Miles Davis

Mar 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Paul Tingen


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In December 1969, Miles Davis boasted, “I could put together the greatest rock 'n' roll band you ever heard.” It must have sounded rather presumptuous, because the jazz trumpeter had only begun to flirt with electric instruments and rock influences at the very end of 1967. And if there were two things beyond dispute in the confused and turbulent '60s, it was that jazzers couldn't rock and rockers couldn't play jazz. Moreover, Bitches Brew, Davis' seminal blend of rock and jazz, and the first entirely successful attempt at fusing the two musical directions, was recorded only a few months earlier and had not been released yet.

Davis attempted to prove his rock 'n' roll point during a series of intense sessions in the first half of 1970. Some of the results were released as the soundtrack to a documentary movie by director William Cayton about Jack Johnson, who had become the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion in 1908. The soundtrack, titled A Tribute to Jack Johnson, fell largely on deaf ears when it was released in 1971, despite featuring jazz luminaries such as John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock and Billy Cobham, and arguably the strongest trumpet playing of Davis' entire career. The album, which is laced with churning funk and rock rhythms that had never been blended quite this way before, never attained the iconic status of Bitches Brew or Davis' ambient jazz-rock epic of the same era, In a Silent Way.

Yet over time, the reputation of Davis' A Tribute to Jack Johnson has grown considerably, and its standing was further enhanced late last year when Columbia/Legacy released seven hours of music from those early 1970 sessions on a 6-CD boxed set called The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions. The set is the latest in a line of much-lauded and Grammy-laden Davis boxes, which includes such important master works as The Complete Miles Davis With John Coltrane, 1955-1961 (six CDs); The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel (eight CDs), Miles Davis & Gil Evans (six CDs); The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings of the Miles Davis Quintet, 1965-1968 (six CDs); The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions, 1969-1970 (four CDs); and The Complete In a Silent Sessions, 1968-1969 (three CDs).

Conceptually, these boxed sets are the brainchildren of reissue producers Bob Belden and Michael Cuscuna, while the main technical man behind them is mastering engineer Mark Wilder of Sony Music Studios in New York. Wilder has worked for Sony since the late 1980s, switched exclusively to mastering in the mid-1990s, but has been “happy to come out of engineering retirement” to work on the Davis boxed sets.

Wilder reveals that for the boxed sets that cover music from the 1950s and 1960s, most of the 2-track mixdown masters had deteriorated to such a degree that the decision was made to remix all material from the original multitrack masters. “For the Miles and Gil boxed set, I was dealing with a half-inch 3-track format,” Wilder explains, “and the quintet material was recorded on 4-track. The In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew and most of the Jack Johnson material was on 1-inch 8-track, with some of the final sessions from 1970 on 1-inch 16-track.”

Famously, the original producer of the music, Teo Macero, applied some of the most intense post-production ever witnessed at the time to Davis' music. Some of the material on In a Silent Way was looped in a manner reminiscent of dance music today, while several of the tracks on Bitches Brew contain dozens of tape edits to construct new musical structures. Macero was at his most outrageous on the three main previously released tracks that appear on the Jack Johnson boxed set: “Right Off” and “Yesternow” (both were on A Tribute to Jack Johnson), and “Go Ahead John” (which appeared in 1972 on the Big Fun collection of outtakes).

On the original versions of these three tracks, there's no attempt made to hide the edits: Wild, unexpected tape splices are apparent to even the most casual listener. Macero also threw in orchestra, arco bass segments and even a bit of In a Silent Way, and combined them with an unrelated solo by Davis. On top, “Go Ahead John” was spiced up with some technical devices invented by Columbia's research department. One was the “electronic switcher,” which made it possible to instantly move a channel to specific positions in the stereo spectrum. The other was the “instant playback,” which allowed entire passages to be played back at 30- to 40-second intervals, again in a manner now commonplace in electronic music.

While Belden, Cuscuna and Wilder had chosen on earlier boxed sets to retrace Macero's steps and replicate all of the edits and effects he applied, the approach on the new Jack Johnson boxed set is notably different. “Right Off” and “Yesternow” are included exactly as they were released in 1971 — remastered from the original 2-track masters; the rest of the boxed set includes many different versions of the original takes from which Macero culled his edits, plus many outtakes that he never used.

Cuscuna explains some of the rationale: “On Bitches Brew, the edits aimed to blend together performances of a certain track that were recorded in sections. But in the Jack Johnson era, there were only jams and the focus was on the playing. Very little from this era had been released, and the three main tracks were heavily edited and manipulated. So the idea of the boxed set was to capture the performances as the musicians played them at the time.”

“The aim was for this to be more of a documentary of the sessions,” clarifies Wilder. “We weren't trying to equal Teo. This was a great period for Miles and we wanted listeners to understand what happened during this period, and so we eliminated all the technical elements that Teo added. We really wanted to bring out the communication between the musicians. Also, there were ingredients that appeared on the original versions of ‘Right Off’ and ‘Yesternow’ that we couldn't trace, and Teo's work is so great it would have been a chore to try to re-create it, even if we had been able to.

“Also, the original Jack Johnson tapes were all in great shape. I mastered ‘Right Off’ and ‘Yesternow’ directly from the 2-track mixes. It's actually the third time I mastered these tapes. I first did them in the late 1980s for the Contemporary Jazz Masters Series, then the newer CD version that's been out for a while and then again for the boxed set. They're among my shortest mastering sessions, because the music is fantastically recorded and mixed. ‘Right Off’ and ‘Yesternow’ take the same EQ, and the whole thing is done before lunch!”

The sonic quality of the digital masters Wilder made of “Right Now” and “Yesternow” increases noticeably with each new version. According to the engineer, this is due to the improvements in digital technology during the years. He elaborated on some of the technical details involved in the making of The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions, beginning with his approach to mixing the original sessions.

“All mixes were done in Studio C at Sony Studios, where there's an SSL 9000 J Series desk and a Studer with a custom 8-track tape recorder. The original music was recorded extremely well by Stan Tonkel, who knew how to hit the tape well and how to record electric instruments — in smaller studios, and with more isolation than was customary for most jazz records at the time. The tracks were clean and loud and punchy. Somehow, he also knew who was going to play when, because it was rare that I had to deal with two instruments playing on the same track at the same time and worry about how to create separation. Drums were in mono — it wasn't until the 16-track period that you began seeing drums on more than one track at Columbia.

“We did listen to Teo's and Stan's mixes, but mainly what I did was set up an image placement for each session, and I'd just leave the instruments there,” Wilder continues. “So John McLaughlin would be on the left, Miles in the middle, the drums slightly right of center and the bass left of center, and they would remain there. So there was a foundation of listening where you felt like you were experiencing the session. Reverbs and delays I added by taste, mainly using EMT plates and a Lexicon 960L for the surround. I also used a full range of Pultec EQs and AP I550 EQs and compression as needed, such as LA-2A, dbx or UREI 1176.

“From the SSL, the signal went straight into the Sonoma via a set of Meitner DSD converters. The Sonoma is Sony's proprietary, custom-built digital workstation for SACD work. SACD is based on DSD technology, which works by 1-bit sampling at a 2.83MHz sampling rate. I have always found DSD sounds better than PCM: Because DSD samples use a much larger slice of music, it allows for the music to retain its analog curve rather than being broken up in loads of tiny individual components, as with PCM.

“Both the stereo and the 5.1 mixes ended up in the Sonoma system, and I'd then use an SBM-Direct box to take the DSD signal down to 44.1k/24-bit PCM level. I then used a Daniel Weiss Pow-R noise-shaping device to bring it down to 16-bit. So I get the full DSD version at the front, and then I'm able to bring things down to Red Book CD spec. However, for the Jack Johnson boxed set, I also sent an analog stereo mix to a Studer ¼-inch, and I actually ended up using that. My mixing style is 20 years old, and I have a great sense for how to hit the tape and get the most back from it. Analog ¼-inch left me room to add a little bit more during final mastering, when I added a bit more EQ and compression, mainly using Tim de Paravicini's EAR EQ and compressor, just to give it a little more punch and snap. Finally, the material ended up in Sonic Solutions, which I used purely as a digital razor blade. It went to the factory on U-matic.”

Wilder has remastered and, in many cases, remixed almost the entire Miles Davis back-catalog for SACD. At the time of this writing, very little of this has been released, and there are no immediate plans to issue the Jack Johnson surround mixes on SACD. While Sony may be slow to drag Miles Davis into the 21st century, what everyone can sample in detail than ever before on the regular stereo CD is how the great man kicked rock 'n' roll ass in 1970s. Did he really manage to “put together the greatest rock 'n' roll band you've ever heard”? For one glorious session on April 7, 1970, you bet he did.

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