By Marc Lee
Name the most controversial jazz recordings and the list is sure to include Duke Ellington’s "Black and Tan Fantasy," Bird and Diz’s "Groovin’ High" and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come.
But name the most controversial and influential recording and there’s only one: Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.
Columbia/Legacy has just re-released the late trumpeter’s masterpiece and expanded it with 12 alternate takes, unreleased tracks and songs that appeared on later Davis releases. Originally a double album, it now takes up four CDs. The digitally remastered reissue cleans up the sound of the original eight-song lineup, which was recorded during three storied sessions on Aug. 19-21, 1969, while the never-released material draws from five sessions between November 1969 and February 1970.
For the first-time listener, it is hard to understand why Brew is such a seminal album. Even with the remastering, it sounds dated. Chick Corea’s and Herbie Hancock’s burbling electronic keyboards have been surpassed by multisonic digital synthesizers; John McLaughlin’s overdriven guitar pales next to MIDI-driven distortion; and any kid with a digital four-track can match the quality of Mr. Davis’ analog recording process in his/her bedroom.
At the time, however, Mr. Davis was state-of-the-art. Two years earlier, the Beatles had produced the amazing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by manipulating the studio’s controls, incorporating echo effects, backward tracks and the like. Mr. Davis and producer Teo Macero followed suit in 1969, letting tape roll continuously during sessions and then cutting and splicing the tracks for 1969’s In a Silent Way. He followed the same line on Brew and added tape loops, overdubs, echo effects, delays.
It’s almost seamless, but you can hear some splicing. "John McLaughlin" (named after the guitarist) is actually a snippet from the funk-driven "Spanish Key" session. "Key" has its own splices, most notably where the beat changes at about 16:45. It both recalls Mr. Davis’ Sketches of Spain LP and foreshadows the pounding backbeats of 1972’s On the Corner.
But Mr. Davis wasn’t supposed to be using any of these processes in the first place – they were the domain of rock and definitely anti-jazz. Brew’s disregard for the traditional jazz recording process – the whole song in one take shook the very notion of what improvisation was and even the definition of jazz itself.
Bop and swing listeners who’d "suffered through" the cacophony of Mr. Coleman’s free-jazz years, Mr. Davis’ languid, serpentine modal period and Mr. Coltrane’s self-indulgent 40-minute soios gave up. Mr. Davis, they complained, killed jazz.
But rock fans took to Brew like beer. This new, open-minded generation – raised on the likes of the Grateful Dead, Santana, et al. – related not only to studio tricks, but to Mr. Davis’ electronic instrumentation, his extended jams and experimental fusion of jazz and rock. They made Brew the highest-charting album of his career, propelling it to No. 35 (this is a jazz recording, remember) on Billboard’s pop albums chart. And Mr. Davis took to playing such places as the Village Gate, rather than the Village Vanguard.
Musicians – including Carlos Santana, who wrote the introduction to the reissue – felt the record’s impact intensely. They gave it its legendary status. For them, it validated their process, added new elements of creativity and allowed jazz-influenced rock bands from King Crimson to Steely Dan to flourish.
Members of Mr. Davis’ own group left to form new bands and carve out a niche for what would become known as fusion. Key boardist Joe Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Shorter made up Weather Report; Mr. Corea formed Circle and Return to For ever; Mr. McLaughlin trod further into rock with the Mahavishnu Orchestra; and Mr. Hancock had the pop hit "Rockit" with his band the Headhunters.
Today, nearly 30 years later, Brew’s impact can be felt on rock in the trancelike ambient of Portishead, the urban funk of Daft Punk and the extended improvisations of Phish and Medeski, Martin and Wood. That’s quite an impact for a jazz record that might not be a jam record at all.