Miles Davis – Bitches Brew (CBS)

For the next few weeks on Cosmic Jazz we shall be celebrating the 40th anniversary of the release of Miles Davis’ celebrated Bitches Brew album.  This is music that demands your attention.  It converted me (Neil) to jazz – see the About Us section on the front page of the Cosmic Jazz website.  It regularly features in lists of 100 Best Albums in any genre, most influential jazz albums and – probably – Albums You Should Listen to Before You Die.

So what is it that is so special about Bitches Brew?  The writer Paul Tingen[1] says the album is a “paradigm shift” and he’s right.  With the influence of rock music jazz was already changing and In a Silent Way, the album Davis had recorded earlier in 1969, was one of the first to make a real impact.  However, Davis wanted more.  He had told Clive Davis at CBS that he didn’t want his music to be marketed as jazz anymore.  He was obviously looking for something more – but the important thing is that it wasn’t going to be than just rock-influenced jazz.  Think about this – in another hands, the music that emerged would have been full of rock drums, electric guitar solos and maybe some ‘happening’ vocals.

Bitches Brew was nothing like this.  Davis wanted something darker in tone than In a Silent Way and he got it.  There are two ways he did this – and the first was the way he used instruments.  There are thirteen musicians used (compared with the eight on IASW) and one of the key additions is Bennie Maupin’s bass clarinet.  It’s there just for tone and colour – there no solos and no riffs – and Maupin uses the rich dark tones of the instrument for dramatic effect.  It’s well recorded that Davis would ask his bemused band to play what they didn’t know….  More than that, Davis’ own trumpet playing has a new aggressive tone and producer Teo Macero capitalised on this, bringing the instrument forward in the mix throughout the music.

The second reason Bitches Brew sounds different is that the studio is used as an instrument too, shaping and colouring the sound.  This is producer Teo Macero’s core contribution to the creation of this jazz masterpiece.  In fact, we now know that the title track and Pharaoh’s Dance (credited to keyboard player Joe Zawinul) are really the products of Macero’s cutting and pasting in the studio.  When Zawinul first heard the album in the CBS offices, he reportedly asked who the band on the stereo was.

For Davis, the concept was clear.  He described his process over the three days of recording as follows:

I would direct, like a conductor, once we started to play, and I would either write down some music for somebody or would tell him to play different things I was hearing, as the music was growing, coming together. While the music was developing I would hear something that I thought could be extended or cut back. So that recording was a development of the creative process, a living composition. It was like a fugue, or motif, that we all bounced off of. After it had developed to a certain point, I would tell a certain musician to come in and play something else. I wish we had thought of video taping that whole session. That was a great recording session, man.

Drummer Jack deJohnette noted that Davis always went for the essence of things, and that was much more important to him than going back and redoing a note that wasn’t perfect. Perfection for him was really capturing the essence of something, and being in the moment with it. And then he and Teo later edited all these moments and put them all together. Some of the edits surprised me, but overall they were seamless, and captured the feeling and the intensity of the music.”

And this brings us back to how that vision is developed in the music.  Perhaps Miles never played better than on Bitches Brew.  Over all of Macero’s 17 edits on Pharaoh’s Dance, for example, the level of invention is consistently brilliant – riffs, patterns, runs, slurs and smears are all as good as anything in the Davis canon, early or late.  Almost better than this though is the simple fact that Bitches Brew – with its Mati Klarwein specially commissioned cover art, a gatefold sleeve, the bare-chested photo of Miles and the prose poem by ralph j gleason – is still just so COOL.


[1] For more, read this article by Tingen:

http://jazztimes.com/articles/20243-miles-davis-and-the-making-of-bitches-brew-sorcerer-s-brew

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