CD Review: Miles Davis, “Bitches Brew: 40th Anniversary Edition”

Written by CD Reviews, Music

Miles Davis - Bitches BrewMiles Davis once quipped that he had changed the course of jazz “four or five times.” If you know anything about jazz, and I don’t profess to know much, you know that it was no idle boast. One of those times came with the release of Bitches Brew in April 1970. These days, no significant album release anniversary seems to go by without the release of an expanded, remastered, repackaged, revised re-release, and for the most part, that turns out to be a very good thing. In fact, these releases are often the only rays of light coming from a music industry that is in the throes of a long and protracted demise. What the major labels have is catalog. Eventually, that may be all they have. So why not make the most of it as Sony Legacy has done with the 40th Anniversary reissue of Bitches Brew.

In April 1970, Miles Davis hurled Bitches Brew like a thunderbolt into a pot that was roiling with the likes of Sgt. Pepper, the White Album, Electric Ladyland, Blonde On Blonde, Hot Rats, Spirit In the Dark, Live at the Apollo Vol. 2, Tommy, and Stand. In the process, Davis created an entirely new form. Bitches Brew was the progenitor for what came to be known as jazz fusion, a genre I cannot abide. As often happens, the pure powerful stuff that started everything got watered down into something completely unacceptable. The source, however, is unimpeachable. This is powerful music as brilliant for what is played, as it is for the wide open spaces that remain.

In keeping with current trends, there are two configurations available. The Super-Deluxe 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition contains two CDs with the original music plus six bonus tracks, another CD with a previously unreleased performance from Tanglewood, August 1970, and a DVD of a previously unreleased performance in Copenhagen, November 1969. You also get two 180 gram vinyl discs, and a 48-page booklet that includes a 5,000 word essay by Greg Tate.

The other (cheaper) option is the Legacy Edition, which includes the two CDs containing the original album and six bonus tracks, and the Copenhagen DVD.

Bitches Brew was recorded by something of a shifting cast, but the main players, aside from Davis, included keyboard players Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, and Herbie Hancock, bassists Dave Holland, Ron Carter, and Harvey Brooks, reed players Wayne Shorter, Steve Grossman, and Bennie Maupin, guitarist John McLaughlin, and drummers Lenny White and Jack DeJohnette. The core members of Davis’ third great quintet were DeJohnette, Shorter, Holland, and Corea, and it is this group that performs brilliantly on the DVD of the performance in Denmark.

By the time of the Tanglewood performance, Shorter was gone (off to form Weather Report with Zawinul), and been replaced by Gary Bartz, Keith Jarrett joined as an organist to compliment Corea’s electric piano, and Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira was aboard. Together they deliver a compelling performance to a clearly enthusiastic Tanglewood audience. It serves as a reminder that there was a time that audiences would accept, even welcome new music. And make no mistake, this was new music, revolutionary new music.

Whether the big investment (currently $125 on Amazon.com) is worth it is entirely up to you. Any true Miles Davis fan is going to want it. If you’re a more casual fan, or someone who just wants to hear what all the fuss was about, the Legacy Edition is essential. This is not music that can be easily described, and it’s especially hard to compare it to anything else. It’s music that is perfectly reflective of its time, and all at once completely fresh today, as the world approaches the breaking point, just as it did in 1970. Bitches Brew is the perfect blend of tension and release. It is music that has to be experienced, and once experienced, it is impossible to forget.