‘London Brew’ reached us this month, following a 2020 performance from London-based jazz musicians in tribute to the 50th anniversary of the Miles Davis classic ‘Bitches Brew’. The 1970 original was radically controversial at the time but recontextualised here by contemporary musicians, inspired by the seminal jazz recording. London’s musical heritage of adaptation and diverse multicultural influence makes the city a living embodiment of the Bitches Brew sound and legacy, with an audience who may even be unaware of how much they have been influenced by it.
This album only took three days to record; just like the original. However, where Miles would only provide minimal instructions such as a tempo or a single chord, there are more well-defined motifs on London Brew to make the tracks feel more distinctive—providing a more clearly organised direction for the musicians to refer to. In some areas, there are familiar riffs from the original to remind us of this direction but generally the tracks are mostly new innovations. It’s almost a disappointment when the exact riff from Bitches Brew appears at the end of the title track to remind us, although the quality of the music tempers this sense of disappointment.
Like it’s 1969 forebear, London Brew also followed a reverse recording approach. Miles’ band benefitted from a core group, who had been touring intensively for the best part of a year; they may have faced an improvisational challenge when recording but were familiar enough with each other to meld compatible grooves, thereby enabling a basis for greater improvisation. Covid lockdown held back this level of interplay on London Brew, and in the studio the musicians had to rely on the phrases they had each been working on individually. Initially, there’s a sense of everyone trying to be heard but over the course of the album the group settled into a more relaxed familiarity.
Approaching a modern reinterpretation of Bitches Brew is challenging, at best. It is one of the most daring records of all time; it loudly ignored Western melodic and structural conventions, while try competing against Miles Davis as a trumpeter. However, at the end of this expansive album, the listener might note they did not hear a simple trumpet at all, a crucial decision that immediately gives this record its own distinction.
A conscious effort was made by the producers to build the pieces around phrases inspired by the original rather than attempting a direct cover version. Therefore, it could even be argued that Miles Davis isn’t even a necessary unique selling point. Once this is understood, the listener can more ably appreciate London Brew as an original collaborative body of work, which should be celebrated on its own terms as one of the top contemporary jazz records of 2023.
George Slater, May 2020