Photo by dou_ble_you via flickr (Under License Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0))
Miles Davis’ ‘Bitches Brew’ was what changed my young 17-year-old’s opinion on free jazz. Rather ironic looking back, considering that Miles too was at first sceptical of this ‘accidental aberration of jazz’ and described it to people as simply “ridiculous”. I suppose what struck me about his record in comparison to other free jazz works I had heard, and what changed my mind, was its rock touch, and how it strayed away from, if you could call it, the ‘classic’ free jazz rhythm. It was cooler and edgy, and 17-year-old me clearly was in possession of some sort of teenage angst, so the electric keys and guitar were in my opinion far more potent than any Ornette’s sax yapping: I can still recall my long and spiteful aversion towards ‘Eventually’ from ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’.
For a week in early October, I would play ‘Pharaoh's Dance’ on my walk to Strand, and time it perfectly so that I’d finish the track right before I passed through the first barriers at campus. What a coincidence then, you might say, that the EFG Jazz Festival would be hosting London Brew, a modern celebration of Miles’ record.
London Brew was set up by Martin Terefer, for the 50th anniversary of ‘Bitches Brew’ with the intention to celebrate the spirit of the record and reimagine it with the players of today’s London jazz scene. Covid however delayed the group from getting to jam together until December 2020, when they were (this time willingly) able to lock themselves up and improvise for three days straight in a North London studio, taking inspiration yet again from Miles's method of production back in 1969. Their brew was then turned into an album and released in March of this year and hadn’t been heard live until now, for the EFG festival.
This is free jazz however, so the music performed on the Barbican stage on the 18th of October was not what was created in 2020, but rather as explained in the pre-show ramble by Martin Terefer and Dave Okumu, the founders of the project, “entirely improvised” set were “we don’t know what’s going to happen”. Upon hearing this statement, I saw the person in front of me tense slightly – 30 minutes in she would leave and never return, I take it musical spontaneity isn’t something one can always predict to enjoy.
The opening number was our great plunge into what had been proposed and promised in the advertisement. We had spent a long time getting ourselves settled in our seats, hearing about what was to come and clapping for the many, many members, then the vibrating clang of Martin’s guitar snapped our ears awake and opened our eyes to a 90-minute loud spectacle.
On my walk to the gig, I had shuffled through the ‘London Brew’ album in a way to prepare myself, and it seemed to me then whilst listening to the group that although the performance deviated from the so called “track list”, the work on the album did act as a spinal cord, providing a base from which the players were able to revamp and restyle. In my opinion there were numerous occasions where this was successful, for example Dan See’s and Saleem Raman drums were far louder, playing a much more impresive role live than they do on the album; See also a played a sick beat on loop in the middle of the gig which got a whole row of us moving our heads in sync and just generally set the mood in the theatre to a cool tempo after the ecstasy of the guitars played just before. But there were times where it seemed like the woodwind took over and the layering of all their separate tunes created an unfortunate deafening tone. This certainly was not helped by the fact that one of the mics had actually been placed directly into the tuba: a truly colossal noise was released through the speakers.
I was thrilled, however, when Eska’s singing started to become more audible and wished that generally the project had paid more attention to the contribution and positive impact that vocals would’ve played in this set. I don’t know if it is perhaps the English student in me, but I think if either she or another player could’ve started spitting verses and delivered some spoken word poetry, it would’ve sold and maybe even completed the performance. I suppose this might have deviated then quite a bit from Miles’s album, and we were told that ‘London Brew’ was supposed to be “a channelling rather than a re-interpretation”, but surely this then also holds true for the random live art that was being created at the back of the stage and projected onto the screens.
Similarly to how the instruments were blended, the various works of art were continuously being layered on top of one another throughout the show to produce a multimedia piece of art alongside the performance. However, the delights of live art did not add anything particular to the show. It unfortunately reminded me slightly of how Matty Healey projected Subway Surfers onto the screen to keep his audience paying attention whilst he spoke about the Malaysia concert. Were the producers then worried that we’d be bored? by Nubya Garcia? I spoke earlier of how I went to the concert because of my enjoyment of ‘Bitches Brew’ and my interest in the project, but admittingly another reason was to get a chance to see Nubya perform live. The experience certainly lived up to that dream.
As an open-minded avid sort, Miles would’ve been enthused over the project, and although Dave Okumu expressed his initial apprehension on how he thought “if you have a reverence, you shouldn't join the public dialogue”, London Brew celebrated and propelled Miles’s record into the present day by keeping it alive through the pulse of today’s jazz players and sounds. Thus, as an appreciation of the record, the group succeeded, but I predict it’ll take a lot more to create something on par and of the same magnitude as ‘Bitches Brew’, which 53 years later still remains just as exhilarating.
Find out more about the EFG London Jazz Festival at their Website
Edited by Lucy Blackmur, Music Editor