the vast nature of his mind. He made deals up to the day he died for unissued music.

Miles recorded music and let the company determine the LP configuration. He was not concerned about sales as he 'owed' Columbia hundreds of thousands of dollars well into the 1970s as his royalty rate was 2¢ per side, upped to 6¢ in 1971. It remained at 6¢ until the late 70s, when George Butler, fearing Miles would leave the label, upped the rate to 9¢ per side, or 18¢ per LP. Do the math.

Miles was paid $5000 for Kind of Blue. Coltrane and the rest $160!

Each musician on "Bitches Brew" made a total of $215 for the 2-LP set. Union scale.

As far any alternate takes, again, Teo Macero made the decisions not based on anything but how Miles sounded. It was his opinion that determined what was issued and what was not.

What about "Fun" (composed by Gil Evans and the original title was "Gil's Waltz"), "Circle in the Round", "Directions", the alternates from "Milestones". If any other band had made those tracks their own the would be considered geniuses.
. . .
Now think for one minute about the concept of a Large, Multinational Corporation with absolutely no real interest in jazz music to allow us to treat Miles like Mozart and create an overview of a body of work at the level that we did. Unprecedented.”


VII. Epilogue
These recordings were made in 1969 at the Newport Jazz Festival and in 1970 at the Isle of Wight. I am eternally grateful to Michael Cuscuna, Richard Seidel, Reice Hamel, Mark Wilder, Mariana Triana, and Donna Kloepfer for pushing this through. These fine people knew the value of their work. If they had backed off from the task because moldy figs and other killjoys had condemned Miles Davis’ post-1967 oeuvre, claiming his estate was just filling the coffers with another re-issue, we would never have heard these recordings. The only chance we ever had of hearing the best damn recording of the “best damn rock and roll band” would have never happened.
So I hope Sony Legacy sells tons of copies of Bitches Brew Live and stuffs their bank accounts with money and declares record profits... and then keeps right on issuing more music. I hope the Miles Davis estate is enriched. I hope a miracle occurs and every working jazz musician makes at least twice as much money this year as last.
In the current economy, most jazz titles sell fewer than 500 copies. Not 500,000, but 500. A big established artist might sell as many as 10,000. Let that register for a moment. Released in the spring of 1970, Bitches Brew was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America in May of 1976, but it was 27 years later, on September 22, 2003, before it earned a platinum record for selling one million copies. Kind of Blue had made it to the same mark by 1997 (and has sold even more vigorously since), but both achievements happened long after Miles had died in 1991. These are unquestionably stellar feats for jazz recordings. But… Rihanna’s album Loud was certified platinum two months and a week after its November 16, 2010 release, on January 25, 2011, in the midst of a worldwide recession. That fact might make you sad, it might make you cynical, but it makes me glad, because she helped to keep the recording industry alive long enough to release Bitches Brew Live a month later.
In the long run it is Michael Buble who keeps the Frank Sinatra estate in business, as much as the other way around. If Miles were alive today, he would go back stage, give Diana Krall a big hug and thank her for what she does with “Fly Me to the Moon” and “Cry Me a River.”
And she would thank him for “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down.”

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

A couple of quibbles: I think it would have been Pat Smythe, not Pat Sly, whom David Holland was playing with when Miles heard him at Ronnie Scott's. And the divine Sassy is Sarah Vaughan, not Sarah Vaughn.

Bob D.

Robert Bush said...

Wow! Carl, that is one of the most intelligent and beautifully written pieces I've ever read about that particular period in jazz history.

I don't agree with you about Keith Jarrett's contribution, but, we don't need to agree on everything.

The detail and research you put into this is awesome, and really makes the piece a joy to read.Jack was wonderful with that band and Circle was indicative of how much "free-er" the core group was--much more than they got credit for.

Great, job! This is what music writing is supposed to look like.

Anonymous said...

No: Sarah Vaughan.

Bob D.

Carl Hager said...

Bob D. - First, a little explanation/apology for my behavior and my blog host software's -- Google's Blogger announced on May 12 that your posted comment on that day, along with thousands of others since May 11 @ 7:37 a.m. PDT on all the other blogs they host, had been taken down due to big technical difficulties. Yesterday they announced it was now possible to post again on these blogs, but they hadn't quite worked out how to restore all those lost comments. I was very glad to see your comment this morning, so that I could respond here to what you'd said both on Thursday and today, and have it make sense to someone else trying to follow the discussion. Here's a copy of your first comment, resurrected from Blogger's original email notification:

A couple of quibbles: I think it would have been Pat Smythe, not Pat Sly, whom David Holland was playing with when Miles heard him at Ronnie Scott's. And the divine Sassy is Sarah Vaughan, not Sarah Vaughn.
Bob D.


After a little research I concluded you are absolutely right. Holland's interviewer in the 2 Sept 2009 issue of chicagojazz.com misquotes him describing the gig at Ronnie Scott's as Pat Sly's trio with vocalist Elaine Delmar. I've now read a another interview with Holland where he cites the pianist's name as Pat Smythe, and some background material on Patrick Smythe that all but ends any further discussion.

As far as Ms. Vaughan... your original comment indicated I had only blown it on spelling her last name, so I just did a fast search on the misspelled "Vaughn," added an "a" and moved on. It's corrected now. I've also seen a couple other typos but haven't had the capability for correcting them until just recently.

Thank you for your quibbles. Your scholarship is much appreciated. One of the reasons I started writing about jazz in the first place, is that so much of what I wanted to read about was either non-existent or factually inaccurate. Your observations are welcome here any time.

Carl Hager said...

Robert Bush - Thank you for your kind words. As far as Jarrett's playing, you're right, we don't have to agree. The guy seems to be kind of disconnected from the rest of the band, and the nasal quality of that Contempo organ he's playing doesn't help. But like your recent comments about small ears - I may just need to hear it differently sometime for my ears to open to it. Your comment on how free the playing of the core group was, is right to the point. Jack's done a lot of work with Chick and Dave outside of the Davis material. He had a project called the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, NY and recorded some crazy live stuff at a festival with Chick, Lee Konitz and Miroslav Vitous in 1981.

BTW, for a cautionary tale about research, please see the comments here from Bob D., re: Holland's playing with the Pat Smythe Trio at Ronnie Scott's. For me, the standard of excellence in scholarship is a willingness to do regular correction of the facts until real documentation results. It's kind of amazing to consider how much misinformation exists just because someone published it and never bothered to correct it.