- Written by Joseph Taylor Joseph Taylor
- Category: Joseph Taylor's "On Music" Joseph Taylor's "On Music"
- Created: 01 October 2014 01 October 2014
When I was 14, Rob, my friend Wes’s brother, came back east from California to take part in their older brother’s wedding. Tom, the groom, had graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis a year or two before, and Rob had sent a photo ahead to alert the family that he now looked different from when he’d moved to the West a few years before. He had shoulder-length hair and a beard. In 1970, long hair was a big countercultural statement, especially in a Navy family.
Rob brought a few records back with him that I still remember. I heard Laura Nyro, Frank Zappa, John Coltrane, and Wes Montgomery for the first time on Wes’s parents’ stereo. I also first heard the two LPs of Bitches Brew there. It was the only Miles Davis album Rob brought back with him, although I feel certain he must have had other Davis records by then. I can still remember my reaction on hearing this unusual record for the first time: puzzlement, exhilaration, and a feeling that the world had expanded a bit.
More than 40 years later, Bitches Brew still exhilarates, and I continue to hear new, challenging things whenever I play it. It captures the mixture of confusion, anger, and hope that was 1970, the feeling that the old world was fading. Miles used effects usually associated with rock music, such as the echo on his trumpet on some tracks, and the arrangements favored electric over acoustic instruments. Miles had begun experimenting with some new methods on earlier albums, but with In a Silent Way, the album that immediately preceded Bitches Brew, he left no doubt that he was moving in a radical new direction.
Bitches Brew is more densely arranged than In a Silent Way. Miles doubled the drums and bass on most of the tracks, and the instruments often play in different rhythms simultaneously, with melodies snaking around each other. I still have my LP copy, which I bought in 1971, and I own Columbia/Legacy’s four-CD The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions. After hearing Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab’s pressing of In a Silent Way, I was eager to hear how they would handle Miles’s complex opus.
Although Columbia Records LPs were often quieter than those of, say, Atlantic or Capitol, this new edition is pressed on 180gm discs of certainly better-quality vinyl than what US companies used in the 1970s. The dead-quiet backgrounds accounted for my initial impression that this was the most vivid and detailed presentation of Bitches Brew I have ever heard, but careful comparison of the three versions I own showed that this was not simply a matter of better vinyl.
The snare-drum taps that open “Pharaoh’s Dance,” the Joe Zawinul composition that begins the album, ring out with more authority and resonate more realistically on the new pressing than on the CD in the boxed set or on my old LP. The CD is louder than both LPs, but seems to push all the instruments forward, and it lacks the spaciousness of either vinyl version. The MoFi pressing is richly open -- it’s much easier to locate each instrument precisely on the soundstage. Dave Holland’s double-bass lines have so much more definition and fullness, and Chick Corea’s electric-piano lines ring out and sustain longer. Don Alias’s congas are mixed somewhat back in the recording, but here it’s easier to hear them, and they add color to the arrangement.
Miles’s trumpet has a fuller, more nuanced tone on the MoFi, and each note is sharply drawn. The timbre of Bennie Maupin’s bass clarinet is so much more impressive, and Wayne Shorter’s soprano sax is better separated from the players around him. Every instrument, in fact, is easier to hear -- even during dramatic passages that build to a climax, it’s easier to pick out individual players. When passages become quieter, the effect is more pronounced because this pressing has so much more dynamic range than the earlier pressing or the CD.
On the CD, the bass in the title track is overemphasized; on the MoFi pressing, it has better tone and is integrated more naturally into the recording. Miles’s trumpet, echoing across two channels, has a more natural timbre on the MoFi, with more room to stretch out. On the CD, the electric pianos and drums battle for a place and crowd Miles, while the MoFi has a more layered sound. John McLaughlin’s rhythm guitar and Maupin’s bass clarinet in the closing sections of the track ring out fully, but in support of Miles -- and, again, the changes in dynamics are more pronounced and effective.
At about 7:30 into “Bitches Brew,” Miles can be heard directing the players. On the CD he’s more clearly audible, while with the LP I had to listen attentively to hear him prompt McLaughlin. When the guitarist plays, however, he sounds warmer and harmonically fuller on vinyl. To me, that suggests that the CD mastering pushed details forward that are better when placed more logically in the soundstage. On vinyl, especially on this new pressing, the crosstalk among all the instruments seems more like a discussion than the bid for attention it became on the CD.
I had always preferred my original LP to the CD, but the MoFi pressing has the edge on all counts. Instruments are fuller and get to stretch out more, the attack on bass lines is clearer, and, most of all, Miles’s trumpet has greater presence and realism. The improvements over the CD version are even more pronounced. Harvey Brooks’s electric bass in “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” has more visceral impact, and Zawinul’s and Corea’s electric pianos, along with McLaughlin’s guitar, are layered in the soundstage in supporting roles. The MoFi gives every track more three-dimensionality, more musical subtlety, and a better picture of the space in which the music was recorded.
When Miles released In a Silent Way, in 1969, he’d committed himself to using electric instruments even more heavily than he had on Filles de Kilimanjaro and Miles in the Sky, both from 1968. As with Bitches Brew, he recorded a great deal of material for In a Silent Way, and left it to producer Teo Macero to shape it into an album for release.
My LP of In a Silent Way is probably an early-’70s pressing -- it doesn’t have a Columbia 360 label, but rather the company’s name in orange around the label’s outer rim. I was impressed with how lively and fresh it sounded, but on the MoFi pressing the music is widened and stretched out to create a 3D effect. In “Shhh/Peaceful,” which takes up side 1 of the LP, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, both on electric piano, and Joe Zawinul, on organ, are arrayed behind Miles with more subtlety and are easier to pick out. Tony Williams’s hi-hat is more open and airy, less bright and insistent, and Dave Holland’s double bass has more force.
The same track on the three-CD The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions brings all the instruments out in force, and is not an unpleasant listen. I found the mastering to be a little warmer than on the Bitches Brew set, but the MoFi LP is still far more spacious and musical overall. The three keyboards seem to interlock and act together, and there’s a better sense of the musicians reacting to each other and building the sound together.
John McLaughlin’s electric guitar opens the title track, with Herbie Hancock’s electric piano and Dave Holland’s bowed bass backing him. McLaughlin’s notes sustain longer on the MoFi pressing than on CD, with a greater weight that captures the instrument’s midrange tones. I can hear the texture of the bow across the strings, and the notes don’t fade when Wayne Shorter, on soprano sax, and Miles enter. Williams’s drums in the second part of the track have more resonance and bounce on the MoFi, which also conveys a better picture of the dimensions of the space where the music was recorded.
Although I still find plenty to enjoy in my old LP of In a Silent Way, the MoFi pressing is much more satisfying. McLaughlin’s guitar feels less forced, more the product of the moment with the other players, and the notes have more air around them -- the reverb surrounding them is easier to hear. Hancock’s piano lines and Shorter’s soprano have more natural tones, and Holland’s bass has far more impact as, with just a few simple lines, he shows how important an anchor he was in the making of this music.
In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew were key recordings of their time, and they captured the many changes of the late 1960s and early ’70s in ways that even many of the rock recordings of that era couldn’t manage. Critics accused Miles of selling out to rock, but you have to wonder how many rock records they’d actually listened to. These records have the improvisational integrity of jazz, but the electric instruments capture the aggression and confusion of the moment in ways acoustic instruments couldn’t. Bitches Brew is still as unsettling and challenging as the day it was released, and these reissues let us hear in greater relief how complicated and challenging Miles Davis’s vision was. The many layers of percussion, keyboards, bass, and guitar, along with the reeds and Miles’s horn, are presented in more depth, and with more sensitivity, than ever before. Kudos to Krieg Wunderlich and Shawn R. Britton for their astonishing mastering, and to RTI for their usual outstanding pressings.
Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab has reissued many more titles from Davis’s Columbia catalog, and I want to briefly mention two of them. All four titles discussed here are pressed by RTI on flat, very quiet, 180gm vinyl. The covers are on heavy stock cardboard, with excellent photo and color reproduction.
Miles released Milestones in 1958, a year after his first collaboration with arranger Gil Evans, Miles Ahead. It was his third album for Columbia, and for it he added Cannonball Adderley to the quintet with which he’d recorded ’Round About Midnight, his debut for the label, as well as several important LPs for Prestige. John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and “Philly” Joe Jones were the remaining players.
MoFi chose to release Milestones in the original mono. I compared my Columbia six-eye mono version to the MoFi; the earlier pressing is more energetic and bright, but the MoFi, while softer toned, sounds more natural and flows better. Jones’s drums are less aggressive and more behind Miles in the new pressing, and the reeds less forward. Chambers’s bass lines are clearer and have more impact. Still, I enjoy the original’s drive and pace; in this case, I can’t say that the MoFi is the clear winner. But it’s a job well done, and worth having -- a clean original is hard to find.
Sketches of Spain was Miles’s third collaboration on Columbia with Gil Evans. The compositions reflect an interest in the Spanish folk-music tradition, exemplified by the opening track, Concierto de Aranjuez, by Joaquin Rodrigo. While I found it difficult to choose between the pressings with Milestones, in this case I found the MoFi better than my Columbia six-eye stereo. The scale of the 19-piece orchestra, and the timbral complexity of the arrangements, comes through with more power and a greater sense of dynamics from this pressing than from the original.
Lower-register instruments, such as the tuba and bass clarinet, sound stronger on the MoFi, which also more clearly separates the sections of the orchestra, and Evans’s use of them to create layered harmonic textures. The percussion, such as the castanets that recur through Concierto de Aranjuez, are sharper toned on this pressing. Miles’s playing sounds more nuanced, and the tonal characteristics of his trumpet and flugelhorn are easier to hear.
Several more Miles Davis titles are on the way from Mobile Fidelity. After hearing these four, I think it’s worth taking out a loan to buy them all. Miles Davis was one of the true geniuses of American music, and it is essential to hear him in the best pressings available.
. . . Joseph Taylor