(Barbican. 18 November 2023. EFG LJF. Review by Richard Lee)
I’ve been listening to Bitches Brew for half a century, as well as Miles’ subsequent takes on it and, of late, to its fresh and vibrant reimagining by London Brew, which had me looking forward to its much-heralded festival performance. The project’s original impetus was to create a touring band to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Miles Davis’ seminal album. Delayed by Covid, the participants finally got together for sessions in 2020 to create their album, released earlier this year. This concert featured virtuosi from that album, some new collaborators and a video enhancement featuring visual artists.
Despite the context, explained at length by the project’s founders Martin Terefe and Dave Okumu who appropriately defined the sessions and album as “a channelling rather than a re-interpretation”, tonight’s set was so powerfully driven by the collective onstage that this brew’s mix seemed rather too heady, losing the focus and clarity displayed on the recording. We were assured the set would be “entirely improvised” though I’m fairly sure the album’s structure, with its own re-tellings of the original, were at the heart of it. “We don’t know what’s going to happen” is fine by me (I’ve been thrillingly assaulted by Bobby Previte and Peter Brotzmann, and any number of free jazz gigs) but my disappointment in this brew was its super-saturated nature that never fully crystallised.
Some of the familiar Zawinul & Shorter themes which emerged on the album were less apparent tonight. That’s fine, as was the project’s decision not to feature a trumpet: however distinctive that voice is on the original, Miles’ own focus was on his collaborators. So here, my head says it’s hard to want those individual voices to supersede the collective endeavour, but when treated to bursts of Nubya Garcia’s, Theon Cross‘s & Okumu’s solos, my heart craved more. Okumu, who admitted to being “originally, highly sceptical” of the project now clearly has his heart in it, and his amazing fretwork spills & thrills, as always. Complemented by Raven Bush’s violin, the spirit of John McLaughlin was firmly acknowledged without mimicking: I just wish they were even more prominent on the ramparts of the sheer wall of sound. Cross’ thunderous bass lines complemented Tom Herbert’s electric & double-bass, though they too succumbed. Robert Stillman took the place of the album’s Shabaka Hutchings, but his fine bass clarinet – such an iconic move by Miles, and beautifully rendered by Hutchings on record – was a singular victim of the sonic wall. I appreciated the novel addition of Eska’s vocal work and enjoyed the work of both drummers Dan See and Saleem Raman, the former propelling the voodoo up a notch, before this engagingly rocky take on the least-likely single of all time was overwhelmed. (Yes, a 3 minute Miles Runs The Voodoo Down briefly charted in the US in 1970 with an equally short edit of Spanish Key on the B-side…).
The project was never intended to preserve the original Brew and, like the album, the concert brought the delights (and some longueurs) of electronica, decks, dub & dance-based forms to the fore, entirely as I imagine Miles would’ve wanted; though I also imagine he’d have a few choice words with the engineer about levels…
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My ennui was exacerbated by what seemed to me less-than-persuasive visuals; looming screens showing the onstage team of visual artists around a paint & materials play-table, dressed in protective forensic hazmat suits, delivering rather puerile imagery inspired by the band’s work. More compelling was the video mix of the musicians close up and the album’s original artwork, though to be honest, they too suffered from a sense of there being too much in the mix. Frankly, the most arresting sight on stage was Okumu & Garcia’s gorgeous choice of attire, she in a kaleidoscopic suit redolent of the energy in the London Brew logo, he in a stunning quilted red & black overshirt. Properly dressed for the occasion.
I’m very aware that similar criticisms attended Davis’ own post-Brew live outings and hindsight has shown who was right. I’m encouraged by the enthusiastic reception the Barbican audience gave the work. So if, on this occasion, it didn’t fully crystallise for me, I’d really like to hear the ensemble re-assemble at some point to do it again, or an entirely new project, because the cause is right. Classic work’s role is to inspire and should be entirely subject to artists who do that. Getting the balance right is tough but the recorded evidence is that London Brew can – and I hope will – soar again.
Raven Bush violin
Theon Cross tuba
Nubya Garcia tenor saxophone
Tom Herbert bass
Nikolaj Topp Larsen keys
Dave Okumu guitar/musical director
Saleem Raman drums
Nick Ramm piano
Dan See drums
Robert Stillman woodwind
Martin Terefe guitar