London Brew is a classic illustration of how creativity can grow out of adversity.
Concord Jazz 88077
Dave Okumu (guitar); Martin Terefe (guitar, electronics); Nubya Garcia (saxophone, flute); Benji B (decks, sonic recycling); Dan See (drums, percussion); Nick Ramm (piano, synthesisers); Nikolaj Torp Larsen (synthesisers, melodica); Raven Bush (violin, electronics); Shabaka Hutchings (saxophone, woodwinds); Theon Cross (tuba); Tom Herbert (electric bass, double bass); Tom Skinner (drums, percussion)
Recorded Church Studios, London 7-9 December 2020
Music producer Bruce Lampcov had an exciting and ambitious plan. He was in London in February 2020 with the aim of staging a concert at The Barbican, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Miles Davis jazz-rock fusion masterpiece Bitches Brew. He had the venue, he had the blessing of the Miles Davis Estate, and he had found a group of young and talented British jazz musicians that would ignite the project. There were also plans to stage similar concerts in Amsterdam and Paris, as well as make a recording of the event, and produce a film documentary of its making.
But a month later, these plans were cruelly crushed as the world reeled from the Covid pandemic. All seemed lost, but Lampcov and his friend, producer and musician Martin Terefe, were determined to retrieve something from the project. The result is this album, recorded in late 2020, not long after the relaxation of Britain’s second lockdown.
London Brew has many connections with Bitches Brew. Both recordings used an ensemble of around a dozen musicians; the music was largely improvised and recorded over three days; similar instrumentation is used (two drummers, percussion, multiple keyboardists, guitar and sax) and both recordings are heavily edited. But there are also differences. London Brew is not a cover version of the original album, but a recording inspired by the spirit and feel of Miles’s seminal album. The original plan was to use loops or samples of Miles’s trumpet parts from the original recording as a lead-in to a new recording, but instead, guitarists Martin Terefe and Dave Okumu created musical phrases inspired by Bitches Brew, which DJ Benji B fed into the recording sessions at various sections.
London Brew also uses different instrumentation. Two of the lead instruments on the original album, trumpet and bass clarinet, are not listed, although a bass clarinet sound is prevalent at various parts of the recording, either sampled or played by Shabaka Hutchings, who is also a clarinettist (and listed as playing woodwinds on the album). New instrumentation includes synthesisers, violin, tuba, melodica and electronic effects. Bitches Brew’s original producer Teo Macero (with direction from Miles) also edited the music using effects such as loops, echo and reverb, but London Brew’s editing effectively involved boiling down twelve hours of recordings into two CDs, each around 45 minutes in length.
Disc one consists of three tracks, the first two ‘London Brew’ and ‘London Brew Pt 2 Trainlines’ last 24 and 16 minutes respectively. The album opens with an explosion of sound – a throbbing mix of sustained notes, created by the musicians, who were instructed to play a note that encapsulated the pandemic for them, and then hold it. The ambient feel is more akin to Miles’s previous album In A Silent Way, and indeed there are sections throughout the album which have echoes of IASW. Then, the drummers set-up a deep, driving groove and the music takes off.
Like the music on Bitches Brew, the band creates a vast musical landscape, which is often dense. Sounds bubble up and explode, or ebb and decay, and there is an array of tones, colour and textures, with stabbing bass lines, the agitated sound of a violin and roaring sax. At times you can hear the influence of Bitches Brew, the rippling electronic keyboards, explosive guitar, and a scuttling bass clarinet. The musical mood occasionally shifts, sometimes transforming into a quiet, ambient piece or combining jazz with elements of Indian music.
Pt2 starts with a drum-and-bass drum rhythm before a powerful bass vamp kicks in, followed by a frenetic guitar solo, clearly inspired by the playing of John McLaughlin. It’s a high-energy musical journey, with a furious climax, before shifting to a more ambient sound and ending with a quote from the theme to the track ‘In A Silent Way’, played on soprano sax – echoes of the late, great Wayne Shorter. The title ‘Miles Chases New Voodoo In The Church’ was obviously inspired by ‘Miles Runs The Voodoo Down,’ and the result is a terrific uptempo number with a hard, driving drum beat, sharp staccato sax lines and a funk bass riff.
The second disc opens with the intriguingly titled ‘Nu Sha Ni Sha Nu Oss Ra.’ Saxophonists Nubya Garcia and Shabaka Hutchings play a series of circular riffs, sometimes doubling up; sometimes intertwining, or swapping call-and-response phrases. The rhythm section is sparse and light, and intermingled with all of this are smatterings of melodica, acoustic piano and the beefy sound of a tuba. It’s a stark contrast to the dense, driving sound of the tracks on the first disc.
‘It’s One Of These’ is an abstract piece based around a heavy backbeat, scratchy guitar riff and heavy bass line. A nervous-sounding bass clarinet line skitters about, and bassist Tom Herbert plays a fast, energetic solo. ‘Bassics’ is the shortest track (a little under three minutes in length) and is a mysterious-sounding piece, combining the sweet sound of a flute (laced with echo and reverb) with various electronic sound effects and a softly plucked bass. It ends with the rich, deep tones of Theon Cross’s tuba.
‘Mor. Ning Prayers’ is another piece influenced by the guitar pyrotechnics of John McLaughlin. Starting off with an array of abstract sounds and a frenetic guitar solo, with some added distortion, the midtempo piece breaks into a clapping rhythm. The ensemble adds a rich mix of electric piano, slinky sax lines, growling tuba and ricocheting guitar notes. I really liked this tune.
The album closes with a beautiful melodic piece, which runs for just under thirteen minutes. ‘Raven Flies Low’ is a reference to both the flowing movement of a bird in flight and the tune’s lead musician, violinist Raven Bush, whose instrument soars, sweeps and swirls on top of a metronome-like beat. A variety of colours are added by guitar, sax, electric piano and clarinet – it’s a very moving performance.
London Brew is a classic illustration of how creativity can grow out of adversity. It’s also a testament to the sheer depth of talent on the London jazz scene, and how musicians can come together in a room for the first time and produce music that is moving, exciting and enchanting. Miles would have been proud to have inspired this music. Let’s hope one day we get to see this remarkable ensemble play this music live.
Reviewed by George Cole