Bitches Brew straight up
The box includes a lavish booklet, archive-quality session photos, three CDs (two containing the album and studio outtakes, the other a live concert, of an enlarged version of the same band, at Tanglewood), one DVD (a live concert at Copenhagen), and—here’s the ticket to the set’s immortality—two 180-gram LPs, made by Mark Wilder and Greg Calbi from the analog master tapes, tucked in a reproduction of the original album’s gatefold cover.
I didn’t much like Bitches Brew in my callow youth, turning up my nose at the electric guitars and rock-fuzz rhythms as a betrayal of acoustic (read pure) jazz. In the past few decades, I’ve come to appreciate the album as a masterpiece. (Like the narrator in the Dylan song, “I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.”)
It’s been noted that the Miles blew his first note at the Bitches Brew session 24 hours after Jimi Hendrix slammed his last note at Woodstock, and that’s the vital context. Miles was always a genre-buster, looking for ways to stay a step ahead of—and then to reshape—the next new thing; he was also increasingly conscious of his black roots and disturbed that young black people weren’t listening to his jazz; his young girlfriend, Betty Mabrey, was egging him into new fashions and new music (he and Hendrix were planning to make a record together, before the guitarist died). Yet Bitches Brew can also be heard as a logical extension of Miles’ previous few albums, Nefertiti, Miles in the Sky, and especially In a Silent Way, which employed some electric instruments and were less and less tethered to structural anchors (in that sense, the genesis can be traced back a decade to Kind of Blue).
The good news is that the LPs in the boxed-set sound better than the original pressings: deeper, more tuneful bass; airier highs; more texture in the guitar strums; less grain on the trumpet. One difference may be that late ’60s vinyl was pretty thin and impure; another may be simply that Wilder and Calbi are two of the best in the business.
The bad news is that the CDs don’t sound very good. They’re mastered from an 8-track mix made in the late 1990s. I’m not quite sure why Sony couldn’t have made a new digital master, taken from the same analog tapes used for the new LPs. Those analog tapes, by the way, were the masters used for cutting the lacquer back in 1969. As is well known, producer Teo Macero heavily edited and EQ’d the hours and hours of often-randomly improvised session tapes; it would have insane, maybe impossible, and perhaps unnecessary to go back to the originals and replicate Macero’s moves. Michael Cuscuna, the reissue’s co-producer, insists that a new digital master for the CDs would have sounded no different from the late-’90s mix. But I’m not sure of that. I’ve heard A/B demos in which a remastered disc with an analog source sounds better than one with a digital source, even if the music and the signal-path are otherwise identical.
The live-concert discs are good to have, musically, but the sound is a bit dim and, no doubt, always was.
Final word: If you love (or don’t know) this music, and you have a turntable, this "Legacy Edition" is the set to get.