Miles Davis – Bitches Brew (40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition) ★★★★★

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miles davis bitches brewColumbia Legacy (3 CD, DVD, 2 LP box)  

Miles Davis (t),Wayne Shorter (ss), Bennie Maupin (b cl), Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea (el p), John McLaughlin (g), Dave Holland (b), Harvey Brooks (el b), Lenny White, Jack DeJohnette (d), Don Alias and Jumma Santos (perc) plus others. Rec. 1969-1970, plus DVD 1968

Originally issued as a 90-minute double gatefold album in April 1970, Bitches Brew was Davis’ first gold album and provided his second Grammy (for “Best Jazz Performance by a Large Group”). It has hardly been out of the Columbia catalogue since. In 1998, The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions containing the original six song sequence from the double LP set plus nine unissued tracks was released, the third in the Columbia/Legacy’s Miles Davis Series following Miles Davis And Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings and Miles Davis Quintet 1965-’68: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings.

After such a comprehensive reissue job, you might think that there was little more to be said that we didn’t already know. However, this anniversary edition of Bitches Brew follows in the same spirit as the 2008 award winning Kind of Blue re-release. The original albums are reissued on 180gram vinyl, which I prefer to the CD transfers. The music is warmer and there is a better spatial sense than the somewhat clinical sound of the CD reissues, despite the fact that Bitches Brew was effectively an exercise in musique concrète by producer Teo Macero – in fact it was one of the first jazz recordings that was deconstructed in post-production and it is only from its reconstructed form we construe its meaning. Also, the original cover art by Mati Klarwein (who also provided the artwork for Santana’s Abraxas and The Last Poets’ This is Madness among others) provides a visual counterpoint to the music which adds to the drama of the LP listening experience – the small, somewhat humdrum CD jewel caskets reduce the meaning and impact of 12-inch LP cover art, something all vinyl fans have never forgiven the record industry for.

In addition, there is a DVD of a previously unissued concert by the Miles quintet with Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette from Copenhagen in November 1968 that is worth its weight in gold, not only providing a visual correlative to a very exciting and colourful period of Davis career, but also adding to the documentation we have of Davis turning jazz inside out. At the time of this concert Davis was at the beginning his odyssey into electric music, with only Corea’s Fender Rhodes and DeJohnette’s rock rhythms betraying his new direction. Both the vision and sound enjoy wonderful clarity, making this essential Miles.

The set also includes three CDs, the first is the original Bitches Brew sessions in their original eight-track studio versions, which sound as if they are the Complete transfers, the second comprises six bonus tracks, with alternate takes of ‘Spanish Key’ and ‘John McLaughlin’ that did not appear on The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions – so this highly lauded “complete” set was not quite as complete as we were led to believe – plus jukebox 45 singles of ‘Miles Runs the Voodoo Down’ coupled with ‘Spanish Theme’ – original copies of this are now highly sought after and can fetch in excess of £300 on the collectors market – and ‘Great Expectations’ coupled with ‘Little Blue Frog’, the latter in stereo and the former in mono. Finally the third CD features a previously unissued concert performance by the band recorded in Tanglewood in August 1970, the same month of Davis’ legendary Isle of Wight performance. The extant CD and DVD of the latter concert reveal the band to be on fire, and it is perhaps no surprise that is the case at Tanglewood, representing a major find from the Columbia vault.

Historically, it is great to have Bill Graham introducing the band since he was so influential in encouraging jazz musicians to embrace rock, booking them on to his egalitarian programmes at the Fillmore. On this concert, in contrast to the Copenhagen DVD, Davis is truly grappling with the electric zeitgeist. What is of interest is that the pieces are all pared down concert versions and make their point more dramatically through brevity, none more so than the title track, which on the LP is some 26 minutes in length but in this live performance is pared down to some nine and a half minutes. Equally, ‘Miles Runs the Voodoo Down’ is just four minutes 39 seconds, and such is the quality of music this track seems to pass in a blink of an eye. Not included for review is a 5,000-word essay on the sessions by Greg Tate and what Columbia describe in their press release as “a tasteful memorabilia envelope” – it’s worth mentioning here that its equivalent in the Kind of Blue reissue was thoughtfully compiled, so hopefully this will be the case again.

It’s a presentation that does complete justice to the last classic album from jazz’s Golden Age. Yes, it comes with a bit of a price tag, but it is, after all, essential listening – besides, if the Kind of Blue set is anything to go by, it represents a shrewd investment. A Bitches Brew: Legacy Edition is also available that just includes the two Bitches Brew CDs mentioned above and the Copenhagen DVD at a more wallet friendly price.

– Stuart Nicholson