Summoning up a new strange brew
By Paul Fruitman
Louis Armstrong once said if people have to ask what jazz is, they'll never really know.
And though I am sure Toronto's Bitches Brew must be connected in some way to Miles Davis, without ever having heard the band before, I still have to ask drummer Jean Martin what its music is all about. That makes me feel a tad ignorant.
Martin's reply is itself quite vague, indicative of the broad scope of Bitches Brew.
"[Describing the music] is kind of a tricky thing," Martin admits. "It's improvised music but a lot of the style and feeling you hear has elements from James Brown, Sly [and the Family Stone], Hendrix and new avant garde stuff."
Bitches Brew, composed of six prominent Toronto jazz musicians, does not so much pay tribute to Davis' timeless album of the same name, as it does to invoke the innovative spirit of incorporating different styles and moods Davis' music employed in the late 1960s through the early '70s.
"If you hear the Miles Davis stuff in that era, it's sort of world music," Martin claims. "Some people say it was the first hip-hop record."
Davis' entire supporting cast on Bitches Brew has since gone on to have accomplished careers in jazz. In that same vein, the members of Bitches Brew all lead their own jazz bands in Toronto and have all shared stage time with jazz heavyweights like John Abercrombie and D.D. Jackson.
Bitches Brew is a chance for Martin, trumpeter Kevin Turcotte, bassist Jim Vivian, keyboardist Andrew Boniwell, saxophonist Rob Frayne and guitarist Tim Postgate, to bring their respective talents to a more open field of experimentation.
"Once in while we'll put together a few dates," Martin explains. "There's no restrictions. It's a loose environment to be playing in."
Martin also says the interaction between musicians is improving greatly with each performance together to the point where Bitches Brew is fusing its own musical voice.
"The language of the group is getting better and better. People can cue different things," Martin says.
"We're starting to have concepts that we can create. We're basically taking sketches, like Miles did in his big period, and playing them in our special way."
Bitches Brew is among a small number of jazz bands, which include One Step Beyond and the Shuffle Demons, which can hold down performances in clubs and bars. According to Martin, this is due in part to the excitement and fervor which surrounds the music of Bitches Brew.
"I think people love improvising," he says. "Even people who really don't like jazz, when they hear this music. . . well, it doesn't sound like pop but it has the same sort of energy."
©Gazette file photo
drummer and leader of Bitches Brew.