Miles Davis
Bitches Brew Live

What we’re hearing here is a time capsule from one of those periods that grows in its importance with each passing year. Miles Davis changed music (all music, not just jazz) five times, and this set is a great representation of one of those moments. If you’re not already familiar with this era, Bitches Brew Live, Sony’s latest release from their Miles archive, is a great place to start. The one-hour disc collects two live suites from one of Miles’ (until very recently) least excavated periods.

The first three tracks were recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival in July 1969, a few weeks before the debut of Miles’ groundbreaking In a Silent Way, which represented his largest shift in methodology to date. It also happened to be one month before the group entered the studio to lay down the tracks that eventually were released as Bitches Brew. (Despite its title, this release contains live versions of music from both albums.) The second set was recorded a year later, shortly after Bitches Brew became Miles’ first gold-certified record, at the Isle of Wright festival, sometimes referred to as the “English Woodstock.” It’s almost the same band on both sets, and it almost counts as an official release from Miles’ great “lost quintet,” so-called because there are so few extant recordings of their work, especially in a live setting. Even bootlegs of the group are difficult to find, but the lost quintet’s rhythm section is all here, Chick Corea (keyboards), Dave Holland (bass), and Jack DeJohnette (drums). Accessory percussionist Airto Moreira appears on the Isle of Wright recordings (and Keith Jarrett plays additional keyboards). Alas and alack, saxophonist Wayne Shorter was stuck in traffic for the Newport set and was replaced by Gary Bartz for the 1970 set.

Nevertheless, what’s captured here is a band furiously devoted to experimenting. Miles was right in the pocket between his full, melodic tones and his not yet fully deconstructed abstract sensibilities. (That’s my way of saying he’s both interesting and fun to listen to.) There’s more great playing and more unique hooks per track than most bands manage in a lifetime. At times, it’s shocking to notice how contemporary it sounds. Near the end of the (actually very brief compared to other releases) 10-minute take of “Bitches Brew,” the band strips the theme down to its bassline, minimal percussion, a one-note keyboard fill, and a sparse solo from Miles. Loop that and you’ve got a Def Jux–worthy backing track. The rhythm section is only rivaled in its sensitivity by that of Miles’ previous great quintet. But pay close attention to the end of each track, when Miles introduces the next theme, signaling to the band that it’s time to move on to the next jam. Somehow the band shifts on a dime, yet it sounds totally organic, and it’s different each time they do it.

In short, the band is bad-ass, and if you turn this on nice and loud and think about the fact that it was recorded 40 years ago, it’s no stretch to understand how this music became the precursor to so much of the exploratory sounds we’ve been enjoying in the time since. From Frank Zappa to Prince to Sonic Youth to Aphex Twin to Tortoise to the Boredoms to Godspeed You Black Emperor, the influential reach of this ensemble would be very difficult to over-estimate. Despite the countless hours I’ve put in playing and replaying this band’s music, a new release like this one still has moments of voodoo that leave me stunned and staggering.
Matt Slaybaugh