Bitches Brew straight up

Sony/Legacy’s 40th anniversary, deluxe reissue of Bitches Brew, Miles Davis’ landmark fusion double-album, is everything that the company’s 50th anniversary reissue of Kind of Blue tried to be but wasn’t: a fitting commemoration, handsomely packaged, with liner notes by a scribe (Greg Tate) who fully grasps the music and its cultural significance, and—a remarkable achievement—a boxed set that warrants tossing the original out.

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.

Jerry's picture

The fact that Sony has deigned to re-master the CDs from inferior sources is an absolute deal breaker. I'm not, nor will I ever be, a vinyl aficionado, but would have loved to add this set to my collection. Moreover, why not offer the set with SACDs?

Lionel's picture

I remember reading (in the 1990s, maybe in Musician?) something to the effect that the digital masters for Bitches Brew sounded so weirdly different from the LP was because Teo Macero had the mastering engineer introduce a lot of the echo which permeates the album *during the mastering process*--the only "authentic" master was the actual record-pressing one. They tried to recreate the delay/echo with digital delays, which don't at all sound the same as the tape delays which Macero used. (Tape delays, in addition to having the imperfection in timing of a motor moving a mechanical tape moving over a recording head, also tend to lose high end with each repeat.)I imagine that a straight digital rip of the analog masters would have its own set of problems that would have to be worked out (getting rid of the RIAA EQ for starters), but you're right, it probably would sound a lot better.Are they planning to release just the LPs, or do we have to buy the poorly remastered CDs as well?

Jesse S.'s picture

Nice review, Fred. I picked up this very nice set and found the CDs had some adhesive stuck to them. I've contacted Sony, twice, and so far no resolution. Buyer beware. At least I am somewhat comforted that I am not missing much because the CDs sound is compromised by the bad, old digital mix. But still.

Tony's picture

Sorry to have to play Mr. Flat Earth again, but I bought "Bitches Brew" when it first came out, and the vinyl still sounds quite good, thank you. Nice copies are stil lavailable for less than Sony's latest attempt to milk the Miles legacy. Save your dough (isn't there a recession on?) and buy some original vinyl and skip this second rate set.

MusicIsIdeasKy's picture

I thought the Japanese MasterSound CD issue of "Bitches Brew" that came out in the 1990s was a pretty good (to my mid-fi ears anyway) remaster that used the original mixes. It came out briefly in the US as a limited edition in a mini-LP type sleeve. It was better sounding than the old "Columbia Jazz Masterpieces" CD issue at any rate....

hockman's picture

Well, I take your word that the vinyl is good but gee, I already have the "Complete Bitches Brew" box and ain't about to spend more money on Sony's latest attempt to milk more revenues from the same album.If I really wanted the vinyl, perhaps it would be better to seek out the Mosaic box of the Complete BB.

AFG's picture

I have both the original LP pressing and this new box set, and I can concur with Mr. Kaplan that it is indeed superior. I have not even bothered to listen to the CDs since (on my rig at least) LPs almost always sound better than any CD I have. I am always struck that this music, now 40 years old (!!) is still so advanced and ahead of its time, even today.

Marc Wentzel's picture

I just picked up the new vinyl, was lucky to find it here in Toronto. I did not want the boxed set. Have only listened to the Pharaoh's dance and it sounds great. I never had other vinyl issues of this album but have the CD's and MP3's and love them too.The record is clean, quiet and very detailed. Very high quality! All I can say is it was worth the money & would highly recommend to anyone.I am thrilled with this renaissance of vinyl - collecting & listening to records again! Such a pleasure, it is so much more "organic" or maybe "holistic" - not just amassing gig's of music. It is more than just the sound!

Miles Lover's picture

Fred,The 2004 Columia Set is peerless- The CompleterBitches Brew Sessions. No need to buy anythingelse. Save your money frieds and get this set.Miles Lover

Jody M.'s picture

to MilesLover -

actually there is a very good reason to buy something other than the 2004 "complete" set... to hear the ORIGINAL mix, which can be heard in the 40th Anniversary vinyl edition reviewed right here.

Personally, I like to hear Bitches Brew the way Miles heard it, not in some late 90's digital remix...


Here is a site detailing (with audio samples) the mix differences: