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The Live Birth of Miles Davis' 'Bitches Brew'

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Miles Davis at the Newport Jazz Festival, 1969.
Miles Davis at the Newport Jazz Festival, 1969.
David Redfern/Redferns/Getty

On July 5, 1969, a month before he recorded his pioneering jazz-rock confrontation, Bitches Brew, Miles Davis previewed that convulsion at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. It was a fateful setting. Promoter George Wein had broadened the bill, booking Led Zeppelin, the Jeff Beck Group and Sly and the Family Stone alongside B.B. King, Herbie Hancock and Dave Brubeck. Oversized crowds – and a bum rush down the hill one night by kids without tickets – tested the festival's historic poise and the patience of the wealthy neighborhood. (Wein moved the festival to New York – and got out of booking heavy rock bands – after a riot at Newport in '71, during a Dionne Warwick performance. He wouldn't return for a decade.)

Davis appeared on the afternoon of the second day in 1969 – on a motley bill with John Mayall, Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention, vibraphonist Gary Burton and trumpeter Ruby Braff – and played for only 24 minutes. But that set, just released as Bitches Brew Live (Columbia/Legacy) was a fantastic accident. Davis' saxophonist Wayne Shorter didn't make the the gig; he was stuck in traffic. So the leader went on with a quartet and stayed up front, firing silver gunbursts of trumpet over the stark power-jazz tumult of electric pianist Chick Corea, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette. a rhythmic core of the larger band that would cut Bitches Brew in August. Davis did exactly what the title promised in "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down," while Shorter missed playing on his own "Sanctuary". The show ended with Davis blowing high and hard over rough free-funk waters in "It's About That Time," recorded earlier that year for In a Silent Way. That album finally came out three weeks after Newport. Davis was moving – and documenting that motion – faster than most folks, rock or jazz, in that crowd realized.

The brevity of the Newport set leaves you wanting more – a lot more. But there is compensation. Bitches Brew Live includes Davis' full show from the 1970 Isle of Wight festival in Britain, with a bigger band (including percussionist Airto Moreira and pianist Keith Jarrett before he swore off electric keyboards) and more evolved fury. An edited medley from that performance first appeared on a 1971 Columbia triple LP of live festival recordings. When Davis' producer, Teo Macero, asked the trumpeter about a title for the track, Davis told Macero, "Call it anything.' So he did. It's the last cut on Side Six: "Call It Anything."

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ABOUT THIS BLOG

David Fricke

Rolling Stone senior writer David Fricke has more than 10,000 albums in his New York apartment. His first record review for the magazine was Frank Zappa's 'Sheik Yerbouti' (RS 290).

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