Miles Davis Re-mastered

Courtesy of Columbia Records

When a recording as seminal as “Bitches Brew” is reissued, re-mastered or repressed, one usually sees a wave of re-reviews in every music magazine and website. And more often than not, to the readers’ detriment, the source material is not really given a review, with a focus instead on the quality of the re-master.

Well, I recently purchased the re-mastered 2-LP set and surprise, it’s the best version, acoustically speaking, that I’ve ever heard. In a world where people are content with lossy MP3s over glorious analog rigs, reviews that praise the enhanced definition are lost on a majority of people who read them.

I suspect most people’s impression of Miles Davis nowadays is a man in a suit who wrote and played on the Starbucks soundtrack. Almost anyone who will espouse the fact that he is a “Cool Person” is doing so for the same reason that Che and other T-shirt heroes are glorified — because they are mainstream counterculture figures essential to alternative and indie canon. The very idea that Miles Davis was a countercultural figure at all is probably news to many.

Miles Davis was a very enigmatic figure, a characterization I doubt he would disagree with. Yet the Bebop Miles most often described in history books is only a snapshot from part of his career. He is also credited with creating, or greatly contributing, to Cool Jazz and Jazz Fusion.

“Bitches Brew” is often credited as being the first – and greatest – Jazz Fusion album, a sentiment I half agree with. This is for good reason; with the exception of percussionist Juma Santos and Harvey Brooks (a famous pop, folk and session bassist in his own right), every other musician on this album is a jazz legend. That’s pretty phenomenal when one considers that jazz isn’t really a “band”-driven art form. It’s easy for every member of The Beatles to be legendary because they are The Beatles. “Bitches Brew” is full of heavy-hitters that are still relevant today – Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett to name a few – who each have made their own way.

All of these musicians contribute something unique to this album and recording the album was a difficult exercise in musicianship. Miles Davis famously didn’t really give sheet music out for the recording, only offering a melody here or there, forcing the musicians to really improvise while simultaneously respecting each other’s space. Space also wasn’t easy to come by as Miles had two bass players, two drummers and three keyboardists in this rhythm section. As described by the album’s engineer and producer, there were no complete sessions from start to finish, as Miles would stop and start the recording, hearing an idea and choosing to follow it or cutting sections out entirely. For example, the first track “Pharaoh’s Dance” has an entire A and B section of chord changes that were cut out to highlight the melody and make the song sound more “rock-like.”

This desire to make jazz sound more rock-like is really the essence of this album and Jazz Fusion as a genre. Although the term was dragged through the mud in the 80s with Kenny G and other “fuzak” artists, at its core, Jazz Fusion is just jazz harmonic sensibilities married to rock instrumentation. The problem with this is that Jazz Fusion music ends up being too loud for jazz clubs and too melodically complex to sound good in large rock venues.

But no matter. Davis was on a mission to create … something … and he had the clout to do it. Although Davis can be credited with sourcing the talent and orchestrating the compositions, “Bitches Brew” is really a studio album in the truest sense of the word, coming together completely in post-production through strenuous tape edits and various other effects added in post. As a result, the album sounds fresh and, ironically, completely unrecognizable to many of the musicians who originally recorded it. Miles, who at the time was just as enamored with Woodstock-era music as the general public, wanted to introduce James Brown and Jimi Hendrix to jazz along with some studio pizzazz.

Miles is often seen as a great trumpet player, as well as a superior arranger, stylist and aggregator of talent. By trying to keep jazz music current with popular instrumentation, he saved the form and divided the community (a division that remained for many years). Fortunately, most of the people who only see big bands and white men in bow ties making jazz music are dead. So while the album does sound like a psychedelic product of the times, it also rings incredibly true to this day because Miles never strayed from his vision. Authenticity transcends bullshit; if only there were a Latin phrase for that.

So why should the average college student listen to this? I wouldn’t even make the argument that you should listen to the whole album, as even the producer himself will tell you he put all of the work into the first two tracks – about 20 and 27 minutes long respectively, by the way.

I think the best argument for revisiting this album is that it will make you appreciate everything you listen to a little more. Albums this monumental leave their Midas touch, even inadvertently, on copious amounts of younger material. Miles’ unification of jazz, rock, R&B and a little musique concrete thrown in for good measure helped to create a style of music, influenced countless others and still sounds fresh and relevant to this day, even if there is a bit of a psychedelic sheen to it. To force scores of people to listen to this album would be a disservice as it is a challenge to listen to and needs to be approached with a willing ear. However, if one does decide to take on one of America’s 20th century masterpieces, be prepared for an experience unrivaled by little else.

Essential listening: “Pharaoh’s Dance,” “Bitches Brew.”

Rating: 4 out of 5