During the six years between Miles Davis‘s full-scale embrace of electric music in 1969 and his retirement in 1975, he released as many live records as studio documents, if not more. (At Fillmore East, Live-Evil, In Concert: Live at Philharmonic Hall, Dark Magus, Agharta, Pangaea, and later Black Beauty, It’s About That Time, and now this one). The material first heard on Live-Evil was later released, uncut and surrounded by much more from the same string of club dates, on the six-disc The Cellar Door Sessions 1970; it’s many fans’ fervent wish that the Japanese tour of 1975 that produced Agharta and Pangaea would get the same type of boxed-set treatment. Still, despite the amount of material available from this era, new revelations seem to appear on a regular basis. Each live disc adds something to the ongoing conversation about just what Davis was up to in these years: whether he was exploding jazz or abandoning it entirely; whether he was treating the music with the contempt that seemed like his secondary instrument, after the trumpet, or pushing it forward, like a loving father cuffing a child he knows has greater potential than he’s exhibiting at the moment.
It’s my belief (articulated in my 2005 book Running the Voodoo Down: The Electric Music of Miles Davis) that until late 1970—basically, with the arrival of bassist Michael Henderson—Davis was very much a jazz musician, albeit one enraptured by the potential of electric instruments, innovative production techniques, and aggressive rhythms. Bitches Brew Live (buy it from Amazon), which bears a somewhat misleading title, the better to tie it into the marketing campaign surrounding the 40th anniversary of the double studio album Bitches Brew, is a prime example of Miles Davis, jazz musician.
The title is only slightly misleading, in that it may cause the listener to expect to hear the expanded ensemble from Bitches Brew (which included multiple bassists and drummers, bass clarinet, electric guitar, and other instruments not part of Davis’s live setup) performing that music. What you actually get on Bitches Brew Live are two performances—one from July 1969, two months before Bitches Brew itself was recorded, and one from August 1970, eight months after its release—by two very different incarnations of Davis’s road band.
The first set is from the Newport Jazz Festival, recorded on July 4, 1969. It features what amounts to the Miles Davis Quartet; the trumpeter’s road band then included Wayne Shorter on tenor and soprano saxophones, Chick Corea on electric keyboards, Dave Holland on upright and electric bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums, but on this day, Shorter was stuck in traffic and didn’t make the show. With his onstage foil absent, Davis is forced to play a lot more than he ordinarily would; there were many occasions when he would play a knifelike phrase or two, or a brief solo, then let the band take over for long stretches. Here, Corea gets a few extended solos, and DeJohnette is chopping up time like a meth-addled chef, but the trumpet is the group’s dominant voice for much of the 25-minute mini-set. (The music fades in, so it’s reasonable to assume the band actually opened with “Directions,” as they did throughout 1969 and 1970, but that track’s not here, possibly because it was a flawed recording.) Also worthy of note is the first appearance of “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” two months before it would be recorded for Bitches Brew.
The bulk of Bitches Brew Live is taken up by Davis and company’s performance at the Isle of Wight Festival in the UK on August 29, 1970. Previous to this, two different edits of this set, each labeled “Call It Anything,” were issued on the compilations The First Great Rock Festivals of the Seventies: Isle of Wight/Atlanta Pop Festival and Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival 1970. Those included between 15 and 17 minutes of what was in fact an uninterrupted 35-minute medley of “Directions,” “Bitches Brew,” “It’s About That Time,” “Sanctuary,” and “Spanish Key,” all of which were regular features of Davis live sets well into 1971. The performance was also filmed, and can be seen on the DVD Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue, and it was included as a bonus disc inside the 70-CD Complete Columbia Album Collection from last year. But this is the first time it’s been available as a stand-alone disc, and it’s well worth hearing.
Sony has done a great job with the mix, which is important for this music. At this point, the band included alto saxophonist Gary Bartz in place of Wayne Shorter, and Keith Jarrett had joined Chick Corea on keyboards, while the rhythm team of Holland and DeJohnette remained in place. Bartz doesn’t play all that much, but the keyboardists do—they’re constantly battling, which makes it all the more important that they be placed on opposite sides of the stereo field, as they are. (It’s still difficult to tell who’s playing what; were they seated at acoustic pianos, their styles would be radically different, but the distortion and pedals they’re using make them both servants to the machinery. Maybe Jarrett, who’s refused to play electric keyboards since leaving the Davis band, has a point.)
The Davis electric bands of 1969-70 were astonishingly free. On record, Shorter frequently played soprano, but live, he blew some extremely fierce and exploratory tenor. Corea and Jarrett created waves of distortion and staticky squawks, when they weren’t rippling out almost baroque lines on Fender Rhodes. Holland started out playing acoustic bass exclusively, but was strapping on an electric before he left the band, and moving from jazz-based freedom to thick, almost blues-rock grooves. And DeJohnette was an incredibly powerful and forceful drummer, hammering the kit relentlessly while maintaining an astonishing rhythmic intricacy neither of his successors (Leon Ndugu Chancler, followed by Al Foster) ever matched. Both the Newport and Isle of Wight sets are electric jazz, complex and constantly shifting, more about constant forward momentum than groove. This is fierce, beautiful music, as abstract as anything being played by avant-gardists of the time but with enough raw melody to keep many, if not all, longtime Davis listeners in the fold. Bitches Brew Live is saddled with an unfortunate title that makes it seem like a footnote, but instead it’s an essential document.