re-visiting, re-visioning, re-newing at Burlington “Discover Jazz”
We just returned from a weekend (as listeners) at the Discover Jazz festival in Burlington, Vermont. The headliners were Herbie Hancock and his Imagine Project, and Bitches Brew Revisited. Why write about either of these shows in my blog about a book on the Mwandishi band? About Herbie, it is simply to comment on his continued growth as a pianist and the manner in which his recent projects have returned him to aspects of the searching qualities of those earlier days. Drummer Billy Hart made a similar comment to me about Herbie’s Joni recording, a couple years ago. And regarding “Bitches Brew Revisited,” the show called to mind the many ways Miles’s original project differed from Herbie’s, differences that came to the fore during this “revisit.”
First a few words about Herbie Hancock’s performance. This was the third time I’ve seen Herbie’s show in the past 18 months and it was closing night for the tour. What struck me the most about this particular performance was how much a year of nearly constant touring with relatively the same band and repertoire has benefited his playing. Like the previous shows, it included a mix of material from the recording, often treated elastically and freely, and older tunes, this time showing seemingly endless flowing and melodic, harmonic, and textual expansion. While not a new concept for Herbie, the musical directions and influences brought into the mix have grown and deepened.
One important feature was his ability to rely on the solid and wildly empathetic drumming of both Vinnie Coloiata and the electric bass of James Genus. Genus is of a rare breed, a bass player who sounds no other bass player than himself. Indeed he has tremendous chops, but these were always brought to bear, like Coloiata’s skills, on supporting and adding to the joint effort. There was no freelancing or showing off. If anything, some of Genus’ wildest forays were unusually quiet, in contrast to his booming sounds during more funk driven tunes. Singer Kristin Train continued to add a purity of tone embellished with very sweet displays of her Irish-inflected violin playing.
By way of introducing my comments about Graham Haynes’s “Bitches Brew Revisited” band, I’ll begin with some broad, historical comments, not specific to this performance. I tend to differ from some observers in my assessment of the role of “Bitches Brew” as a reference point for the Mwandishi band. While “Bitches Brew” was surely inspirational and impossible for Herbie Hancock to have ignored, my feeling is that the Mwandishi band had closer cousins in Miles’s previous Quintet and in the early days of Weather Report. It is easy to over-generalize, but “Bitches Brew” (which I love) often seems to me more driven by steady riffs, and less characterized by improvisation that is fully collective – with the exception of the “brewing” multi-keyboard and multi-percussion rhythm section. In contrast, the other two bands, while their music sometimes contains driving bass riffs, tended towards more inclusively collectively free improvisations. Buster Williams and Miroslav Vitous assume far more freedom to alter their lines, sometimes radically, constantly, and at will. I experience the bass and percussion on “Bitches Brew” as a unit rather than as individually discernable elements. In part, this is due to the substantial role of post-production in crafting the final results. Were it not for the brilliance and flexibility of Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette the rhythmic structure might not remain as fresh. In short, the two are great accompanists whose big ears can subtly renew music that is structurally steady; the presence of Chick Corea continually shook up any tendency towards over-stability. Also, despite the prominence of Miles’s solos, “Bitches Brew” these have always seemed to me as less core organizing structures than the center of gravity Hancock created through his Mwandishi solos.
Despite the substantial role of post-production on the recording, “Bitches Brew” was actually being “Revisited” constantly in the hands of Miles’ “Lost Quintet,” the smaller touring band, beginning in the months prior to the sessions and continuing afterwards. Every performance refracted the material through a unique lens depending upon the dynamics of the band as it developed through constant experimentation. The rhythm section of Chick Corea, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette blazed a wild and forward-pushing course that led as much as followed Miles’s direction. Thus, the live performances of this music treated the basic material as highly malleable and never really fixed in the manner of repertory bands. Each tune might sound radically different from one show to the next. Miles himself rarely seemed to use his band’s previous playing, including the recorded version, as a reference point for what he might play on “this” night. Maybe a reminder is useful here: the post-production of the “Bitches Brew” recording was a very detailed “Revisit” (some might call it now a remix) of the studio performances.
Turning to this past weekend’s performance, I ask what exactly does it mean to “Revisit” the iconic recording “Bitches Brew?” If the original recording was subject to a substantial compositional process during post-production and live performances of the music resisted becoming fixed, then the idea of “Revisits” would seem highly in order. “Revisiting Bitches Brew” is of course not the first 21st Century “Revisit.” Among its precursors were Bill Laswell’s late 1990s studio remixes and instances where musicians have loosely drawn upon the material to create highly personalized new works. My own “Electric Brew” (2007) in part fits this category. I do not think of “Bitches Brew” as repertory music – the original band never treated it as a set of charts to be followed remotely closely. For me, a revisit requires substantial reinvention and re-visioning. During this evening’s show, I puzzled over the title: was it Bitches Brew “Revisioned”? “Renewed?” No, its “Revisited.” There were indeed novel, creative moments, particularly during the exploratory atmospheres that appeared in the midst of Wayne Shorter’s ‘Sanctuary’, but this performance seemed less a re-vision or a re-new than a re-visit.
Graham Haynes’s “Revisit” was built upon his own meticulously transcriptions of the melodies, beats, trumpet solos, and changes of mood found within the originally released recording. This means that some features revisited originally emerged only in post-production. The risk is that the original material can become an overly literal reference point. At times this proved problematic. Another potential challenge is that “Bitches Brew” as originally released, displayed a highly dense sound fabric, from which details emerge thanks to post-production: spatialization, adjusted levels, loops, signal processing. Performing this music with a frontal stereo sound system, with the multiplicity of activity mixed down to two integrated channels, meant that with the exception of the most distinct solos, details could become garbled. The kind of clarity needed requires either a careful studio mix or a live treatment of each instrument as its own individualized sound source on stage.
The highlights of the evening’s often very busy playing were, as it turned out, some of the more minimal offerings, particularly Antoine Roney’s bass clarinet and soprano saxophone, and Vernon Reid’s often very quiet and subtle guitar filigree. DJ Logic closely limited his range of electronic sounds and Marco Benedetto’s inventive processed Fender Rhodes (which seemed to draw more from Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band tool kit of delays, pitch shifts and sound washes than from Chick Corea’s Bitch’s Brew era ring modulation) had a tendency to become repetitive. More reserve and/or a broader sound pallet would have contributed to the overall sound tapestry.
I had viewed a YouTube recording from an earlier version of the band, where the combination of drummer Cindy Blackman and guitarist Vernon Reid just scorched. In Burlington, Pheeroan Aklaff replaced Blackman in the drum seat. Aklaff excelled during the more atmospheric moments, but his more conventional rhythm ‘n blues backbeat, while complementing bassist Melvin Gibbs’s funk-driven approach, pointed in a very different direction from the often static motion yet complex dynamism of the original. These for me are core to Miles’ conception. Gibbs’s orientation is more towards Miles’s Michael Henderson/Keith Jarrett funk band (even with the back beat) than that of “Bitches Brew,” and this was heightened by a regularity of beat by percussionist Adam Rudolph’s congas (within which Vernon Reid’s guitar solos were a terrific fit). Thus, I found the rhythmic texture of the evening to be a re-stitching of a slightly later Miles’ band to the repertoire of the previous band. My guess is that listeners would vary in their assessment of the results. Personally, I missed the lithe qualities of Holland-DeJohnette and, more recently, the drive offered by Blackman.
On the original recording, one can hear Miles’s whispered comments inducing individuals to solo. One could imagine Miles walking around the studio, speaking quietly to each of the players. His approach as a leader, however, as documented, was non-directive (although the post-production of the recording showed the strong directing hand of producer Teo Macero). During the “Revisiting” performance, trumpeter Graham Haynes stood in and at the center, behind a conductor’s music stand, closely scrutinizing the scores, and pacing the stage. He spoke directly to individual musicians – who only occasionally seemed to attend to his conducting, particularly during a handful of mood or beat changing cues and preparations for particular riffs (the repeated low Cs of the title tune). The purpose of the conducting wasn’t at all clear. Surely the band was comprised of well-rehearsed veteran musicians who could respond to subtle suggestions to mark shifts. The purpose behind the presence of the scores was also not clear to me – and at times problematic – particularly when Miles’s own recorded lines were too closely adhered to.
I’ll close by returning to Herbie Hancock’s performance, which took place on the following evening. Thinking in retrospect, while much of Hancock’s show was highly rehearsed, it was the more malleable, unpredictable, and improvised of the two shows. I was looking to “Bitches Brew Revisited” for the most unexpected surprises of the weekend. But Herbie’s often-mysterious turns of moods, textures, and phrase, and the intricate listening and response between piano, drums, and bass offered the subtlety and surprise I most appreciate in jazz performance. Tunes I’ve heard literally hundreds of times sounded fresh and new, offering pathways previously unexplored. The performance was intense and exciting, recalling and yes, renewing, the spirit of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
I understand that Wallace Roney, Bennie Maupin (the bass clarinetist on the original “Bitches Brew” recording), Buster Williams, Al Foster and others, are touring in July with another take on Miles’s material. It sounds as if their goal is to very freely treat the original musical ideas and select a broad swath of Miles’s tunes from his electric era. I look forward to hearing the results!