BDJF – day 1: something’s brewing

(l-r) Ray Vega, Graham Haynes, Vernon Reid, DJ Logic, Bob Blumenthal

Forty years ago Miles Davis’ career of musical evolution progressed into another landmark phase with the release of his double album, Bitches Brew.

At the same time it was more – more electric, more textured, more instrumentally populated – counterintuitively, the album’s explorations (though also more spacious) were less densely musical than Miles’ earlier styles. In part, Bitches Brew‘s sparely spattered sonic canvas had expanded to match the size of the stadiums and outdoor festivals where it was being played.

That was one of the points emphasized in this afternoon’s “Meet the Artist” session at the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival. The session was hosted by 11-year returning resident jazz critic Bob Blumenthal and featured a panel of five guests: jazz critic/all-around expert Dan Morgenstern, trumpeter Ray Vega, and three members of the group that opened the Festival tonight with a “re-imagining” of Miles’ 1970 album. Graham Haynes plays the cornet and leads the Bitches Brew Revisited ensemble, Vernon Reid is the guitarist, and DJ Logic works with the turntable and sampling effects.

Reid was a few minutes late getting to the conversation session this afternoon, so he was the last to respond to the opening question Bob Blumenthal posed along the lines of, ‘what did you think of Bitches Brew when you first experienced it?’ Reid: “For me, I’m like someone who came to the scene of an accident after it already happened and everyone’s arguing what happened.” He explained that his first recollections of Bitches Brew are tied in with coinciding first memories of (John Coltrane’s) My Favorite Things, Carlos Santana’s Abraxas, and other recordings he was introduced to at an after school program as a young man at Brooklyn Tech. He called the Brew production amazing, repeating that how incredible it was to ever be released on a major recording label.

An aspect of Bitches Brew that each panelist touched upon in his own way was the album’s enigmatic, colorfully psychedelic artwork by painter Mati Klarwein. Important also to remember that it was a double album, coming from an era when such a thing could cover half your kitchen table when you fully opened it up. That can really have an impact in way that CDs have never been able to equal. And the artwork was unlike traditional “jazz album” cover art of the day, visually establishing the recording’s rightful place among its colorful rock album contemporaries. (The Festival has also sponsored a contest for artists to recreate the Bitches Brew artwork. The contest is closed now, but here’s what that is all about.)

Other notable observations from today’s “Meet the Artist” session, in no particular order:

Graham Haynes: “Miles managed to get an audience without getting any airplay from that point (1970) on. I went to concerts in 1974, ’75 and the halls were packed – without Miles being on the radio.”

Dan Morgenstern: “There’s a process of discovery there, it was fresh – it worked artistically”.

Vernon Reid: “Miles created explosive music for explosive times. Everything was up for grabs. It’s about the kinds of conversations people were having.”

Haynes: “Miles played with Bird (Charlie Parker) for what, 4-5 years? You want a solo, that’s a solo. What are you going to do after that? You have to deconstruct.”

Haynes: “He (Miles) knew that certain equations created certain music, he knew how to play people off each other. He knew how to balance contrast.”

Reid: “I think it’s important for music to exists in real time.”

Reid: “These characters (John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis) are expansions of their own humanity.”

I also really appreciated Bob Blumenthal’s point that what Miles (and producer Teo Macero) did in creating Bitches Brew was “much more like what DJ Logic does now than anything else happening at that time.”

The Bitches Brew Revisited concert itself later this evening was one of those rare musical experiences where the lights come up at the end and you blink, shake your head, and realize you’ve really been somewhere for the last couple of hours. It’s hard to put something like that into words, but I can say it was the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to being at an outdoor concert without actually being there. The flow was patient, trippy, luxuriously stretched out and wildly imaginative. What an opening night for this year’s Festival.

Tomorrow is the annual Big Joe Burrell day, and there’s music happening all over town throughout the day (and night of course!). In the afternoon you can visit the Amy Tarrant Flynn Gallery and take part in the Festival’s annual deep listening session “Listen Here” with Bob Blumenthal, this year’s album of choice is Herbie Hancock’s 1964 Blue Note release Empyrean Isles. And  the evening headliner is Herbie Hancock himself in a trio + vocalist Kristina Train.

Here’s the calendar for the whole week, and – oh yeah! Check out the parade that second-lined its way down Church Street this evening. Led by New Orleans’ own High and Mighty Brass Band, it’s the first time I’ve ever heard Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” played like this, that’s for sure:

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