Thursday, March 16, 2017

Miles Davis - The Little Blue Frog


In August, 1969, Miles Davis augmented his quintet with six or seven additional musicians (depending on the session) and went into Columbia's New York studio to record his groundbreaking album Bitches Brew - four LP sides of complex, challenging music which combined elements of jazz and rock in ways that were nothing like the relatively simplistic fusions that had been tried up to that point. In November, Davis went back into the studio and recorded further exploratory tracks, most of which were not released until years later. During those November sessions, Davis and the musicians recorded two takes of "The Little Blue Frog," a jam based on a riff by bassist Harvey Brooks, as well as a Davis original called "Great Expectations." The latter piece, 13 minutes long, consisted of the same short melody repeated again and again over an intense 7/4 riff; each repetition used a different sonority or combination of instruments.

In a move that can only be characterized as puzzling, Columbia decided to release a single from the November sessions in February, 1970, a month before the Bitches Brew album came out. Record buyers who put on "The Little Blue Frog" were treated to a decidedly odd little slice of improvisation, edited from the almost-ten-minute tape. The main threads as the record faded in were Khalil Balakrishna's sitar and Airto Moreira's cuica (the Brazilian "talking drum"). Larry Young's organ and John McLaughlin's guitar add atmosphere, but Miles's trumpet is not heard until halfway through the side.

The two minutes and forty seconds of "Great Expectations" on the flip side was perhaps not quite as odd, but it probably left many record buyers scratching their heads, since it was so different from anything Miles had ever done - there was no real trumpet solo, for one thing.

Things probably made more sense a month later, when Bitches Brew was issued, although that album took me years to really digest and process. The full "Great Expectations" was issued in 1974 on the Big Fun album. The two full-length takes of "The Little Blue Frog" didn't see the light of day until 1998, when they were included in The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions box set.

But for almost thirty years, the only way to hear the enigmatic "Little Blue Frog" was by spinning the 1970 single. I tracked down a white-label promo copy sometime in the 1980s, and played it for any music lovers who visited for a listening session. The original single edits have come full circle, and are once again available, this time in the 2010 "Legacy Edition" of Bitches Brew.

Supposedly, while walking out of the studio after recording "The Little Blue Frog," John McLaughlin and Herbie Hancock looked at each other and asked, "What was that?" Here's the single edit, so you can try to figure out the answer to that question.

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