‘It’s a rockstar album’: the UK jazz musicians marking five decades of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew

“We played for three days straight with no notes on the page and no repeats. There were 12 musicians in the room, just listening and responding. It was intense.” In December 2020, the jazz saxophonist Nubya Garcia took part in a marathon London-based recording session to mark the 50th anniversary of the release of Miles Davis’s album Bitches Brew. Also recorded over three days, in New York in 1969 with a group of 13 musicians, Bitches Brew is a sprawling work of jazz, funk and psychedelic rock. Squealing horns battle with a thunderous, swinging rhythm section of double drummers, while electronic keyboard and guitars shred through melody with a piercing clarity.

One of the most groundbreaking jazz albums ever made, it won a Grammy in 1971 and has sold more than 1m copies. Its use of tape editing and looping techniques went on to inspire the process of hip-hop sampling, and its sound helped birth the genre-hopping style of jazz fusion, influencing the work of artists as varied as the pianist Herbie Hancock (who played in Davis’s Second Great Quintet until 1968), guitarist George Benson and Radiohead.

“It’s a rockstar album,” says Martin Terefe, producer of the new recording. “It’s wild and unhinged – every time I listen to it, it reveals something new. There’s so much freedom in the music.” Terefe has made his career mostly producing pop acts such as KT Tunstall and A-ha, but says he has often turned to Bitches Brew as a means of breaking away from the strictures of conventional songwriting. “There are frameworks when you’re dealing with contemporary singer-songwriters, but the idea of Bitches Brew is directionless,” he says. “I listen to it and get inspired by the way Miles was letting the musicians take it wherever they felt it needed to go.”

Miles Davis performing in 1969.
He only ‘knew what he didn’t want’: Miles Davis performing in 1969. Photograph: Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images

Famed for his bluntness and short temper, when it came to the making of the album, Davis only “knew what he didn’t want”, guitarist John McLaughlin, one of the musicians who played on those sessions, has said. Gone were the musical scores; instead Davis would occasionally jot down chords or set a tempo and then let the band play in the studio until they ran out of steam. On the final day of recording, he assembled an 11-person rhythm section of three keyboardists, electric guitar, two basses, four drummer-percussionists and a bass clarinet, creating a maelstrom of sound. “He wanted blood and guts and heart all the time,” according to McLaughlin.

As the album’s half-century anniversary neared, the Miles Davis estate approached executive producer Bruce Lampcov to put together a project honouring its legacy. There was one group in particular – members of the new London jazz scene of the past decade – that Lampcov thought embodied the same sense of musical freedom that Davis had encouraged. “Bruce had been one night to a gig in Brixton and he saw Nubya playing saxophone to a whole room of young people who were just jumping up and down,” Terefe says. “He couldn’t believe it – it was like punk rock in the 70s, but jazz. This emerging group of London artists felt like they had the boundary-breaking urgency that Miles would have encouraged. Bruce asked me to produce the project and we decided they were the perfect fit to take on Bitches Brew.”

Garcia and her peers, such as tuba player Theon Cross and saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, came up via free grassroots workshops in London. Their take on free, improvised jazz integrates their west African and Caribbean heritages and has gained them a devoted young fanbase. By enlisting these players as part of the new Bitches Brew ensemble – now renamed in their honour as London Brew – the producers echo how Davis’s own bands were a training ground for young artists including Hancock, saxophonists Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane and bassist Marcus Miller.

There is no trumpet player to ape Davis’s signature style. Instead, it is purely the sound of the collective we hear

Yet, as the project picked up momentum, not everyone was convinced of its necessity. “When Martin approached me I was very hesitant,” musical director and guitarist Dave Okumu says. “I didn’t see much value in just taking apart a seminal record and recreating it – there needed to be a different focus.” As the pair spoke, they decided that the new album would depart from the jazz lineage of covering “standards” and instead seek to “honour the intention of the original”, Okumu explains. That meant embracing its spirited freedom.

Okumu’s first task was rounding out the ensemble. While Garcia, Cross and Hutchings all regularly collaborate – along with drummer Tom Skinner (Sons of Kemet) and bassist Tom Herbert (Okumu’s band the Invisible) – the addition of other players, including Nick Ramm and Nikolaj Torp Larsen on synthesisers and Raven (nephew of Kate) Bush on violin, created new combinations. “There wasn’t a single person who had played in this formation before and that made each take unique,” Okumu says. “We were all shaken out of our comfort zones, while being surrounded by several people each of us were very comfortable with.” Crucially, there is no trumpet player to lead the group or to ape Davis’s signature style. Instead, it’s purely the sound of the collective we hear.

That sound was pushed further thanks to the prompts that Okumu and Terefe came up with prior to recording. “We had access to the original Bitches Brew sessions, but rather than sample them I met Dave in the studio and we began creating little sketches inspired by Miles’s sounds,” Terefe says. “We then decided to use [DJ and radio broadcaster] Benji B to randomly feed these sketches into the artists’ headphones while they were playing, to inspire where they would go next and to make sure things always kept moving.” Okumu describes it as a “sound collage” and a means of giving each improvisation its own aesthetic, without prescribing its form. “It’s guiding the players as a group but leaving the door open enough so that people can still respond in their own way,” he says.

The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic halted plans for live shows and delayed the recording, so by the time the London Brew ensemble finally reached Church Studios in north London at the end of 2020, there was a palpable sense of anticipation. “The sensory stimulation was crazy,” Garcia says. “We’d been stuck at home and had not played live for months. Now there were just so many people to feed off, and with those sketches being played in our ears it was like a gig where you don’t have time to overthink, you just have the intensity of responding in the moment. It felt like anything could happen.”

During their marathon jams across the three days of recording, the session threw up some pleasingly unpredictable elements, including tuba player Cross’s weighty basslines kicking in like a club dancefloor experience, and moments of sudden softness such as trilling strings from violinist Bush played alongside the battle of Garcia and Hutchings’s saxophones. “It was calm and chaos juxtaposed, which is exactly what Bitches Brew is to me,” Garcia says.

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Terefe walked away with 12 hours of material to somehow edit into an eight-track finished record. “I was actually worried about Martin because it was an insane amount of music,” Okumu says with a laugh. “We could have made an album just with the material from day one.” Working his way through the sessions during the 2021 lockdowns, Terefe began selecting his favourite sections – those that navigate the sonic extremes that made the original so enduring. The opening 23-minute title track meanders from competing drum rhythms to the eerie ambience of synthesiser sounds and arpeggiated flutes, while Davis’s tribute to guitarist Jimi Hendrix, Miles Runs the Voodoo Down, is interpolated with the earthy funk and electronically processed saxophone of new track Miles Chases New Voodoo in the Church. “I wanted it to be as unedited as possible, so I ended up choosing a starting point and then producing the tracks until I lost interest,” says Terefe. “That’s why there is a 23-minute track and another over 15 minutes on the finished record. Those were sections of music that I just couldn’t turn off.”

Ultimately, London Brew celebrates the diversity of London’s musical cultures through the joyous freedom of jazz. It updates the expansive ethos that Davis himself was channelling when it came to recording Bitches Brew in the musical melting pot of New York City in 1969. “I fell in love with Miles because he could bring together the swagger of the city, its intense soundworld and its dynamism,” Okumu says. “That is something that needs to be celebrated, as a reminder to everyone how rich our different cultures are and how, if we just listen to one another, something beautiful will arise. It’s exactly what we did for three days, three years ago.”