26.6.14

On Miles Davis' Bitches Brew

Revisiting the seminal jazz/rock fusion record
Artwork for Miles Davis' 1970 album, Bitches Brew
From Paul Tingen (Jazz Times):
August of 1969 marked Miles Davis’ boldest venture yet into undiscovered country. This time there was no more holding back, no more tentative experimentation, no more “walking on eggshells.” The album that emerged, Bitches Brew, was groundbreaking, beginning with its stark title and Abdul Mati Klarwein’s memorable cover painting. Made on Miles’ personal invitation, Klarwein’s expressionistic work captured the zeitgeist of free love and flower power, depicting a naked black couple looking expectantly at an ocean, a huge vibrant, red flower beside them. The background of the title is unknown, but a clue is provided by the absence of an apostrophe at the end of the word “bitches,” making “brew” a verb, not a noun. Carlos Santana speculated that the album was a “tribute” to “the cosmic ladies” who surrounded Miles at the time and introduce him to some of the music, clothes, and attitudes of the ’60s counterculture.1 Gary Tomlinson, on the other hand, assumed that “bitches” referred to the musicians themselves.2 Just like “motherfucker,” the term “bitch” can be used as an accolade in African-American vernacular. Whatever the title meant, it sounded provocative. Teo Macero remarked, “The word ‘bitches,’ you know, probably that was the first time a title like that was ever used. The title fit the music, the cover fit the music.”

The music on Bitches Brew is indeed provocative, and extraordinary. For Miles it meant a point of no return for the musical direction he had initiated with the recording of “Circle in the Round” in December of 1967. Until August of 1969 he had remained close enough to the jazz aesthetic and to jazz audiences to allow for a comfortable return into the jazz fold. But Bitches Brew’s ferocity and power carried a momentum that was much harder to turn around. The hypnotic grooves, rooted in rock and African music, heralded a dramatic new musical universe that not only gained Miles a new audience, but also divided it into two groups—each side looking at this new music from totally different, and seemingly unbridgeable, perspectives. In the words of Quincy Troupe, these two groups were like “oil and water.”

Bitches Brew signaled a watershed in jazz, and had a significant impact on rock. In combination with Miles’ fame and prestige, the album gave the budding jazz-rock genre visibility and credibility, and was instrumental in promoting it to the dominant direction in jazz. The recording’s enormous influence on the jazz music scene was bolstered by the fact that almost all the musicians involved progressed to high-profile careers in their own right. In the early 1970s, Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter (with percussionist Airto Moreira) were involved in Weather Report, Herbie Hancock and Bennie Maupin set up Mwandishi, John McLaughlin (with Billy Cobham) created Mahavishnu Orchestra and Chick Corea founded Return to Forever with Lenny White.

Bitches Brew was not a sudden dramatic move in a completely new direction for Miles, though. In line with his long-standing, step-by-step working methods, the recording was maybe a large, but nevertheless logical step forward on a course he had set almost two years earlier. In terms of personnel, musical conception, and sonic textures, the album was a direct descendant of its predecessor, In a Silent Way. Teo Macero remarked that with the latter album, the music “was just starting to jell. [In a Silent Way] was the one before [Bitches Brew]. Then all of a sudden all the elements came together.”

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.

Uncharacteristically, 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,”6 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 had 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. [Read More]
Miles Davis
From Langdon Winner's 1970 review in Rolling Stone:
Miles' music continues to grow in its beauty, subtlety and sheer magnificence. Bitches' Brew is a further extension of the basic idea he investigated in his two previous albums, Filles De Kilimanjaro and In A Silent Way. In a larger sense, however, the record is yet another step in the unceasing process of evolution Miles has undergone since the Forties. The man never stops to rest on his accomplishments. Driven forward by a creative elan unequaled in the history of American music, he incorporates each successive triumph into the next leap forward.

The wonderful thing about Miles' progress is that he encourages others to grow with him. Within the context of his sound there is more than enough room for both his musicians and his listeners to pursue their own special visions. Looking back on the history of Miles' ensemble, we find the likes of John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Tony Williams, Ron Carter, and Wayne Shorter. He always seems to select the best young jazzmen in the country and then gives them the freedom to develop their own unique modes of playing. Miles is known to be a stern disciplinarian, but never a tyrant. When a man has performed with the group long enough to gain a firm footing, he leaves as a recognized giant on his instrument.

[...]

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. [Read More]

On the Cover Artwork


From Kyle Fowle (Esquire):
Mati Klarwein, a German painter, created the gatefold cover for the original LP, which works to not only represent the music inside, but also the thematic elements. There's the push and pull of the light and dark worlds Klarwein depicts on the cover, part examination of racial tensions, part illustrated depiction of jazz fusion, where seeming opposites are brought together to form a new whole. While it's easy to see this album cover as an exercise in contrasting opposites to expose contradictions and illuminate similarities, Bitches Brew, the music and the cover art, is more about tandems than dichotomies, about how shared experience coupled with the acknowledgement of individual perspectives can create an otherworldly experience — and what could be more otherworldly than the 20-minute "Pharaoh's Dance" that opens up this album? After all, jazz music has long been about (as much as a very broad genre label can be about anything) how disparate elements can be connected through creativity and imagination.

The contrasting images that adorn the cover — the heads, the hands, the scenery — also seem to foreshadow much of the critical reaction to the record. Some saw the album as Davis abandoning his jazz roots, adopting "white" rock music signifiers for commercial success. Others saw the album as a way forward, with Davis navigating the shifting political climate through bursts of electric guitar and piano. "Forward" may be the best word to describe what was happening with this album: There's a sense of movement and significance throughout the record, and Klarwein's cover hints at the creation (or destruction) of worlds and histories, of reinterpreting how we view boundaries, be they social, political, or musical. The art aims for monumental, as if Bitches Brew is a historical landmark, a reading made all the more poignant by that tiny byline above the album's title: "Directions in Music by Miles Davis." A fitting description for an album and artist that mapped out the possibilities of genre experimentation in the early '70s. [Read More]

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