Defusing Davis's Strange ‘Brew'
BY WILL FRIEDWALD
December 11, 2006
Miles Davis's classic 1969 album "Bitches Brew" is perhaps the most outrageous hoax ever perpetrated on the world's jazz lovers: For the first time since the swing era, a great jazz instrumentalist was able to produce art and sell it in large quantities to record buyers by convincing them that it was pop music.
At the time, "Bitches Brew" was promoted by Columbia Records as the breakthrough album in the new genre of "fusion," which promised to deliver the best of both worlds — namely the rock that was so popular and the jazz that was finally reaching the mainstream. Yet in retrospect, the album has little to do with any kind of rock 'n' roll, except maybe for some variations played by such guitar gods as Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, and Eric Clapton, who were deeply influenced by jazz and blues.
Just how much "Bitches Brew" is actually art music, with precious little to tie it to the pop of its period, was reinforced in a concert Saturday night at Merkin Hall featuring the saxophonist Bob Belden and his band, Animation, as part of a series called "Reissue: Classic Recordings Live."
Mr. Belden has a long history with "Bitches Brew."Since first hearing it as a freshman music student at North Texas State in the early 1970s, he has not only become one of the more important instrumentalists, composers, arrangers, and bandleaders on the contemporary scene, but a Grammy-winning producer of both new and historical albums. His specialty is the music of Miles Davis; in 1998 he produced a four-CD box entitled "The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions," which included not only the six tracks on the original 1969 double-LP, but an additional 15 different songs by more or less the same edition of the Davis ensemble at the same time.
If "Bitches Brew" was a successful "fusion," it wasn't between jazz and rock, but between the regular members of Davis's working quintet (Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette) and special guests who were added for the recording dates (Bennie Maupin, Joe Zawinul, John McLaughlin, etc). Likewise, the original tunes were a combination of material that the Quintet had been playing on the road and music spontaneously created in the studio, assembled and reworked from roughly nine hours of sessions and boiled down by Davis into a remarkably coherent double-LP.
The expanded group that recorded most of the original "Bitches Brew" included three horns, electric guitar, two keyboards, two basses (in some combination of electric and acoustic), and as many as four drummers and percussionists. By contrast, Animation consists of Mr. Belden on soprano sax, Tim Hagans on trumpet, Scott Kinsey on keyboard and various electronics, Matt Garrison on a five-string, fender-style electric bass, Guy Lachada on drums, and DJ Logic on turntables and additional electronica.
In terms of playing "Bitches Brew," Animation was well served by advances in technology. Mr. Kinsey can create as many different effects with his computerized setup as two keyboardists could 35 years ago, and DJ Logic could use his "instrument"to reinforce either the percussion or the keyboard.
On the original album, Davis experimented with electronic enhancements to his trumpet. He didn't have the raw technique of a Dizzy Gillespie or Clifford Brown, but he had a preternatural knowledge of how to coax a universe of sound from his instrument. The result was a revolutionary combination of reverb, feedback, echo, and other special effects, all of which blended with Davis's extant vocabulary of valving colorations. The novelty of these effects soon wore off, and few trumpeters have tried them since, but on Saturday Mr. Hagans unabashedly and authentically deployed electro-manipulations designed to sound like state-of-the-art 1969.
Yet the canniest imitation of Davis's trumpet timbre was created by Mr. Belden on his soprano sax, when, during the opening track, "Pharoah's Dance," he played a largely unaccompanied pentatonic passage that sounded considerably more Spanish than anything in the fourth track, "Spanish Key."
Taken as whole, Animation did more to imitate Davis's spirit of experimentation than his music. As with much of the best jazz repertory performances — such as Wynton Marsalis's reassessment of Louis Armstrong's Hot Five masterpieces and Steve Bernstein's revisiting of Don Cherry's "Relativity Suite" (to name two recent, trumpet-specific concerts) — the idea Saturday at Merkin Hall was to capture the spirit rather than the exact letter of the original "Bitches Brew." For one thing, Mr. Hagans didn't repeat the same allusion to "Spinning Wheel" that Davis threw in six minutes into the title track.
But in a more general sense, a reimagining of "Bitches Brew" rather than a note-by-note rendition is the only suitable tribute, because it is difficult to hear the original six extra-long tracks specifically as compositions: They are less about the melody than the groove, finding a specific rhythmic feeling and holding to it, slowing down occasionally to an almost painfully ad-lib tempo only for dramatic purposes. One reason this extremely avant-garde music found a more receptive audience than most forms of experimental jazz in the first place was because Davis simply kept the pulse going and the bottom (many layers of bass line) solid.
In earlier years, Davis had improvised on virtually everything: melody, harmony, modes, and scales, whereas by 1969 he seemed to be using nothing but groove and mood as a starting point. Though the music often seemed formless and rambling, it could never be accused of sounding repetitive or boring. But it was complicated, and Animation's performance helped illuminate the places in the compositions where the melodies actually reside and how they differ from one another.
The only short piece on the album, the four-minute track called "John McLaughlin," is essentially an excerpt from one of the extended jams spotlighting the rhythm on the title that Davis liked; here, as played by Mr. Kinsey, it seemed more like a distinct tune."Miles Runs the Voodoo Down" was also one of the more clearly defined melodies, an elaboration on the blues that Cassandra Wilson distilled into song form on her 1998 album "Traveling Miles." Animation's interpretation began with a powerful bass vamp, played by Mr. Garrison on a latin-style electric upright instrument, which made the piece sound like the offspring of Davis's 1959 "So What."
Animation's concert ended at the 90-minute mark, almost the exact length of the original album. The only notable absentee was the bass clarinet, played by Bennie Maupin on the original, whose presence in 1969 reinforced the idea that "Bitches Brew" was a jazz album rather than a pop album. It still has considerably more in common with the free jazz of Ornette Coleman and the avantgarde classical music of Stockhausen and Milton Babbit than it does with the Rolling Stones.
"Bitches Brew" was the catalyst for a lot of jazz that followed, but in 37 years there's been nothing to match it. Indeed, the idea that a double-LP set of abstract improvisations (some as long as 27 minutes) could sell a million copies today seems as far removed from us as the big band era.