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The Electric Explorations
of Miles Davis
1967-1991


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By Paul Tingen

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 M I L E S     B E Y O N D


Articles

THE MAKING OF
THE COMPLETE BITCHES BREW SESSIONS

 

By Paul Tingen

Bitches Brew boxed setIt'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 of 1970.

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 technology.

Demarcation

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 mildly.

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 February 1970.

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 one session).

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 clear demarcation.'"

Sistine Chapel

Bitches Brew cover detailWhatever 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."

Hard Work

Mark Wilder 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 had done."

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 mixdowns.

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 mono."

"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


      

      
BITCHES BREW - AN EXAMPLE OF EDITING TO CREATE MUSICAL STRUCTURE IN THE TITLE TRACK

The issued version is structured in two parts: the first part is used as Intro, Interlude and Coda. The second part, or Solos Section, is based on a vamp and is used to develop the solos. The beginning of the ostinato of the second section was created by looping a phrase that starts at 2:50.

INTRO

* 00:00 - Bass vamp #1
* 00:41 - THEME by Davis w. echo -> THEME by Davis & Shorter

SOLOS SECTION #1

$ (a) 02:50 - Bass vamp #2 with Brooks & Alias
* (b) 02:56 - Bass vamp #2 with Brooks, Maupin & Alias
$ (b) 03:01 - Duplication of (b) bass vamp, from 2:56 through 3:01
$ (b) 03:07 - Duplication of (b) bass vamp, from 2:56 through 3:01
$ (b) 03:12 - Duplication of (b) bass vamp, from 2:56 through 3:01
$ (ab) 03:17 - Duplication of (a) plus (b) bass vamp, from 2:50 through 3:01
$ (b) 03:27 - Duplication of (b) bass vamp, from 2:56 through 3:01
* 03:32 - the rest of the rhythm section enters and the performance continues without edits until 10:36
* Solos: Davis (3:54/ 6:20); McLaughlin (6:32/ 7:26); <Groove> McLaughlin (7:50/ 8:55); Davis (8:55...)
$ 10:36 - Duplication of the passage played just before (from 10:31 through 10:36) plus new fragment (5 notes played by Miles) until 10:42
$ 10:42 - Duplication of the previously played passage (from 10:36 through 10:42), plus new fragment until 10:52
$ 10:52 - Duplication of the previously played passage (from 10:42)
* 11:28 - Davis' solo ends
* 11:38 - Shorter solo, ending at 12:36. A very brief Holland solo follows
$ 12:42 - Groove Corea (12:49...)
$ 13:28 - Corea cont.

INTERLUDE

$ 14:36 - Bass vamp #1 THEME by Davis w. echo (15:55);

SOLOS SECTION #2

$ 17:20 - Bass vamp #2 Solos: Holland (17:29/ 19:18); Davis (19:23/ 20:11) Groove Davis (20:58/ 21:48)
$ 22:01 - Groove Zawinul (22:31)

CODA

$ 24:04 - Duplication of the introduction (from 0:00 to 2:50)

$ denotes a tape edit.
* denotes a musical event.

Analysis by Enrico Merlin.

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