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Miles Davis: The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions (August 1969-February 1970)

illustration of Miles Davis

What would jazz history be without its controversies? Real short, for starters, and far less reflective of American social history. At their best, jazz’s controversies reach far beyond the parochial concerns and the vested interests of the principals, and create a potent metaphor for America’s eternal struggle with change. Change draws the battlelines in jazz controversies, its frequently unlikely champions on one side, and its often unwitting foes on the other. For years at a time, jazz’s controversies can play out like trench warfare, with victory and defeat meted out in column inches. Yet, there are the rare incandescent moments when a single artist outflanks not just one side, but both, and creates a truly new paradigm for the art. There is no better example of this than Miles Davis and Bitches Brew, the 1970 double LP that is now the core of the four-CD collection, The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions (August 1969- February 1970).

In hindsight, Miles Davis circa 1969 was primed to spark a revolution in jazz by virtue of his sagging stock throughout the ’60s. Davis spent most of the first half of the decade drifting artistically, and in danger of being permanently eclipsed by former sideman like Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, and Bill Evans. Even the formation of the great quintet documented on two essential Columbia/Legacy box sets—The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965 and The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings of the Miles Davis Quintet—was not a strategic quick fix. By the time the quintet’s stellar second album, Miles Smiles, hit the streets in ’67, he was still outflanked by Cannonball, Joe Zawinul, and “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” on the jazz-funk front, the outbound route was clogged with Coltrane’s acolytes, and the pianist everybody dug sealed off the rear. Despite its glorious synergy, the quintet did not shape the market as Davis did with Walkin’, Kind of Blue, and Sketches of Spain. It was a crowded field; Miles needed more space between him and the rest.

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