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Album review: Miles Davis' 'Bitches Brew Live'

February 10, 2011 | 10:52 am

Brew240 The latest in a recent string of newly packaged music from jazz’s past, "Bitches Brew Live" combines only the second CD release of Miles Davis' 1970 performance at Isle of Wight (issued on DVD in 2004 and on recent complete catalog CD sets) and three previously unheard live tracks from the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival. Tempting stuff for Davis completists.

Given the music industry's ongoing addiction to reissues, jazz fans could be forgiven for suffering a bit of Davis fatigue. They recently have seen the release of two complete catalog sets, no less than eight boxed collections of album outtakes and, most recently, a sumptuous 40th anniversary edition of "Bitches Brew" similar to 2008's "Kind of Blue" collector's set -- and that doesn't even get into the many two-disc "Legacy Collections" out there. All in all, a pretty busy release schedule for a guy who's been dead almost 20 years.

The question is, does the average jazz fan need yet another Miles Davis set?

In a word, probably. In fact, this album could be the choice for anyone who's heard all the (justified) hype and acclaim behind the jazz-meets-rock amalgam "Bitches Brew" but hasn't been able to crack its dark and sometimes thorny code. Along with the six-disc "Cellar Door Sessions 1970," this recording beautifully showcases the fire-breathing power of Davis' band onstage.

Backed by an all-star band of Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette (weirdly, Wayne Shorter got stuck in traffic and missed this set), Davis' trumpet is a fluid, nimble presence on Newport's opener "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down," which carries a more boisterous edge than the album's version recorded six weeks later. Holland can be tough to pick up here given that he was still on an acoustic bass, but his battery mate DeJohnette shines, playing off Corea's keyboard punches on the "In a Silent Way" track "It's About That Time" with the controlled fury of an oncoming train. The complete picture of "Bitches Brew" wasn't in place yet, but hearing Davis and his band open up the throttle in these early stages is often remarkable.

By the time the Isle of Wight set was recorded in August 1970, Davis' vision for merging jazz, rock and funk was in full bloom. Saxophonist Gary Bartz has taken over for the departed Shorter (whom you can hear on the 2001 live release from 1970, "It's About That Time") and the band has expanded to a six-piece with Keith Jarrett joining Corea as a second keyboardist and Airto Moreira adding percussive spikes and blurts.

The title track from "Bitches Brew," a tough sell for neophytes with its spaced-out trumpet flares on the 26-minute studio version, here reveals its heavy funk heart with Corea grinding out guitar-like tones from his keyboard over its economical 10 minutes. The swaggering groove of "Spanish Key" is highlighted by an unhinged solo from Bartz, and the duplicate takes on "Sanctuary" and "It's About That Time" hardly feel like the same song with the many new colors added by this lineup, underscoring the constant invention and reinvention of this period for Davis.

Certainly, it's easy to grow weary of all the reissues that have been scraped from the vaults over the years and targeted to deep-pocketed collectors. But when a single album documents a period this influential and sounds this good doing it, it's even easier to come back for more.

-- Chris Barton

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