Bitches Brew Revisited brings psychedelic Miles Davis to the stage

It's become a doddering cliché to call any Miles Davis record "revolutionary." That well-traveled advertising term fits most of his music from at least 'Round About Midnight, his 1957 Columbia debut, to his late flirtations with the sonic bric-à-brac of 1980s New Wave, hip-hop, and post-punk. Like innovators including Mozart and Scott Joplin, Davis could no more put his hand to any form than to have the music come away fundamentally rethought and flashily altered. Nevertheless, Bitches Brew is the one album in the Davis canon that most enduringly changed what we know and accept as jazz. Released in early 1970, this epic and startling weld of avant-garde, psychedelic rock, and proto-funk stands as singular and singularly influential. Most non-jazzbo listeners today are floored by the dreamlike atmospherics sustained over 20-plus-minute cuts like "Pharaoh's Dance" and the title track, and equally entranced by Davis' trumpet cutting through the chaos with the insinuative force of a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo. This is not the kind of jazz masterpiece that takes repeated listens to get, since its monolithic structure, slithering beauty, and hurtling, ominous momentum come with all the cumulative subtlety of a shotgun blast.

With so many revered and reverbed notes so lovingly analyzed by so many for so long, anyone might be pardoned for thinking the whole 90-plus-minute, studio-crafted experience unrealizable live by even science-fictional means. Since the audacious Bitches Brew Revisited project was premiered at the SFJAZZ festival this summer, fans of the long-lived San Francisco Jazz Organization have reason to know better. Happily, on Friday, Oct. 29 — a suitably occult day for raising the dead — an agglomeration of jazz notables and virtuosi takes another heroic whack at this fabulous monstrosity.

As the bonus DVD included with the 40th anniversary rerelease of Bitches Brew shows, the album's playful, brooding, ecstatic spirit can be invoked live, as we see Davis — along with Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, and other Brew vets — howling up this same kandyflake phantasmagoria at a 1969 concert in Copenhagen. Randall Kline, the festival's executive artistic director, is comfortable with the challenge. "The way we do it, there are breaks in between, and the audience and musicians have a chance to stretch out," he says. "Contemporary ears are more comfortable with expanded forms, which, when it's done well, it becomes almost communal."

The artists improvise, rather than 
follow exactly what Miles Davis 
and Co. would have played.
Alan Nahigian
The artists improvise, rather than follow exactly what Miles Davis and Co. would have played.

"The idea is to mix newer players with Miles-era guys," says Art Edelstein. jazz impresario and manager of the project. "DJ Logic is literally a new spin, and [drummer] Marco Benvenuto is in the jam-band scene. Bassist Melvin Gibbs played with Henry Rollins for years, and Blood Ulmer is an Ornette [Coleman] alumnus doing that kind of music at about the same time Miles was." Since the idea of utterly faithful live reproduction of an improvised album is the kind of jolly unlikelihood you'd find in a Philip K. Dick novel, the project instead swears fidelity to the concept by ignoring replication. "They definitely take the melodic themes and improvise on them," Edelstein says.

Composer and cornet innovator Graham Haynes, setting the pace in Davis' stead, sees rock music's influence as decisive. "At that time, he'd met Hendrix, [and] Miles wasn't the first one to use electronics in jazz," he says. "Cannonball [Adderley], Les McCann and Eddie Harris, and others came before." That this historically aware approach does Davis full honors is nicely shown on a YouTube video of the ensemble playing at the Celebrate Brooklyn festival in June. Bitches Brew's philosophy — that everyone shoulders long stretches as soloist — is attested to by James Blood Ulmer, the legendary guitarist bringing his trademark funky bluesmanship to the project. "All I do is play James Blood as if Miles had hired me to play on the sessions, just like all the other musicians on the record," Ulmer chuckles. "That's how you play improvised music — you play like you play, and that's what I do. I don't even know how to do anything else at this point."

 
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