Miles Davis – Bitches Brew (1970) (****)

Bitches 1

What’s to like?

If the album cover catches your eye but the jazz label puts you off, then fear not. Bitches Brew is an album that has a lot to appeal to fans of rock and prog who like their music to challenge convention and break new ground.

The low down

Bitches Brew has such a striking cover that you’ve probably seen it at some point in record stores or on billboards. It certainly caught my eye when I saw it take up a whole wall as I was travelling up an escalator in a Virgin Megastore (many years ago when such things still existed…)

The more I passed by that cover, the more curious I was to hear the music inside, but there was one thing holding me back. I simply wasn’t into jazz music. Rock in all its genres, yes, classical, yes, and even reggae – but jazz was the great unknown and a bit intimidating as a genre well known for its very vocal “experts”.

But curiosity got the better of me and I bought the album – a double running just over 90 minutes. I had no idea what to expect in those pre-internet days, and had no idea how controversial the music had proved to be within rock and jazz circles when it was released in 1970.

The result is an album that has more in common with rock, progressive improvisation and experimentation, than the traditional jazz sounds for which Davis is more associated with on albums like Sketches Of Spain and Kind Of Blue.

Davis had already embarked on his experimental phase with the previous album In A Silent Way, shifting the music away from traditional jazz rhythms and nudging the electric instruments to the forefront of the music, but the influence was perhaps a little more subtle and nuanced compared to the dramatic impact of the music on Bitches Brew.

The recording process was by all accounts an interesting one. Davis would call his repertory of musicians into the studio at short notice, and with minimal rehearsals before laying down the music. At times the players had no idea what they were being asked to come up with, and even to my untrained ears, it’s obvious that a lot of the music on this album is being played and recorded on the fly.

Typically, Davis would simply suggest a vague melody or mood, tap out a tempo, then count everyone in, and off they went. The thinking behind Davis’ strategy was that it would force the musicians to focus totally on the moment at hand and pay close attention to what everyone else was playing so that they could blend their contribution into the overall sound.

As a result, the music tends to start and stop, and then resume and as a first time listener it’s challenging to keep up, but it’s also an enjoyable experience if you’re in the right mood. The quality of the recordings is so good that you feel like you’re right there in the room, and you can hear Davis quietly whispering cues and instructions just before the music veers off in a new direction. His presence is clearly heard as he snaps his fingers to change the tempo, and he whispers encouragements like “Keep it tight” or signals a player to take a solo spot.

So in the one sense, it’s a collection of songs recorded live, but in another sense the Bitches Brew album is something entirely different. While lengthy pieces such as the title track, and the opener Pharaoh’s Dance, sound composed and complete, they are in fact made up of multiple edits and takes.

“Pharaoh’s Dance” contains 19 edits – its famous stop-start opening is entirely constructed in the studio, using repeat loops of certain sections. Later on in the track there are several micro-edits: for example, a one-second-long fragment that first appears at 8:39 is repeated five times between 8:54 and 8:59. The title track contains 15 edits, again with several short tape loops of, in this case, five seconds (at 3:01, 3:07 and 3:12). Therefore, Bitches Brew not only became a controversial classic of musical innovation, it also became renowned for its pioneering use of studio technology.” (source – “The Making of Bitches Brew” by Paul Tingen and Enrico Merlin)

In a radical and very progressive approach for the time, Davis adopted the idea of the studio as musical instrument, rather than just a means to record and mix live performances. He and his producer Teo Macero, explored the possibilities of tape loops, reverb chambers, tape delays and echo effects; all tricks of the trade in studio work these days, but back then it was ground-breaking.

Davis also decided to split from conventional group line-ups, and for these sessions he employed two bassists (one playing electric bass guitar, and the other playing traditional double bass), two to three drummers, two to three electric piano players, and a percussionist, all playing at the same time.

It says a lot for Davis’ kudos that he was able to handpick the cream of talent to realise his vision. The players were already renowned and respected within their own ranks, but would go on to bigger things and become legends in their own right – Chick Corea (Return To Forever), John McLaughlin (Mahavishnu Orchestra) and Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter (Weather Report).

Understandably, these guys would bring their own styles and ideas, and it could have ended up in a clash of egos, but Davis brought out the best in each player, pushing and coaxing in equal measure. And such was the respect that the players had for Davis, and for each other, that against the odds it all came together.

Bitches 3

Considering it’s Davis’ name on the album cover, his trumpet doesn’t dominate the music, allowing the other musicians the freedom to do their own thing under his guidance, but when that trumpet kicks in on the likes of the title track, you can’t mistake it for anyone else. And he certainly gives it his all on Miles Runs The Voodoo Down.

There’s plenty of rhythm and groove with the likes of Spanish Key, but on other tracks the time signatures shift all over the map, and just as you think you’re settling into the vibe of something like Pharaoh’s Dance, it suddenly heads off in another direction or comes to a complete standstill, before then starting off again.

So it’s not easy listening candlelit jazz for the background, but if you like your music to take you on unexpected journeys, then Bitches Brew will be a rewarding experience. The music has plenty of fleeting melodies along the way, and the onus is on the listener to enjoy those brief melodies “in the moment” before the music morphs into something else.

And it’s a great album to listen to in the headphones. While I’m more of a rock progger than a jazzer, I’ve always been impressed at the quality of the recordings on the Sony Legacy roster of jazz albums. The master tapes of these recordings have been well looked after, and in stark contrast with today’s landscape of volume and compressed sound, albums like Bitches Brew make for a real treat on the ears, with every note and nuance captured for posterity. It’s an album I keep coming back to because it reveals new secrets on every listen, and it feels fresh and exciting every time.

Don’t let its jazz associations put you off – if you like rock, or music that strives to be progressive, then this is an album worth exploring. (I ended up going deeper, buying the album’s complete recording sessions in a four disc box set, which is even more of an adventure!)

And if nothing else, it’s one of the coolest album covers to display on your shelf!

Advertisements

One response to “Miles Davis – Bitches Brew (1970) (****)

  1. Pingback: A to Z links to reviews | Moments in Transition·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s