By Paul Tingen
It's hard to overstate the importance of
Bitches Brew. It is one of the seminal albums that shaped Western music
culture in the second half of the 20th century, dividing it into a 'time before'
and a 'time after'. It crossed musical boundaries and influenced musicians of
all music traditions. It gave rise to a whole new genre of music: jazz-rock.
Soon after the recording of Bitches Brew, in August 1969, many
now-legendary players on the album started their own bands, all exploring the
jazz-rock idiom. Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter and Airto Moreira formed Weather
Report; Herbie Hancock and Bennie Maupin set up the Mwandishi Band; John
McLaughlin and Billy Cobham brewed the Mahavishnu Orchestra; Chick Corea and
Lenny White started Return To Forever, and so on.
On top of all of this,
Bitches Brew was a commercial success. It became both Miles Davis' and
the jazz world's best-selling record and went gold within months of its release.
Before Bitches Brew the Miles Davis band was playing jazz clubs for
sometimes as few as 30 people. After Bitches Brew, he shared the stage
with many of the rock greats of the time, and played large halls like Fillmore
West and East, and rock festivals like the Isle Of Wight Festival in the summer
Bitches Brew also pioneered the application
of the studio as a musical instrument, featuring stacks of edits and studio
effects that were an integral part of the music. Even though it sounded like an
old-style studio registration of a bunch of guys playing some amazing stuff,
large sections of it relied heavily on studio technology to create a fantasy
that never was. Miles and his producer, the legendary Teo Macero, used the
recording studio in radical new ways, especially in the title track and the
opening track, "Pharaoh's Dance."
There were many special effects, like
tape loops, tape delays, reverb chambers and echo effects. And, through
intensive tape editing, Macero concocted many totally new musical structures
that were later imitated by the band in live concerts. Macero, who has a
classical education and was most likely inspired by the '30s and '40s musique
concrete experiments, used tape editing as a form of arranging and composition.
"Pharaoh's Dance" contains 19 edits - its famous stop-start opening is
entirely constructed in the studio, using repeat loops of certain sections.
Later on in the track there are several micro-edits: for example, a
one-second-long fragment that first appears at 8:39 is repeated five times
between 8:54 and 8:59. The title track contains 15 edits, again with several
short tape loops of, in this case, five seconds (at 3:01, 3:07 and 3:12).
Therefore, Bitches Brew not only became a controversial classic of
musical innovation, it also became renowned for its pioneering use of studio
Columbia/Sony has been very busy over the last few
years re-releasing and re-packaging their Miles Davis back catalogue, much of it
in lavish and expensive boxed sets. The first set was the Complete Live At
The Plugged Nickel seven-CD boxed set, followed by the triple Grammy
Award-winning Miles Davis & Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio
Recordings, which included Miles Ahead, Porgy & Bess and
Sketches Of Spain. In Early 1998 there was the release of The Miles
Davis Quintet, 1965-1968: The Complete Columbia Recordings, a
spectacular six-CD set.
Late 1998 saw the release of The Complete
Bitches Brew Sessions, a luxurious four-CD set, with 148-page booklet,
including essays by Carlos Santana, Quincy Troupe (who co-wrote Miles's
autobiography), executive producer Michael Cuscuna and producer Bob Belden. The
four CDs contain the complete Bitches Brew album as it was released in
April 1970, as well as previously-released material from albums like Big
Fun, Circle In The Round and Live-Evil. Also included were
nine previously unreleased tracks, totaling 90 minutes of music that Miles Davis
fans had never heard before. Add to this the fact that the music was 'digitally
re-mixed and re-mastered using 20-bit technology by Grammy Award-winning
engineer Mark Wilder', and the set seemed irresistible to closer inspection.
Yours truly made the trek to Sony Music Studios in
Manhattan, New York, to meet Bob Belden and Mark Wilder in the Wilder's
mastering suite. To begin with, there was some controversy to get out of the
way. Teo Macero has been declaring, to anyone who wants to listen, that he
disagrees with the way Sony/Columbia is re-issuing the Miles Davis back
catalogue. He boldly states: "Miles Davis would never have agreed to the
unreleased material being released, nor to the way in which the original
material has been re-mixed and re-mastered" - and that is to paraphrase him
Macero's dissatisfaction with The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions
is three-pronged: first, he argues that the previously unreleased material was
so for a reason, namely that it is inferior to the released material. Second, he
takes issue with the fact that the material was re-mixed and tampered with.
Third, he makes the point that the set is a misnomer - the actual sessions from
which the original Bitches Brew album was culled took place over three
days (August 19-21, 1969), whereas the additional material on the boxed set was
taken from sessions that took place during November 1969, and January and
Leaving aside the rather subjective issue of
whether the previously unreleased material is inferior or not, I queried Belden
and Wilder about the two other points. With regards to what constitutes the
'Bitches Brew sessions', Belden echoed the conclusions of executive
producer Michael Cuscuna in his introduction to the boxed set, namely that Miles
started a new, guitar-based phase in his musical development in March 1970, with
the session for the Jack Johnson album. During the period of August 1969 through
February 1970, he used extended, electric keyboard-led ensembles, with
relatively small variations in instrumentation (like adding sitars and tabla on
Belden argued: "Up until the Spring of 1970 there were always two
or three keyboards in the band. After that Miles switched to using only one
keyboard, and a very guitar-heavy sound. So we said: 'that's great, that's a
Whatever the ins and outs of this issue, it turns
out that the additional material was one of the main reasons why Belden and
Wilder decided to re-mix all the material.
Belden: "Let me first make clear
that, when Sony told me that they wanted me to re-create the whole album, I knew
immediately that we couldn't do any tinkering. There was an alternative version
of "John McLaughlin" that we could have used, but I did not feel that it was
different enough. I could have created an alternative version of "Miles Runs
The Voodoo Down," but it would have required a lot of editing, and I did not
want to play Teo Macero. Instead, we tried to create a musical flow that runs
throughout the boxed set. And to have some jarring stuff in the middle of a flow
simply wouldn't work."
"We wanted to give the boxed set a seamless sense of
continuity. So we had to re-mix all the additional material. There was a lot of
disparity between the LP mixes, while the previously unreleased material had not
been mixed at all. We also decided to try to re-create what the musicians would
have heard in the studio. There were two distinct Fender Rhodes players, so we
wanted to make sure that Chick Corea was always on the right and the guest
always on the left. That gives a sense of continuity."
"And we wanted to bring out
the sound of Miles' trumpet and make it sound more in the pocket, the way you
would have heard it during studio playbacks. We wanted to bring out the natural
interplay between the musicians. At the same time, we followed Teo's edits as
faithfully as we could. It's like, when people cleaned up the Sistine Chapel,
they didn't change anything. The edits are an integral part of the way it
sounds, and the last thing I wanted was to get a bunch of letters asking us:
'where is that loop?'"
Bob Belden, a composer, arranger and
band leader in his own right, oversaw the making of The Complete
Bitches Brew Sessions, but engineer Mark Wilder did the hands-on mixing and
editing. Wilder, who has worked for Sony/Columbia for 12 years and decided to
switch exclusively to mastering two-and-a-half years ago, was also responsible
for the three-track mixing and mastering of the Miles and Gil and
Quintet boxed sets, as well as 'every current issue' of Kind of
Blue. He was happy to 'come out of engineering retirement' and make a return
to the mixing desk for the eight-track one-inch Bitches Brew Sessions.
Wilder: "Another reason for re-mixing the original
Bitches Brew material was that the two tracks had not aged well.
So we could either work with inferior tape copies from other countries, or go
back to the original eight tracks and re-mix them, and so save ourselves a
generation. The decision was made to re-mix from the original multitracks, just
like with the Miles & Gil and Quintet boxed sets. On the
Miles & Gil set I was dealing with a half-inch three-track format,
with the tracks being left, right and centre. The orchestra was generally
spread, and the soloist was on the centre track."
"Of course, it's much more of a challenge to
re-mix eight tracks. But still, there's only so much you can do with eight
tracks, so I was able to get a very accurate approximation of the original
mixes. There would be one track for each drummer, one track for Miles, one track
for electric guitar, one track for bass guitar, electric piano right, electric
piano left, and then acoustic bass, sax and bass clarinet all on the eighth
track. Occasionally they moved the bass clarinet somewhere else."
"I suspect they
recorded on an Ampex eight-track, but I played back on a Studer one-inch
eight-track, no Dolby, and mixed on an old Neve 8078 desk. We tried to pay
homage to the original mixes as much as we could, but we also tried to bring out
the musicality of the sessions. The musicality of what occurred during these
sessions was paramount for us, and we wanted to remove some of the original mix
technology to bring this out. They had made some very wild fader movements
during the mix, which we couldn't replicate anyway."
"But, at the same time, there
are those signature things that were done during the mix that we tried to
replicate. We tried to use the same equipment as they used in 1969. We still
have the original EMT plates from CBS at the time. There was also a custom-made
device called the Teo 1, which was a multiple slap tape machine. It had a tape
loop with one record head and at least four playback heads, but it's no longer
in our possession. So, in order to duplicate those effects, which were often
used on the trumpet, we had to use multiple delay devices."
The working methods and approach that Wilder
related here raise the same thorny issues that Macero had already highlighted.
When Wilder says that they wanted to bring out the interplay between the
musicians, and that they were 'not totally paying homage to the creativity in
the original mix', one wonders whether the Sistine Chapel was changed
after all. These are clearly production decisions that affect the authenticity
of Macero and Davis' original work.
At the same time, it has to be said that the
mixes on The Complete Bitches Brew set do not sound significantly
different from those of the original album. There is a little bit more low end,
more separation between the two basses, and a little bit more clarity and depth
to the sound.
Wilder stressed that they worked 'very hard' at re-creating the
things that they felt were integral to Miles Davis' work, including the
aforementioned special effects, and also Macero's edits: "We paid a lot of
attention to the balance, and to where the edits were. We would run my mixes and
edits against the original LP version, and sometimes we'd do an A/B with my
version in one speaker and the original in the other to make sure that there
were no edits that we had missed or mis-timed. We worked amazingly hard on this.
Editing was a big issue, and it was important for us to pay homage to what Teo
Astonishingly, given that the record company blurb
was hailing the 20-bit digital mixes that Wilder was supposed to have performed,
he actually did all the edits in analogue, using razor blades on his two-track
Wilder gave the lowdown: "Most of Macero's edits were well done and
not difficult to replicate. There was no benefit in putting everything in the
Sonic Solutions. Instead of building things up piece by piece in the Sonic
Solutions, we were doing it live in analogue. That gives you a much cleaner
signal path, and makes it easier to bring out the liveness of the performances.
I did use the Sonic Solutions a lot on the Miles & Gil boxed set,
because, on Miles Ahead, there were orchestral sessions on which Miles
only played certain sections. They were recorded to stereo, and they later
overdubbed him on the missing sections, but in doing so reduced the orchestra to
"So, with the computer, I was able to strip off Miles' overdubbed solos and
paste them into the original stereo orchestra tracks, cutting the solos up and
moving the phrases around, so that the phrasing is still accurate and in time
with the orchestra. That was strange and very hard work. But, for the Bitches
Brew box, we did only a few edits in Sonic Solutions, and mostly I edited
the two-track tape mix. I then mastered that straight to a 24-bit [Sony] PCM9000
MO recorder, using a mastering technique called AB, where you have two sets of
EQs, compressors, gain stagers and so on, and run the master live, and add
effects using a move list."
The response of reviewers and fans to Wilder's and
Belden's brew have, so far, been very positive. Despite Macero's misgivings,
nobody has as yet accused Wilder and Belden of defacing the Sistine Chapel.
© 1999 Paul Tingen