Miles: Bitches Brew

Miles’ working band at the time consisted of himself, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette, though they were augmented in their studio visits as the music grew ever more textural and multicultural. There are different stories of how Bitches Brew came to be; some say it was the influence of the women in Miles’ life and pop culture in general, while others say it was at the record company’s urging that Miles get more commercial. I don’t care what the impetus was, because none of these parties were in the studio helping to create the music. Producer Teo Macero was certainly involved; he took a secondary creative role in editing and/or restructuring the loose studio jams here and in years to come. His post-production work varies from effective to clumsy, but love it or hate it, he helped bring Miles’ increasingly spacious work to public view.

The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions
Aug 1969-Feb 1970 / Columbia

First off, this is not the complete August 1969 sessions for the Bitches Brew record, which was partly assembled from fragments and raw jams. The double album is presented in its original running order, followed by other sessions from which material was culled for later albums like Big Fun. It’s in those later sessions that we hear rehearsal bits, alternate takes, and other previously unreleased manna. It’s worth clearing up the title semantics, as a couple of the other Miles boxes - The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions, for example - do present unedited session reels from their marquee albums. There is no behind the scenes peeking at Bitches Brew here, but that’s okay, the album is long enough! What the collection does do is remix the original session tapes into a perfectly recreated Brew that removes the murk of previous editions and brings new life to the music. My opinion of the album was never very high until I heard this set, which was like hearing it for the first time. An expanded lineup that includes two drum sets, two basses, and multiple keyboards requires clarity and definition, and that’s what the remixing provides, more so than the original CD release.

Bitches Brew joins Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain in a popular trinity that samples Miles’ artistic range, with Brew representing the electric period. The kinder, gentler In a Silent Way could still seduce an open-minded jazz listener, but Brew steps into the fused beyond and doesn’t hold the door open for anyone stuck on their funny valentines. The studio assembly includes Miles (trumpet), Wayne Shorter (soprano), Bennie Maupin (bass clarinet), and John McLaughlin (guitar) as the main soloists, while multiple keyboards come from Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, and Larry Young. Dave Holland and Harvey Brooks share bass duties (electric and acoustic) and the drums are split between Jack DeJohnette and Lenny White. Not to mention the additional percussionists, including Don Alias. The reinforced lineup is the key to the album’s success, in my opinion. The multiple layers of sound turn the rock/R&B rhythmic influences into something new. And since half the band has to plug in, there’s a sensual mix of air and electricity.

As fusion, as jazz, as whatever you want to call the music (Miles said something about putting together the “greatest rock and roll band you ever heard”), it was and always will be one of a kind. Flavors of jazz, rock, and funk bubble in the cauldron, fired by improvisation underneath. What’s good about early fusion is that it wasn’t yet a self-conscious genre with any rulebook. The music meant the most when the word itself didn’t mean much at all. So we can say that Bitches Brew is a landmark fusion record, yet there’s nothing else in Miles’ catalog quite like it, let alone in anyone else’s catalog. (Just as there was nothing like Tony Williams’ Lifetime trio, or early Weather Report, either.)

Miles never gave much explicit instruction, and Bitches Brew (like most of his other electric works) relies mainly on the creativity of the players. There are some written parts, but it’s also the beginning of a Let’s Jam period, with the responsibility of cutting and pasting going to Teo Macero. I think part of Miles’ reasoning with the expanded lineup was that it would ensure that something interesting happened in the absence of detailed arrangements. The players’ ears become the scores. I say it goes back to Miles being a vague visionary. He could imagine new music but couldn’t script it, so he assembled certain players on the hunch that they could realize these ideas in the process of playing together.

“Pharoah’s Dance”: This twenty minute piece is made up of many different segments - a thematic piano riff, a pedal vamp, fidgety drum patterns, and the eventual rise of a Zawinul-penned melody from the electric swamp. The soft bustle of the opening minutes is regularly interrupted by schizophrenic post-production cuts; if Teo was attempting to craft an exposition after the fact, it doesn’t work. Nevertheless, the track settles into plodding solos, and in the final minutes, Miles repeats the broken melody over and over to tie everything up. “Pharoah’s Dance” is a bold way to begin the album (so much for commercialism) and I’ve never really endorsed the whole thing, although the homestretch of the piece is very cool.

“Bitches Brew”: On the one hand, the tune’s expository freakout - electric chords bouncing around, trumpet notes reverberating to the ends of the galaxy - is one of the most dramatic moments in the entire Davis oeuvre, rather like witnessing three or four Big Bangs in a row. On the other hand, the bulk of the 26-minute track is otherwise given to meandering solos over a steady bass ostinato. Sure, the first appearance of that line is catchy, and Teo gives it a little hook with a looped bass clarinet riff, but ten minutes later, fifteen minutes later, twenty minutes later, monotony reigns. No solo stands out, and Miles takes more than one. This track would have been much more effective at half the length, or even less.

“Spanish Key”: My favorite track. Like “Flamenco Sketches” from Kind of Blue, it gives the soloist a series of five modes to play through, only “Spanish Key” takes place over a funky chug and dense keyboards. The modal series moves from unresolved minor moods (the “Spanish” bits) toward a cheerful release in G, where the bassline opens into a danceable width. This track never gets boring over the course of its seventeen minutes.

“John McLaughlin”: Miles sits out this nasty little jam that is actually centered more on an electric piano riff than the guitar. Thus far in his stint with Miles, McLaughlin has hardly shown any of the precision and intensity he would be known for elsewhere; in fact, his guitar sound is flimsy, and his solos are relatively timid. For the most part, he’s like any competent guitarist shucking and jiving at a jam session. Yet there are moments on this track and others (“Voodoo”) where one glimpses McLaughlin’s hidden prowess.

“Miles Runs the Voodoo Down”: A skanky rhythm sets the stage for a soulful Miles solo, maybe his best of the album. Partway through his solo, the bassline extends into a syncopated pattern that continues through the following solos. The track gets more determined as it goes along, although the hesitation of the New Orleans-derived drum pattern at the start never really disappears. Excellent piece.

“Sanctuary”: Shorter’s desolate meta-ballad builds from a gnarled Miles/Chick duet into a full band section and then repeats the process. The personnel is reduced for this track, and it’s the closest the album comes to “real” jazz, although it still gets rowdy at its peaks. I hear it as a farewell to the recent past, and also as an application of the rock-based sound to the jazz plane. Miles beams like a laser and Chick’s electric piano accompaniment is worth listening to by itself.

And that’s it. The second half of Bitches Brew, beginning with “Spanish Key”, is more focused and ranks with the best of Miles’ electric work. The first half is intriguing just for the pure sound of the expanded studio band, but the proportion of improvisational appeal to the running times of the two “epics” doesn’t even out. Also, the confused structure of “Pharoah’s Dance” is problematic, and the edits sound clumsy. Of the support players, both Chick Corea’s electric piano and Bennie Maupin’s bass clarinet are essential to the sound of the record.

Bitches Brew opened the door to a period of further experimentation for Miles, and that’s what the last two and a half discs of bonus tracks are about. Recurring musicians contribute guitar, multiple keyboards, electric bass, and doubled (even tripled) percussion, to which sitar and tabla are sometimes added, reflecting the global interests of music at the time. (You can say the hippie pop bands inspired the Indian sounds, but don’t forget Coltrane’s string-droning jazz at the Vanguard in 1961.) As the rhythms expand, the melodic content contracts, and the background by default becomes the foreground. Traditional solos tend to disappear. That’s the case with the few Zawinul themes, like “Orange Lady”, where Miles plays a beautiful muted trumpet line, but the strings and percussion provide all the variety. Or “Great Expectations”, where a sneaky 7/4 bassline feeds snarling guitar and electric piano licks while the horns repeat a stern melody over and over with only miniscule variations. “Recollections” is a bittersweet theme reminiscent of “In a Silent Way”, supported by filtered guitar (McLaughlin’s finest Miles work yet), Echoplexed keyboard shapes, and hand percussion. The only Zawinul tune not to benefit from the new approach is “Double Image”, which is heard in two very different takes. Both versions feature Hendrixian guitar bits, yet the rhythms and harmonies are annoyingly out of whack.

David Crosby’s “Guinnevere” gets the same mood treatment. It shares the enchanting character of the Byrds original, though it goes on for over twenty minutes. This is not Davis the jazz-rock soloist; this is Davis the sound-sculptor, the mood maker, the sonic chemist. It’s hard to love Miles’ “Guinnevere”, but hard to dislike the atmosphere it dwells in. My favorite of the post-Brew bunch is “Lonely Fire”, which was originally released on Big Fun. The first several minutes distill a Sketches of Spain mood into a couple of minor-mode trumpet and sax lines that repeat ad infinitum over sparse electric bass (Dave Holland) and random percussion. The melodic repetition gets tedious, but Holland eventually solidifies his bassline and the drums lock into the pocket. (The hi-hat pulse comes first, then the snare implications, then the full backbeat - a terrific job by DeJohnette.) Miles breaks out of the theme to address the new rhythm, and the piece becomes a rollicking jam. The first part of the track is arduous to listen to, but the boogie section is well worth it.

Wayne Shorter’s “Feio” is not so great. The simplistic foundation overrides what might otherwise be a fine melody in a different context, and for once, Miles has made a Shorter composition boring. On the other hand, “Trevere” is an intriguing overture where triadic chords swell under Miles’ long notes, and the effect is not unlike the grandeur of progressive rock. (Larry Young’s organ plays a strong role in the sound of “Trevere”.) Miles delivers an all-out solo over the three-chord guitar vamp of “Corrado”. “Yaphet” (welcome back, Ron Carter) crashes an Eastern meditation session with Western thoughts. And for a feelgood groove, try the alternate take of “Little Blue Frog”. Strangely, the master take (from which a 45-rpm single was extracted) bungles the steady groove of the alternate.

To wrap up: the bonus material will certainly appeal to anyone who likes Bitches Brew, and the boxset as a whole shows how much of a pioneer Davis was. The extensive liner notes are pretty informative. (And I wonder who helped Carlos finish his essay.)

POSTNOTE #1: The original liner essay to Bitches Brew, penned by Ralph Gleason, contains this marvelous bit of nonsense:

“i started to ask Teo how the horn echo was made and then i thought how silly what difference does it make? and it doesn’t make any difference what kind of brush Picasso uses and if the art makes it we don’t need to know and if the art doesn’t make it knowing is the most useless thing in life” [sic]

A critic, high as a kite or not, is supposed to have an inquiring mind. The inquiring mind says “Gee, that sounded good; I wonder how they did that?” while the average joe says “Gee, that sounded good; pass the potato chips.”

Of course it matters what kind of brush Picasso used - else he would not have had a selection of them. Of course it matters how Teo went about recording - else the records would have sounded different. There’s a question of craft that’s being dismissed here. Bitches Brew did not grow magically out of thin air - no music does - and pretending that recordings are some mystical given, unreliant upon certain realities, is to shortchange the procedures. One might misread Gleason’s sentiment as this: “it doesn’t matter what brush Picasso uses because he’ll always deliver something of artistic value.” I agree with that, just as I’d agree that Miles could have played almost any trumpet with any effect and brought out his own creative sensibility. But that’s not what Gleason’s saying. He’s telling us that the causes do not matter in relation to their effects. He’s stifling any questions that might arise in an inquiring listener’s mind. If he didn’t really care how the horn echo was made, then he shouldn’t have mentioned it.


Live at the Fillmore East March 7, 1970 - It’s About That Time

This 2CD set, released in 2001, fills us in on the live persona of the so-called Lost Quintet: Miles, Wayne Shorter (tenor and soprano), Chick Corea (electric piano), Dave Holland (bass), and Jack DeJohnette (drums). This band was never properly documented during their existence, because every time they went into the studio, there were extra players involved. (And there’s an extra player here - Airto Moreira on percussion, but he makes very little difference to the music.) I’m not sure how much to judge them on these performances, which were played very aggressively for a rock-happy crowd. Both sets begin with blazing versions of “Directions” and end with adventurous explorations of “It’s About That Time”. Three tunes come from the Bitches Brew album. The live “Spanish Key” has a stomping energy, but the modal dynamics are lost because the band goes so far out. I don’t know if “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” has an official melody or not, and how this live version relates to the studio version is beyond me. “Bitches Brew” is recognizable, and the middle part even softens to where Miles can do a little sensitive muting.

Now, I love highwire free music, and these players are all giants, needless to say, but a lot of this stuff just seems a rough thrash. Corea’s piano is virtually atonal throughout, DeJohnette plays wildly, and Holland does his best to hold them close to earth. Miles stabs notes in place in lieu of crafting them; his relationship with these bandmates is a hell of a lot blunter than it was with the mid-60s groups. This also marks the end of Wayne Shorter’s tenure with Miles. There isn’t much for him to do here except try to match the power of the rhythm section, who then respond to Wayne’s energy by playing louder themselves, then Wayne has to honk even harder, and voila, you get a wall of noise. (The “hot” recording quality doesn’t help either.) All members are better heard elsewhere.

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