53 years after Miles Davis' album, a fresh spin as 'London Brew'

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53 years after Miles Davis' album, a fresh spin as 'London Brew'
An undated photo provided by Nathan Weber shows from left: Nick Ramm, Theon Cross, Nubya Garcia, Shabaka Hutchings, Tom Herbert (holding guitar), Dave Okumu (center, facing away with guitar), Benji B. (foreground, facing away from camera) and Martin Terefe at a “London Brew” sessions. A 12-member collective of noted U.K.-based musicians used “Bitches Brew” as a springboard, improvising a new LP after the pandemic thwarted a 50th anniversary celebration for the original. (Nathan Weber via The New York Times)

by Marcus J. Moore

NEW YORK, NY.- In 1970, Miles Davis released “Bitches Brew,” an album so musically daring that some critics and listeners didn’t know what to make of it.

By then, the trumpeter’s ear had drifted from traditional jazz to edgier blends of funk and psychedelic rock; he wanted to craft an amorphous sound only loosely tethered to any genre. “Instances of subtlety and formal improvisational mastery come thick and fast,” critic Carman Moore wrote of “Bitches Brew” in The New York Times upon its arrival. “It is all so strange and new and yet so comfortable.”

Others weren’t sold. “With ‘Bitches Brew,’ Davis was firmly on the path of the sellout,” Stanley Crouch wrote in 1990. “It sold more than any other Davis album, and fully launched jazz-rock with its multiple keyboards, electronic guitars, static beats and clutter. Davis’ music became progressively trendy and dismal.”

“Bitches Brew” did indeed sell well. It delivered Davis’ first gold and platinum albums and shifted mainstream jazz from elegant arrangements optimized for cramped nightclubs to bigger, grungier structures tailor-made for stadium speakers. Now it’s the focus of an ambitious jazz album called “London Brew,” out Friday.

The LP convenes a 12-member collective of noted musicians in Britain — including saxophonists Nubya Garcia and Shabaka Hutchings, tuba player Theon Cross, DJ Benji B and guitarist Dave Okumu — and uses “Bitches Brew” as a springboard to a new album informed by the Davis classic without re-creating it. The idea was to improvise an album with the same fiery expanse, with samples from Davis’ electric period of the late 1960s and early ’70s as the binding agent.

“We wanted to do something that would be our imagination of what it could possibly have been to be in his presence during those sessions,” guitarist and “London Brew” producer Martin Terefe, 53, said in a video interview. “The kind of freedom that the musicians on that album were given.”

Bennie Maupin, 82, acclaimed reedist and a featured player on “Bitches Brew,” said spontaneity was a key to the original recording. “Everything that happened, happened right in the moment,” he recalled in a telephone interview. “Miles never told anybody what to play, not once. He allowed us to totally be ourselves. He would give us some direction to just kind of start. And when we started something, we might play for 10 minutes, and then he would stop us and go on to something else.”

Davis’ double album — with its dark aura, thick acoustic-electric instrumentation and seemingly endless grooves — also made way for like-minded bands to assemble in its wake. Maupin would go on to play with pianist Herbie Hancock in his Mwandishi and Head Hunters bands; keyboardist Joe Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Shorter formed Weather Report; pianist Chick Corea and drummer Lenny White started Return to Forever; and guitarist John McLaughlin and drummer Billy Cobham founded the Mahavishnu Orchestra. They all played on “Bitches Brew,” a record that’s still bearing fruit 53 years later.

“That was a golden moment,” Maupin said. “Miles is gone. Wayne just left. I just thank my lucky stars that he invited me to come and be myself.”

“London Brew” was supposed to be a one-off live event at the Barbican Center in London in 2020 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Bitches Brew.” Bruce Lampcov, a 69-year-old veteran producer and engineer who has mixed Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel and Eurythmics and had recently signed a deal to acquire Davis’ publishing catalog, happened to be in London in late 2019 and was thinking of ways to introduce the legend’s music to younger listeners. The signing, along with the upcoming anniversary, presented “an obvious sort of launching-off point, a record that in itself built a wider audience at the time for jazz music,” Lampcov said in a video interview. In London, he was introduced to the local jazz scene and was taken by what he saw there.

“I went into a theater. There was a capacity crowd with a reggae sound machine going and DJs playing jazz music,” he said. “And then there was a live show, and I saw Nubya Garcia and Jermaine Jones,” a saxophonist, “and a crowd of, like, 18-year-olds and 20-year-olds. It was like being at a rock gig. And I thought, ‘This is amazing. This is perfect. We just need to do something that connects Miles to this audience.’”

In February 2020, Lampcov started reaching out to musicians to see if they’d want to do the “Bitches Brew” tribute gig. After making some initial contacts, he boarded a plane back to the United States as the world was about to change. “Everyone was wearing a mask, and I’m thinking, ‘What’s going on here?’” he recalled. “And that was it. That’s how it fell apart.”

COVID-19 lockdowns shuttered venues and canceled the show, leaving any sort of celebration in limbo. But as the pandemic lingered, and it became clear the concert couldn’t be rescheduled, Lampcov put the idea to rest — until Terefe called with another idea: Get everyone in the studio and record an album.

“I couldn’t really let go of it; it felt like such an exciting project,” Terefe said. “There was a point when I kind of suggested to Bruce, ‘Listen, when it’s so rough out there, what’s better to do than to find a good studio and self-isolate with all these musicians and make a record together?’”

On Dec. 7, 2020, the group convened at the Church Studios in North London, with COVID testing personnel in place and a scaled-down technical crew, to record what would become “London Brew,” an eight-song, almost 90-minute LP of genre-hopping experimentation that blurs the lines between rock, jazz and ambient, sometimes within the scope of one song.

At the beginning of the three-day session, Terefe asked the collective to play a single note for as long as it could hold it, “just expressing their frustration with the pandemic.” Where the two-part title track on the new album centers hard-thumping drums, breakneck electric guitar riffs and squealing wind instruments, “Raven Flies Low” is a methodical collage: Raven Bush plays the violin through effects pedals (a nod to Davis running his trumpet through tape delay on “Bitches Brew”), slowly bringing the track to a volcanic peak, with crashing drum cymbals and undulating saxophone.

While “London Brew” is foremost a nod to one of Davis’ most famous albums, songs like “Bassics” and the title track’s midpoint evoke the cosmic Afrocentricity and tightly coiled funk of Davis’ “Live-Evil,” released in 1971, and “On the Corner,” from the following year. Toward the end of “London Brew Pt 2,” the producers sample the wafting guitar and subtle organ of the ambient-leaning “In a Silent Way,” from 1969, a direct repurposing of Davis’ music.

“His recordings are so special and so unique that to actually try and repeat something that’s very much so improvisational wouldn’t do it justice,” Lampcov said. “We really didn’t feel like it would be a celebration of the record, and it never would be as good.” On purpose, there’s no trumpeter on the new album: “Because how could you do that?”

Garcia, 31, the saxophonist, gave herself a directive in the studio: Just be free and in the moment; don’t interrupt anything going on among other musicians. “If there’s something special happening between the flute and drum kit, why would I get in the way of that?” she said over the phone from London. “I don’t need to be talking all the time.”

Still, her voice persists, much like everyone else in the collective, much like the large ensemble Davis convened all those years ago. A half-century after Davis brought the likes of Maupin, Hancock and Shorter into one room for one common goal, that same sense of community dots “London Brew,” an album built on the same organic principles, scanning as the same inscrutable jazz. Like “Bitches Brew,” it’s an album that just is.

“The whole thing was meant to be a mesh,” Garcia said. “We were in the room together; we played things; then we left. I hope it conveys the necessity and beauty of community. I hope it conveys that we need each other.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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