Album reviews

London Brew (Nubya Garcia, Shabaka Hutchings et al.) – ‘London Brew’

London Brew – London Brew

(Concord Jazz – 0088807245869. 2 CDs. Album review by Graham Spry)

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The album London Brew is the culmination of a project featuring leading London-based musicians responding to Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew on its 50th anniversary in 2020.

The previous year, American publisher and executive producer Bruce Lampcoy had noticed that Electric Brixton was attracting capacity, mostly young audiences, to watch relatively youthful London jazz musicians. He couldn’t help seeing echoes of the popular reception to Davis’s rock-influenced jazz in the 1970s and decided to mark the anniversary by putting together an ensemble to perform music inspired by Bitches Brew for the 2020 London Jazz Festival.

Of course, COVID meant that the festival couldn’t go ahead and London Brew seemed doomed until UK producer and guitarist Martin Terefe stepped in and ensured that there was studio space for rehearsals and recording for the twelve musicians, including himself, who make up the London Brew ensemble.

Further inspiration for the music came from the individual responses of these musicians – including saxophonists Nubya Garcia and Shabaka Hutchings, guitarist Dave Okumu, violinist Raven Bush, tuba player Theon Cross, bassist Tom Herbert, drummer Tom Skinner, and BBC Radio DJ Benji B – who had experienced nearly a year of not having played in ensembles during the pandemic.

The recording process of London Brew more or less parallels that of Davis’s original album. The nine tracks are directly inspired by loops and samples chosen by DJ Benji B from “Bitches Brew”. Some of these can still be heard on the album and are properly credited to the Miles Davis Estate.

Recorded over three days, the musicians jammed together in the same way as Davis’s original ensembles, having no idea of what might be included in the final cut. Although things were initially fraught, the ensemble became more assured on day two and the third day culminated in “a new confidence in experimentation and creative inspiration,” as Lampcoy’s liner notes reveal.

And then, as Davis’s producer, Teo Macero did with Bitches Brew, London Brew’s producers took the recordings, extracted the best passages and mixed it to produce the final results.

The album generally preserves the original sense of music on the edge of chaos, especially on the first disc where tracks such as ‘Miles Chases New Voodoo in the Church’ share the feel of Bitches Brew’s extended pieces. With nearly half of the ensemble credited as playing synthesisers, decks and electronics, there is extensive use of electronic sounds. This helps give the music a contemporary quality while also being in the spirit of Bitches Brew’s innovative use of electric instruments.

As with the original, the music ranges through a wide range of moods and tempi, sometimes being dense and propulsive, sometimes strangely sparse, and always sounds spontaneous.

The second disc has quite a different feel, signalled by the gentle blowing on reeds at the start of the wistfully melodic ‘Nu Sha Ni Sha Nu Oss Ra.’ There is a tension between Dave Okumu’s electric guitar and Nick Ramm’s piano on ‘Morning Prayers’ before it settles into a gently percussive rhythm.

In an album of outstanding moments, it is the final track, ‘Raven Flies Low,’ dominated by Raven Bush’s violin, that is the most exceptional. This is also the track where the ensemble works together most independently of Davis’s influence, and it ends the album on an oddly reflective note that echoes the album’s hesitantly reverential beginning.

Despite the reputation of Bitches Brew being dense and overwhelmingly rhythm-based, the artistry and musicality of the London Brew ensemble ensure that this is not just a tribute album but rather, as was intended, an expression of the musicians’ creativity inspired by Davis’s masterpiece.

It is an album that can be enjoyed to the full without having to cross-reference Bitches Brew, but like that album—with its line-up including Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin, Dave Holland and Chick Corea—it is a showcase of what can happen when some of the greatest talents of a generation are gathered together in a suitably sympathetic setting.

LINKS: Full details at Concord Jazz. Release date 31 March 2023

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