8.19-21, 1969: Bitches Brew Sessions

Given the rapid evolution of the quintet across the first half of 1969, it’s no surprise that the band we hear on July 27th at Rutgers sounds remarkably different from the one featured on the next available tape, October 26th (upcoming). The change agent being, of course, the three-day sessions at Columbia Studio B on August 19, 20 and 21st that produced the Bitches Brew LP. 

Though the focus of this series is on Miles’ live performances from 69-75, the impact of that session on his live output was so immediate and long-lasting that providing context feels necessary. It’s also just incredible to hear this album being created before our ears. 

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7.27.1969 Rutgers

By the time the quintet took the stage in New Brunswick, they were on their third gig in three days with more than 3,000 miles of travel in between. As evidenced by this brief audience tape of an incomplete set, our heroes remained undaunted.

Perhaps his Fender Rhodes was in the shop after giving him trouble in Antibes, but Corea is on acoustic piano throughout the recording, giving “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” a slightly more toned down reading than we’ve heard thus far. Without the wild ring modulation effect on the electric piano we’d hear from him in 1970, Corea’s able to make the switch quite gracefully here.

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7.25 & 7.26.1969 Antibes

This pair of gigs from the Juan-les-Pins Festival were two of the most heavily circulated recordings from the ‘69 quintet before their official release in 2013 as Live in Europe 1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 2 (the 7.25 set was issued decades earlier in Japan as 1969 Miles – Festiva De Juan Pins). Both were recorded for radio broadcast and the 7.25 set was filmed in luscious B&W for television, and for a while they were the only recorded evidence of the lost quintet out there in the wild. 

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7.7.1969 Central Park

The summer of ‘69 rolls on with a true scorcher in Central Park, just a couple of days after the Shorter-less blowout at the Newport Jazz Fest. Like that Newport gig, you can hear the band continuing to work out and refine a lot of the phrasing and touchpoints they’d use to great effect on the Bitches Brew sessions a month later. 

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6.21.1969 Blue Coronet

This audience tape from the Blue Coronet in NYC is one of the better sounding recordings from the first half of 1969 and the second to feature the monster “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” – 17+ minutes here! This is the fourth circulating reel from 1969, and the band’s evolution across just a few months is astonishing. You can hear them stretching the limits of hard bop and moving into purely uncharted turf.

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6.4.1969 Plugged Nickel

This audience tape sounds as though it were recorded from inside a coffee tin backstage, but let your ears adjust and be rewarded; the band was positively ON at this Plugged Nickel gig. As if trying to one-up Miles’ notoriously 1965 recordings at the same venue, the quintet summits early with an impressively intense “Gingerbread Boy”. The solos on this tune are jaw droppers, both in their pacing and precision – Corea sneaks in some particularly bizarre chords amidst his flurry, and Holland’s turn is simply superhuman. 

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May June 1969 Village Gate

Our second audience tape of 1969 is a brief snapshot from the band’s May-June stretch at the Village Gate. But my god, what a show. Though session details list Jack DeJohnette on drums*, this is unquestionably Tony Williams behind the kit – making this a hybrid of Miles’ mid-60s combo (Shorter & Williams) and the “lost quintet” (Corea & Holland). And Williams is full-bore from the start, not necessarily overplaying but clearly pushing the rest of the band (even Miles) into supporting roles. Understandably so – the man was recording his own killer LP, Emergency!, around this same time. 

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2.25.1969 Duffy’s Backstage

This February tape from Rochester, NY is the first recording with the “lost quintet” fully intact. Despite the fresh lineup, the performance sounds remarkably similar to what Davis’ “second great quintet” (Shorter, Hancock, Carter, Williams) was up to just a year before – it’s amazing to hear Corea and DeJohnette sound so restrained. Maybe it was the material (this is the last Miles recording I know of to include “So What”) or perhaps they were just trying to find their footing, but this is the closest this quintet ever came to playing it straight. Still, the second half of the tape (starting at 43:35) gets pretty wild, finishing up with a long stretch of freeform abstraction that was new turf even for Miles at this point.

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Live 1969: A Primer

The 1969 “lost quintet” (Shorter, Corea, Holland, and DeJohnette) was the pivot point on which Miles’ career would turn. Sure, the ‘70-‘72 groups were funkier and the gigantic ‘73-’75 ensembles took abstraction to its limits, but the ’69 quintet was the first and only to delicately balance the frantic bop of Miles’ pre-electric period with the heady psychedelia of Bitches Brew

1969 was the year Miles broke free from his previous self – setting off on one of the most thrilling career stretches in modern music. Diving headfirst into the unknown, birthing entirely new genres and sending music off on side quests that are chased to this day. 

So let’s start our journey here. Gig by gig/tape by tape, from February 1969 through July 1975. 

Most session details are from Peter Losin’s indispensable Miles Ahead.