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London Brew At Barbican Centre

London Brew At Barbican Centre

Courtesy Mark Allan

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London Brew’s album was conceived as something other than a dot-for-dot copy of Bitches Brew. Davis’ recording was not reimagined, recalibrated, reconstructed or any other rewhatevered, but instead used as a launch pad for new explorations. The Barbican performance was even more semi-detached.
London Brew
Barbican Centre, Main Hall
London Brew
London
November 18, 2023

Three years later than originally planned, London Brew made it to the Barbican stage. The star studded ensemble's concert tribute to Miles Davis' Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970) had been intended to mark the fiftieth anniversary of that album. But we all remember what hit the fan in 2020. Theatres and concert halls in Britain were closed and London Brew's Barbican performance was put on hold.

Near the close of 2020, however, shortly after an easing of Britain's lockdown rules, the musicians gathered for three days of recordings which resulted in the double album London Brew (Concord), which used moments from Bitches Brew as starting points for collective improvisation. Released in spring 2023, it is one of this parish's Best Albums of the Year. The lineup comprised reed players Nubya Garcia and Shabaka Hutchings, tubaist Theon Cross, violinist Raven Bush, guitarists Dave Okumu and Martin Terefe, keyboardists Nick Ramm and Nikolaj Torp Larsen, bassist Tom Herbert, drummers Dan See and Tom Skinner, and turntablist Benji B.

Scheduling obstacles meant that Skinner, Benji B and Hutchings did not appear at the Barbican (see Personnel below for lineup details). The absence of Hutchings' bass clarinet, an instrument often heard on Davis' album, could have been felt, but Hutchings' deputy, Robert Stillman, is as fluent on the instrument as he is on tenor saxophone. Had there been no clarinet at the Barbican, however, its loss would not have been of fundamental importance, for London Brew was conceived to be something other than a dot-for-dot copy of Bitches Brew. Davis' album was not reimagined, recalibrated, reconstructed or any other rewhatevered, but instead used as a launch pad for new explorations.

Sure, on London Brew, Hutchings' clarinet resonates with Bennie Maupin's, and the keyboards on "Trainlines" are in lockstep with Joe Zawinul and Chick Corea. Ditto Okumu and John McLaughlin. And also true, Garcia's use of effects on "Miles Chases New Voodoo In The Church" deliberately references Davis' trumpet on "Miles Runs The Voodoo Down" (see video below), while overall London Brew matches Bitches Brew in the extent of post-production edits and interventions. But London Brew takes everything so far off piste that the music on the album is, ultimately, something else.

The Barbican performance was even more semi-detached. The musicians channelled the spirit of Bitches Brew but none of its actual content. The connection to London Brew was also allusive: most of the ninety-plus minutes performance was free-flowing, segued, collective improvisation, with Terefe (the album's producer) steering towards occasional map references with a light hand on the wheel. Only the closing piece, "Raven Flies Low," which is also the closer on the album, was recognisable.

When he was assembling Bitches Brew, Teo Macero would have considered it a good day if he found ten minutes of usable material in ninety minutes of in-the-moment creation. With that yardstick in mind, London Brew did OK at the Barbican. Early on, a passage featuring Theon Cross' basso-profundo tuba pleasingly evoked La Monte Young's opium-addled drone music. Midway, a crunchy jam between guitarist Dave Okumu, keyboardist Nick Ramm and electronicist Nikolaj Torp Larsen, anchored by a monumental ostinato on Tom Herbert's bass guitar, summoned the funk. And about seventy minutes in, a blazing tenor solo from Nubya Garcia was the highlight of the set. (With every appearance this year, Garcia has grown in stature. The follow-up to her 2020 Concord album The Source is more than eagerly anticipated). Vocalist Eska was used sparingly and briefly, but her contributions were solid—and clearly audible, unlike Camae Ayewa's spoken word at an otherwise outstanding Irreversible Entanglements gig at EartH earlier in the week, reviewed here.

To sum up... A less sketchy roadmap would have produced a more cohesive performance, but that would have been contrary to the process which birthed the Davis album. While there were some longueurs in London Brew's performance, there were also highpoints. Witnessing musicians of this calibre in the course of spontaneous creation is, anyway, always a pleasure.

Postscript: London Brew's desire to be unbeholden to Davis' recording, while simultaneously paying tribute to it, was underlined by the omission of a trumpeter both on the album and at the Barbican. One cannot help wondering what Laura Jurd or Yazz Ahmed, each a singular stylist adept in electric jazz, would have brought to the project.

For an alternative view of Miles Davis' electric years, including Bitches Brew, read this.

Note to the organisers of the EFG London Jazz Festival: If you are going to employ emcees, please employ people who know what they are talking about. Tonight's clown announced that Davis "was very influenced by free jazz." He was not. He hated it. As any fule know.

Photo shows L-R: Nubya Garcia, Robert Stillman, Tom Herbert, Dave Okumu.

Set List

Collective improvisation; Raven Flies Low.

Personnel

Nubya Garcia: tenor saxophone; Robert Stillman: bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone; Raven Bush: violin; Theon Cross: tuba; Dave Okumu: guitar; Nikolaj Torp Larsen: keyboards, electronics; Nick Ramm: keyboards; Tom Herbert: bass, bass guitar; Dan See: drums; Saleem Raman: drums; Martin Terefe: guitar; Eska: vocals.

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