Miles Davis – Bitches Brew Live

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By 1970 it was clear that Miles was obviously a man on a mission. Gone were the stylish silk suits, tossed in favour of funky afro-flavoured outfits with futuristic patterns. And it wasn’t just his wardrobe that had changed, so too his music; dramatically. So much so that by the time he recorded Bitches Brew in August 1969, it was almost as if he had crossed into a parallel universe altogether. So radical was his transformation at the time that it’s hard to imagine that this was the same artist who recorded Kind of Blue, some ten years earlier, an album which is widely regarded as the most perfect jazz LP ever made.

Bitches Brew Live captures Davis in a state of transition, between predominately acoustic explorations to full blown electric improvisations, and includes two separate performances, the first recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival in July 1969, and the second at the larger than Mecca Isle of Wight Festival in August 1970. The former took place a mere month before sessions for Bitches Brew proper, and had on deck Chick Corea (electric piano), Dave Holland (bass), and Jack DeJohnette (drums), along with the man with the horn himself, naturally. While the latter consisted of a somewhat larger ensemble, namely Gary Bartz (alto sax, soprano), Keith Jarrett (organ), Chick Corea (electric piano), Dave Holland (bass), Jack DeJohnette (drums), and Airto Moreira (percussion).

First we have a ten minute run through of “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down”, where the whole band seem to be flying by the seat of their pants. Corea is especially impressive in his ability to invent new patterns and textures, while Miles floats in and out, in typical amorphic fashion. A truncated “Sanctuary” follows, where it sounds as though Miles and Co. are continuing to explore their way, like some abstract painting awaiting the necessary brushstrokes to bring it all together. “It’s About That Time/The Theme” bears scant resemblance to the version on In a Silent Way, as if Miles was in a hurry, eager to get things moving toward his next project.

Now if you thought that was challenging, Miles’ gig at the Isle of Wight must have seemed akin to him standing on stage while being backed by the Cantina Band from Star Wars. Such was the contrast between this and everything else that was going on at the festival.

Things start off with “Directions”, a trippy, outer space number if there was ever one, to the extent that one wonders how Miles was even invited to perform in the first place (mind you, I’m glad that he was). We segue into “Britches Brew”, a dense and nebulous concoction of disparate elements. Aspects of rock, funk, and of course jazz abound, all snaking around each other and combining into different forms of musical zoology. A jerky, frantic, and funky “It’s About That Time” makes a second appearance, and while I will always prefer the original album version, what they achieve here is a kind of controlled form of chaos, where anything can happen, and yet all the matter in the universe remains together. In other words, regardless of what might be happening at the sub-atomic level, it doesn’t mean that the world around you is about to disintegrate and defy the gravitational constant any time soon. We have another interpretation of “Sanctuary”, which is quite different from the previous version from Newport, before things shift seamlessly into “Spanish Key”, which sees everyone doing their very best to mess with the space-time continuum, albeit in an extremely funky way. Although there is a strong lyricism underpinning the group’s performance, especially Bartz, whose sax solos are as smooth as they are layered, while Corea plays some truly cosmic piano, as DeJohnette and Holland add a little intensity of their own. At around the five minute mark Miles comes in, giving it some momentum, before building it slowly and gradually toward a brief and explosive outburst of jazz-rock fury in “The Theme”. And there you have it, the only jazz outfit to perform at the Isle of Wight. Extraordinary really when one considers how compartmentalised music nowadays has become. Or maybe it’s audiences today who are the problem. Because personally I think young people had a much broader ear back then. To hear bands such as Free, Jethro Tull, Moody Blues, and Miles Davis is the sort of thing which we shall never see again, sadly to say.

Now for your average rock listener who might be wondering what all the fuss is about, Bitches Brew Live could prove itself to be a pretty intense listen. A strange and alien world which can surely only exist on one of Jupiter’s exotic moons. Certainly such notions spring to mind when describing the contents of this album. “Tennis without a net” is how one jazz musician described it. Although personally I prefer cosmic string theory, because not just is it multi-dimensional, this music has many threads of its own, each managing somehow to keep everything from descending into absolute confusion.

Miles himself never seemed to look back, nor pay too much attention to his past. Bridging the old with the new, always moving forward, not only was he a steam train of creativity, he was also creating his own tracks to travel on, to the extent that Davis went far beyond what most jazz musicians had ever dreamed of. Which I suppose is what made him so controversial in the first place.