Album released this week in… 1970: Miles Davis – Bitches Brew

MILES Davis is one of the all-time titans of jazz music, there’s no getting around it. Davis was at the forefront of several defining moments in jazz, from the ‘cool’, swing-inflected Birth of the Cool to the sombre modality of Kind of Blue. With Bitches Brew, Davis brought jazz-fusion into the equation, crossing the boundaries of modern music and bitches brewlaunching the careers of several of its performers, including John McLaughlin (The Mahavishnu Orchestra),  Chick Corea (Return to Forever), Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter (Weather Report).

On top of being a seminal album of the 20th Century, Bitches Brew was a huge commercial success, selling over half a million records within months of its release – an astonishing achievement for an avant-garde, experimental jazz record, even if it was by a master. It also marked a change in Davis’ methods. The conventional structuring of previous work dissolved into a looser, jam-oriented approach, with Davis allowing his musicians to shape the structure of a piece.

It wasn’t unprecedented. In a Silent Way, its immediate predecessor, featured many of the musical choices as Bitches Brew but, at half the length, In a Silent Way feels like a dry run. It relied more on circular grooves and traditional rhythms, with McLaughlin’s spluttering guitar and the electric piano grounding the mix. Bitches Brew is far more expansive at 94 minutes; it’s a mammoth, giving off the sensation of unparalleled musical experimentation. For all its flaws, we can hear the germination of an entire movement in its sprawling mêlée.

But it is flawed, absolutely. Of the album’s seven tracks, only one is under 10 minutes long. ‘John McLaughlin’, a track designed to showcase the album’s guitarist, demonstrates how effective the form of Bitches Brew is in a shorter, more constrained format. The effect is immediate and exciting, with Davis playing only intermittently in the aural spaces created by the band. It also demonstrates how draining – even boring – some of the longer tracks can be.

‘Pharaoh’s Dance’, a 20-minute melange of tape loops, delays and echo effects, featuring some throbbing solos from Davis and compelling bass grooves, is simply too long – a fact borne out by Davis’ decision to play the track at half its original length in many live performances. Though already eschewing traditional structure, the track’s lack of variety and natural development hinders its immediacy. It’s an ambient mood piece of wailing jungle rhythms that eventually loses interest, spluttering out into indifference at the end.

It is, however, significant as a testament to the influence of Teo Macero on the album as a whole. The producer behind Kind of Blue and Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, Macero was integral to the album’s sound, making significant edits to ‘Pharaoh’s Dance’ (with 19 edits alone) and the 26-minute title track. Attesting that he “didn’t think they did one complete take”, Macero cobbled together these massive tracks from various takes, employing loops, echoes and delays to mask the edits.

He was also responsible for the inclusion of ‘John McLaughlin’, an outtake from ‘Bitches Brew’. Accused of overproduction and interference, Macero was actually vital in tethering these monumentally creative sessions into a cohesive, continuous sound. He also proved influential on producers like Brian Eno, who praised Macero’s spatial awareness. That he was willing to challenge the infamously mercurial Davis is an achievement in itself.

His influence is heard again in the title track, with its dramatic delayed trumpet loop that repeats throughout. A track built on repetition and recapitulation, it’s also a clear indication that Davis didn’t dedicate much time to creating structure within the sessions; he was content merely to play, and let his musicians play. The compulsive grooves during these recapitulations lend the track real driving energy but, ultimately, the track is, again, too long.

Even with these extended tracks, the musical ambition is obvious and the propulsive energy shared between the musicians is palpable. The shorter tracks benefit from their truncated length and, crucially, their status of having already been performed live. ‘Spanish Key’, ‘Miles Runs the Voodoo Down’ and ‘Sanctuary’ had all been played live prior to the sessions, indicating that Davis was able to instil a more rigorous structure that the studio-based ‘Pharaoh’s Dance’ and ‘Bitches Brew’ simply didn’t have. Only ‘Sanctuary’ has a Macero edit, further hinting at Davis’ pre-conceived frameworks.

‘Spanish Key’ is a boogie groove that foreshadows Davis’ later adventures into funk, featuring chopped and angular playing from McLaughlin and some lovely electric piano. It contains some of Davis’ best soloing, utilising his full range and power; he commands the trumpet, and the band can only groove around his wake. The demarcation between movements is more emphatic, lending the track a striking tone. It loses a little drive toward the end, building to a climax that never comes, but it’s still a rewarding listen.

‘Miles Runs the Voodoo Down’ is driven by a delicious, deep bassline that throbs as a metronomic heartbeat through the entire track. The bass grounds the track’s remarkable soloing, as Davis, Zawinul, Shorter and McLaughlin all get some prime spotlight for their skills. Its tight structure is mirrored in the final (on the original issue) track, ‘Sanctuary’, a more meditative, expressive piece in which Davis plays a beautiful, mournful solo at the exact mid-point. In a handful of notes, he expresses so much more than his contemporaries.

And that, for all of Bitches Brew’s faults, is what sets it apart. It sounds unlike anything, then or now. It was years ahead of its time, performed by musicians at the peak of their collective powers, and serves as an astonishing statement for Davis’ volatile genius. Though its follow up, A Tribute to Jack Johnson, would encapsulate Davis’ forays into jazz-fusion more powerfully – in rawer fashion and at half the length – Bitches Brew remains an enormous feat of creativity and a landmark of 20th Century music.

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1 Response

  1. May 24, 2015

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