Miles Davis : Bitches Brew (1970)

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Shortly before his death in 1991, Miles Davis remarked “You don’t change music, music changes you.” While that statement is unassailable regarding the vast majority of artists, no matter how influential, Miles Davis was definitely an exception. Indeed, the Man with the Horn was being uncharacteristically modest, and he knew it. He did, after all, actually change music several times, and he was normally the first person to remind doubters and neophytes of this fact. His ultimate achievement—beyond the staggering scope of his recorded works—may have been providing a forum where the best players could congregate. In this creative cauldron that he tended to over the better part of four decades, Miles served as inventor, instigator and mentor. The list of legends that cut their teeth in his employ remains astounding: John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and John McLaughlin, just to name a handful.[i]

The freedom which Miles makes available to his musicians is also there for the listener. If you haven’t discovered it yet, all I can say is that Bitches’ Brew is a marvelous place to start. This music is so rich in its form and substance that it permits and even encourages soaring flights of imagination by anyone who listens. If you want, you can experience it directly as a vast tapestry of sounds which envelop your whole being. You’ll discover why fully one third of the audience at Miles’ recent Fillmore West appearances left the hall in stunned silence, too deeply moved to want to stay for the other groups on the bill. As a personal matter, I also enjoy Miles’ music as a soft background context for when I want to read or think deeply. In its current form, Miles’ music bubbles and boils like some gigantic cauldron. As the musical ideas rise to the surface, the listener also finds his thoughts rising from the depths with a new clarity and precision. Miles is an invaluable companion for those long journeys you take into your imagination.[ii]

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Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way are both dominated by circular grooves, John McLaughlin’s angular guitar playing and the sound of the Fender Rhodes electric piano. However, Miles related in his autobiography how he wanted to expand the canvas on Bitches Brew in terms of the length of the pieces and the number of musicians. While In a Silent Way featured eight musicians and was recorded in one single session, Bitches Brew included 13 musicians and was the result of three days of recording. On the third day the rhythm section consisted of as many as 11 players: three keyboardists, electric guitar, two basses, four drummers/percussionists and a bass clarinet. Miles had pulled out the stops in his search for a heavier bottom end.

4-520x300Uncharacteristically, Miles’ live quintet also influenced Bitches Brew. Miles’ live and studio directions were strongly diverging around this time, with the studio experiments pioneering new material—incorporated elements of rock, soul and folk that only gradually filtered through to the live stage. But in July of 1969 Miles’ live quintet began performing “Spanish Key,” “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” and “Sanctuary,” all of which would appear on Bitches Brew. (“Sanctuary” had, of course, already been recorded by the second great quintet on February 15, 1968.)

Having broken in this new material, Miles felt confident enough to book three successive days of studio time. He began by calling in the same crew that had recorded In a Silent Way: Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, John McLaughlin and Dave Holland; only Tony Williams and Herbie Hancock were missing. Miles gave preference to live-band drummer Jack DeJohnette because of his “deep groove,” invited Lifetime organist Larry Young instead of Hancock, and also added session bassist and Columbia producer Harvey Brooks. Together with Zawinul and McLaughlin, Young and Brooks had played on a session Miles organized for his wife, Betty Mabry, a few weeks earlier to record her first and ultimately unsuccessful solo album, They Say I’m Different. Miles also summoned 19-year-old drummer Lenny White who, like Tony Williams, is reported to have been brought to his attention by saxophonist Jackie McLean. Drummer/percussionist Don Alias landscape_bennie_maupin-benpenhad been introduced to Miles by Tony Williams, and brought along percussionist Jim Riley, also known as “Jumma Santos.” Tenor saxophonist and bass clarinettist Bennie Maupin was recommended by Jack DeJohnette. A finishing touch, and a stroke of genius, was Miles’ instruction to Maupin to play only the bass clarinet, adding a very distinctive and enigmatic sound to the brew.[iii]

The first thing that Bitches Brew made clear is that Miles was keenly interested in expanding the idea of what his music could be, and was starting to stretch it way out. The title track runs 26 minutes, which then and now is at the extreme end of what a side of vinyl on an LP can hold; the opening “Pharaoh’s Dance” also breaks 20 minutes. And these pieces weren’t lengthy compositions or single jams, but were assembled by Miles and producer Teo Macero through editing– unrelated tracks could become one piece through the miracle of the razor blade and magnetic tape. For an improvisatory art form that was founded on the idea collective expression in the present moment, the idea of stitching together pieces into a new whole was radical enough on its own. But Miles was changing his approach in several ways simultaneously as the 1960s came to a close. He was processing his trumpet with echo, working with electric keyboards and electric guitar, adding new percussion colors, experimenting with rock rhythms, doing away with chord changes, and building long tracks from riffs and vamps. And, he was being introduced to new music through a group of new young friends, and along the way he had become a fan of Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, and James Brown.

All of these elements swirled together into a record of brilliant and fascinating contradictions. The psychedelic cover art and long electric jams on the one hand anchor the music in Age of Aquarius, but the connections to earlier jazz tradition and unmoored, floating quality of music also lend it a timeless feel. It sounds very much like a bunch of dudes jamming in the room, but some of the abrupt edits serve as a reminder that it owes a lot to technology. It finds Miles distancing himself from his musical past, but it sounds equally far from the dense abstraction his music would take on a couple of years later, especially in a live setting. It was long and hard to get a handle on, but it was also a huge commercial success. Ultimately, Bitches Brew seems mostly like a single beautiful frame from a jarring film filled with jump-cuts. The amount that Miles Davis’ music changed from the early 60s to the early 70s is astonishing. His sound was constantly on the move, and this is what it sounded like on those August days in the studio.[iv]

Miles_Davis-Filles_de_Kilimanjaro_(album_cover)Bitches Brew was a turning point in modern jazz. Davis had already spearheaded two major jazz movements – cool jazz and modal jazz – and was about to initiate another major change (like Davis’ album Filles de Kilimanjaro, the album’s cover also sports the phrase “Directions In Music By Miles Davis” above the title). Some critics at the time characterized this music as simply obscure and “outside”, which recalls Duke Ellington’s description of Davis as “the Picasso of jazz.” Some jazz enthusiasts and musicians felt the album was crossing the limits, or was not jazz at all. One critic writes that “Davis drew a line in the sand that some jazz fans have never crossed, or even forgiven Davis for drawing.”[v]  Bob Rusch recalls, “this to me was not great Black music, but I cynically saw it as part and parcel of the commercial crap that was beginning to choke and bastardize the catalogs of such dependable companies as Blue Note and Prestige…. I hear it ‘better’ today because there is now so much music that is worse.”[vi]  Donald Fagen, co-founder of Steely Dan, called the album “essentially just a big trash-out for Miles” in 2007: “To me it was just silly, and out of tune, and bad. I couldn’t listen to it. It sounded like [Davis] was trying for a funk record, and just picked the wrong guys. They didn’t understand how to play funk. They weren’t steady enough.”[vii]

On the other hand, many fans, critics, and musicians view the records as an important and vital release. In a 1997 interview, drummer Bobby Previte sums up his feelings about Bitches Brew: “Well, it was groundbreaking, for one. How much groundbreaking music do you hear now? It was music that you had that feeling you never heard quite before. It came from another place. How much music do you hear now like that?”[viii]

The Penguin Guide to Jazz gave Bitches Brew a four-star rating (out of four stars), describing the recording as “one of the most remarkable creative statements of the last half-century, in any artistic form. It is also profoundly flawed, a gigantic torso of burstingly noisy music that absolutely refuses to resolve itself under any recognized guise.”[ix]  In 2003, the album was ranked number 94 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time (however, it went down one spot 9 years later).[x]  Along with this accolade, the album has been ranked at or near the top of several other magazines’ “best albums” lists in disparate genres.[xi]

Thom Yorke, lead singer of English band Radiohead, noted the album as an influence on their 1997 album OK Computer: “It was building something up and watching it fall apart, that’s the beauty of it. It was at the core of what we were trying to do with OK Computer.”[xii]

MilesDavis_BitchesBrewLiveRegardless of how the quality of the music on Bitches Brew is judged, it is important to recognize the astonishing concoction of influences that had gone into Miles’ cauldron. Miles had combined improvisational working methods that he developed in the late ’50s with musical influences such as rock, folk, soul and African music. Moreover, the ensemble’s collective improvisation, based on the working methods developed by the second great quintet, and the call-and-response structure between Miles and the ensemble, both find their roots in early jazz. In his autobiography Miles likened Bitches Brew’s collective improvisations to the jam sessions he attended at Minton’s in Harlem in the late ’40s. Like many writers, Miles also made comparisons between the recording’s kaleidoscopic sound world and the noises of New York City. Then, in the words of Lenny White, he mixed in a “dash” of this musician and that composer, not only skillfully blending their qualities, but also enlarging jazz and rock’s sonic palette with bass clarinet and extensive percussion. Both were novel sounds in jazz and rock music around 1969.[xiii]

The influence of Jimi Hendrix is all over Brew. Like Electric Ladyland, it’s primarily a studio creation, complete with splices and special effects, while “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” echoes Jimi’s “Voodoo Chile”. In 1970, the two men even appeared on the same bill at the Isle of Wight festival before an audience of 600,000. Miles arrived on stage in a red leather jacket and blue rhinestone trousers.

Many of Miles’s accomplices would go on to write their own careers in “fusion”, among them Joe Zawinul, John McLaughlin, Chick Corea and Larry Young. For drummer Jack De Johnette, the process that created Bitches Brew, while thrilling, had human as much as artistic origins: “It was a midlife crisis played out through experimental jazz.”[xiv]


[i]  Sean Murphy, “The Shock Heard ‘Round the World: Bitches Brew Turns 40”, September 2, 2010, Pop Matters.  Accessed 2/1/2016.
[ii]  Langdon Winner, “Bitches Brew” (review), Rolling Stone, May 28, 1970.  Accessed 2/1/2016.
[iii]  Paul Tingen, “Miles Davis and the Making of Bitches Brew: Sorcerer’s Brew”, JazzTimes, May 2001.  Accessed 2/1/2016.
[iv]  Mark Richardson, “Bitches Brew [Legacy Edition]” (review), Pitchfork, September 10, 2010.  Accessed 2/1/2016.
[v]  Meyer, Bill. “Miles Davis: The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions (August 1969 – February 1970)”. Ink Blot Magazine. Archived from the original on 2007-06-30. Retrieved 2007-08-04.
[vi]  Rusch, Bob (1994). Ron Wynn, ed. All Music Guide to Jazz. AllMusic. M. Erlewine, V. Bogdanov (1st ed.). San Francisco: Miller Freeman Books. p. 197.
[vii]  Breithaupt, Don (2007). Steely Dan’s Aja. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. pp. 25–26.
[viii]  Snyder, Matt (December 1997). “An Interview with Bobby Previte”. 5/4 Magazine. Archived from the original on 2006-01-12. Retrieved 2007-08-04.
[ix]  Cook, Richard; Brian Morton (2006) [1992]. “Miles Davis”. The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings. The Penguin Guide to Jazz (8th ed.). New York: Penguin. p. 327.
[x]  Staff (November 2003). RS500: 94) Bitches Brew. Rolling Stone. Retrieved on 2010-10-08.
[xi]  “Bitches Brew”. AcclaimedMusic.net. Retrieved 2008-08-30.
[xii]  Sutcliffe, Phil (October 1999), “Radiohead: An Interview With Thom Yorke”, Q
[xiii]  Paul Tingen, “Miles Davis and the Making of Bitches Brew: Sorcerer’s Brew”, JazzTimes, May 2001.  Accessed 2/1/2016.
[xiv]  Neil Spencer, “Miles Davis: The muse who changed him, and the heady Brew that rewrote jazz”, The Guardian, September 4, 2010.  Accessedd on 2/1/2016.

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