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Miles Davis Tribute To Honor Spirit And Sounds Of 'Bitches Brew'

Drummer Montez Coleman, bassist Bob DeBoo, guitarist Travis Lewis and pianist Adaron 'Pops' Jackson dig into a groove from 'Bitches Brew,' the classic Miles Davis album.
Jeremy D. Goodwin | St. Louis Public Radio
Drummer Montez Coleman, bassist Bob DeBoo, guitarist Travis Lewis and pianist Adaron 'Pops' Jackson dig into a groove from 'Bitches Brew,' the classic Miles Davis album.

When Miles Davis gathered an expanded group for recording sessions in August 1969, the trumpeter and bandleader had already revolutionized jazz several times — from key bebop recordings in the 1940s through the gravity-defying post-bop of his mid-to-late '60s quintet. 

Across three days in a New York City studio, he did it again. 

Tonight, Jazz St. Louis celebrates the 50th anniversary of the release of “Bitches Brew,” an album that pushed jazz further into the realm of rock 'n' roll, pleasing and angering fans on either side of that divide. 

George Grella, author of “Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew (33 ⅓),” will discuss the album before a set of music from the album by a pickup combo led by keyboardist and composer Adam Maness

“It restored his primacy as an avatar of where music was going,” Grella said of Davis’ album, on the phone from his Brooklyn home.

The “Bitches Brew” sessions began hours after Jimi Hendrix brought up the sun with “The Star-Spangled Banner” near the close of the Woodstock festival, about 100 miles north of the studio where Davis and company gathered to stage their own musical rebellion.

Adam Maness, left, pulled together a pick-up group of ace players including pianist Adaron 'Pops' Jackson. [2/12/20]
Credit Jeremy D. Goodwin | St. Louis Public Radio
Adam Maness, left, pulled together a pickup group of ace players including pianist Adaron 'Pops' Jackson.

The Alton native had cast a keen eye on the enthusiasm young audiences had for stars of the rock 'n' soul worlds like Hendrix, Sly Stone and James Brown. Davis wanted a new look — he’d soon ditch his immaculate Brooks Brothers suits for colorful silks onstage — and a new sound.

The resulting album is a dense, bubbling cauldron of grooves heated by fiery interplay among a dozen musicians. Davis’ famously lyrical voice on trumpet found a very different context than even “In A Silent Way,” his abstract but relaxed album released earlier that year.

The group included two players on electric piano, both an acoustic and an electric bassist, and four drummer/percussionists. Several ensemble members, including pianists Chick Corea and Josef Zawinul, guitarist John McLaughlin and drummer Jack DeJohnette would do much to define the emerging genre of jazz fusion, both in and out of Davis’ bands. 

Davis led the group through open-ended explorations in the studio based on slender compositional elements, and producer Teo Macero later assembled those fragments into their final shape on the album. 

The mood is sometimes dark, the rhythms are frequently funky, and the music unspools like a strange dream. 

“Those first few seconds of that first side, you have a feeling that you’re encountering something that you’ve not only never heard before, but [a kind of] thinking that you haven’t imagined before,” Grella said.

In his book, he describes the effect as “unsettling” to an uninitiated listener. 

“The day after Woodstock, when all sorts of revolutionary things are happening on that stage, Miles is like, ‘Those guys are doing that; I’m doing this. Now let’s open up a new, parallel universe that I can share with everybody.’ He was almost traveling between dimensions when he went into a studio or a nightclub,” Grella said. 

Maness, who was recently honored by Arts and Education Council for his many cross-genre collaborations, assembled a group of ace St. Louis players to try to tap into the well of inspiration that fed “Bitches Brew.” 

He’ll play Wurlitzer piano, joined by keyboardist Adaron “Pops” Jackson, electric bassist Bob DeBoo, percussionist Matt Henry, drummer Montez Coleman, guitarist Travis Lewis, trumpeter Danny Campbell and Kendrick Smith on saxes and bass clarinet. 

“The important part for me is not re-creating exactly how the album sounds, but re-creating the spirit with which those sessions happened,” Maness said, after the group’s sole rehearsal last Saturday, in a practice space in Jazz St. Louis’ Centene Jazz Education Center. 

Guitarist Travis Lewis, bassist Bob DeBoo and drummer Montez Coleman rehearse for a one-night tribute to "Bitches Brew." [2/12/20]
Credit Jeremy D. Goodwin | St. Louis Public Radio
Guitarist Travis Lewis, bassist Bob DeBoo and drummer Montez Coleman rehearse for a one-night tribute to 'Bitches Brew.'

The group will play three songs from “Bitches Brew” in a set that should last about an hour. 

“While we are trying to play these tunes and re-create a certain vibe,” Maness said, “part of me wants it to be like maybe something else happens that would never happen on ‘Bitches Brew,’ and that would be great. That would be in the spirit of ‘Bitches Brew' and the spirit of that music.”

“Bitches Brew” sold over 400,000 copies in 1970, and became the fastest-selling album of Davis’ already-impressive career. He would continue to move further into the abstract, even as the core of his “Bitches Brew” group joined him near the vanguard of a musical movement with their own bands. 

Lewis, the guitarist, said he knows the album so well he could play the whole thing in his head. For fans like him, “Bitches Brew” is a landmark recording. For Davis, the artist who was always moving forward, it was just another new perch from which to leap to his next idea.

If you go

What: Bitches Brew At 50

Where: Jazz St. Louis, 3536 Washington Ave., St. Louis

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday

How much: Free

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified musician Adaron "Pops" Jackson.

Jeremy can be found on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.

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