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A Bitches Brew for Guinnevere

crosbymilesBack in 1970, Miles Davis took David Crosby’s “Guinnevere”, the dreamy, pastoral, hippie ode to a mystical lady from Crosby, Stills and Nash’s first album and cut a lengthy psychedelic jazz version.  Decked out with sitar and exotic percussion, it was originally intended for inclusion on Davis’ seminal and revolutionary Bitches Brew album.  It didn’t make the final cut and wasn’t heard by the general public till 1979’s collection of leftover Davis tracks called Circle in the Round and later on the The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions.

In Graham Nash’s new autobiography Wild Tales, Nash relates the story of why it wasn’t on the original Bitches Brew:

“[Guinnevere] was like catnip for a cat like Miles Davis. He was working on Bitches Brew at the time and bumped into Crosby in the Village. “Hey Dave,” he said, “I recorded that tune of yours, ‘Guinnevere.’ Want to hear it?” Miles had his arm around a tall leggy blonde he wanted to screw, so all three of them went back to his apartment to hear “Guinnevere.” Miles put on the song, a twenty-minute version that riffed in myriad cosmic directions, and went into the bedroom with the blonde, leaving David there to smoke it and listen to the track. A half hour later, Miles emerged from the bedroom rendezvous. “So, Dave, what do you think?” Crosby threw him one of his trademark glares. “Well, Miles, you can use the tune, but you have to take my name off of it.” Miles was crestfallen. “You don’t like it?” he asked. Crosby refused to temper his opinion, even for royalty like Miles Davis. “No, man – no. I don’t like it at all.”

About ten years later, I was at an after-party event for the Grammys at Mr. Chow in LA and saw Miles come in with Cicely Tyson. He caught my eye and started waving insistently at me. I looked over my shoulder, certain he must be gesturing to somebody else. “No, no, c’mere, man,” he insisted. When I got within earshot, he leaned close and asked in his low, gravelly voice, “Crosby still pissed at me?”

I said, “You mean about ‘Guinnevere’?”

“Yeah.” He nodded. “He still pissed?”

“I don’t think so, Miles. He was either too high or he wasn’t in the right mood to hear your take on it. He probably expected the chords to be the same as his, but I don’t think he’s pissed at you one bit.”

Miles pondered this with Socratic intensity. “Okay. Tell David hello. Tell him I hope he’s not still pissed.”

The whole thing is unusual on a few counts:

First, that Davis even recorded the track.   Though it wasn’t unusual for jazz musicians to record versions of pop hits, for Miles Davis to cover a gentle, folky song named after a character in Arthurian legend was a little strange. Especially when it was recorded for an album that was intended to set new standards for funk and rhythm in jazz, and one that ended up being a major progenitor of jazz-rock fusion. Granted, he did take the song in that direction.

Second, that Crosby- a known fan of free jazz- didn’t like Davis’ version (though as Nash says – he may have been too high or “not in the right mood”).  Crosby has stated that seeing John Coltrane live in the early 60’s was a life changing experience for him and inspired his interest in alternate guitar tunings. So he was definitely open to adventuresome playing.

Third, that Davis- known for his difficult and cocky attitude- cared what Crosby thought at all.

In a strange synchronicity, Miles Davis wasn’t the only jazz player to attempt “Guinnevere” in 1970. Flautist Herbie Mann also recorded a re-worked version of it, which appeared on his Memphis Two-Step LP the following year.

Coming full circle, Crosby, Stills and Nash performed “Guinnevere” with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in May of this year. One wonders what Miles would have thought…

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This entry was posted on November 5, 2013 by in Reading lounge and tagged , , .

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