In the latter half of the ‘60s, Miles Davis was in the studio on the reg, recalibrating previous moves to render the parade of new possibilities filling his head. More and more, acoustic instruments were in the rear view mirror, piled by the side of a road that was disappearing quickly. Filles de Killamanjaro and In A Silent Way were the first volleys of yet another emerging temperament. By the late summer of ‘69, he convened his largest squad yet, testing the waters with multiple keyboardists, bassists and drummers – a swampy electric confab that gave trad jazz tenets a hot foot while concocting an indelible atmosphere. Bitches Brew.
JazzTimes readers know the 1970 double-album’s impact. It was a juggernaut that made a dent on the Billboard charts, expanded the trumpeter’s audience, moved him into rock ‘n’ roll concert venues, and cemented his status as a wily experimentalist. In the jazz world, confusion and grousing ran hand in hand with hosannas and support. Miles and his producer Teo Macero, who creatively edited the ensemble’s live performances for the final presentation of the Bitches Brew’s six tracks (delivered on a then-novel-for-jazz double album), were provocateurs breaking new ground. Columbia’s advertising campaign deemed the album “A Novel By Miles Davis.” Novel indeed. To celebrate this classic’s 50th anniversary, we chatted with 10 improvisers about its impact. Kinda interesting that several of their views have parallels.
I went back and listened to it last night for this conversation, and it’s funny how the ear evolves. It was like, ‘Yo, this album was extremely ahead of its time.” The whole concept of looping improvisation, and chopping up samples definitely shed a light on hip-hop. Miles was the first artist doing that. When I was younger, I didn’t even know that part, but listening to it now, it almost sounds like they want you to notice. I can hear the air in the room when the loop point comes around. And it’s almost part of the music for me; I hear it as part of the rhythm. You have a chaotic improvisation, but at the point they loop, it gives it an anchor, like an arrangement, something to lean on. I’ve always known that’s what Teo Macero was doing, but I never really noticed it on an editing level like I do now. That’s exactly what I’m doing with my music.
These records, I mean, this is who I am. The funny thing is I got to Bitches Brew late because of who I am. Peter Apfelbaum was our ringleader growing up in Berkeley, and we were definitely into the far out shit. First concert I saw at the Keystone Korner was Eddie Harris, the second was Rahsaan, and then Peter turned me on to Cecil and the Art Ensemble in the summer between 8th and 9th grade. Miles came through, but most Keystone Korner concerts were $8 and the Miles show was $15, so we didn’t go.
Bitches Brew is like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young to us. It’s pop music. I don’t think I bought Bitches Brew until I got to NYC, in my 20s, and by time I listened to it, it was “Oh yeah, this is cool, man, this beyond makes sense.” That’s why I said CSNY. It was archetypal, easy to listen to, totally grooving, EVERYBODY HAD A COPY OF IT. I put it on just now so I could re-remember it, and the first thing that hit me were all the drum stops. I realized how much that influenced me, even though I didn’t know it. But I’m always using drum stops in Sex Mob, I’m always stopping the drums; that’s the whole thing about Sex Mob. Stop the drums. I tell drummers, “I got the beat, it’s your job to play the drums.” I tell ‘em: “It’s so much better when you don’t play and then you come back in and the people go, ‘Oh my God, that sounds so good,’ you know?
When I heard it in high school, I wasn’t sold immediately. I think I was introduced to it by a hippie kid first of all, and I was more on the punk rock contingent. But really, I think I just wasn’t hip enough yet to get it. Later it became one of my favorite records; I think it was when I got the box set and listened to everything [recorded] around Bitches Brew and started flipping out. And part of that is because he sets up these environments. It all feels like it’s a different world. The sonic layout is so specific it almost feels like you’re in a cartoon or something… or a psychedelic desert. That’s the shit that really freaks me out now; man, he’s setting up these environments that are so saturated and they’re so specific. The music lives in these individual worlds.
The cut-up aspects of it, Teo Macero’s editing choices, obviously contributes to its character. I mean, “Pharaoh’s Dance” is constructed from a lot of specific used and reused fragments of tape. That’s a huge part of the album’s vibe, though I didn’t know it at the time. I enjoyed the sound of it on an elemental level. It didn’t take too long to learn that there was editing happening. Maybe four years later, I got it. But I was learning a lot about music really quickly back then. It was an absorption-heavy time for me. I got obsessed. For a while I just liked long tracks. That was really my shit, a slab of music you can get into. Sidelong tracks. It’s still a thing I like. This kind of music from Miles is still my favorite in a lotta ways.
It’s like this masterpiece of creative thought. I was reading someone who was saying “this thing is wonderfully unresolved. It never gives you a happy ending.” I agree. It’s got this feeling of “search” floating through it. You’re almost there but you’re not quite there. You can see the destination, but you never arrive. It’s fascinating.
The music was hip. It felt like a bunch of dudes standing around smoking, being cool, sharing ideas. It felt like a team. But it was controlled; Miles was in charge. He had all these sounds put together in a way you never heard before. Electric guitar with acoustic bass, the Rhodes with a wah-wah trumpet, and then they’re not playing songs, they’re playing textures, and insinuating all these rhythms and cross rhythms. It was hypnotic, this trance-like thing. You put your head in, and once you’re in there, the journey is endless. That’s sort of what this music represents to me. It broke those rules of things supposedly having a beginning, middle and end.
The title track…that groove. Even in college I remember putting it on at parties and that it just mesmerized a ton of us – music school kids, business school kids, actors, regular students, anyone in the room who had an open mind. The music helped bring people together, especially “Bitches Brew.” The groove is infectious, and I remember loving it.
His trumpet playing on Bitches Brew is on a completely other level. His sound is searing on this thing, it’s crazy. I check in with the Plugged Nickel box set all the time; it’s one of my pillars. The story is that Miles was going through some dental things around Plugged Nickel time, even though he still sounds strong. But it’s fascinating to hear how different and better he sounds on Bitches Brew, just a few years later. The command, the force behind his playing, but also the depth and weight of his sound. He feels like a wizard casting laser beams. It’s pretty epic coming back to Bitches Brew after listening to Plugged Nickel for so many years.
“Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” is hands down my favorite track on Bitches Brew because it takes me on a journey. It has so many elements and layers intertwined; rhythmic and harmonic elements, texture, space, and each layer introduces itself bringing the listener along for the ride. I can’t help but think about blaxploitation films of the 1970’s when I hear it, which go right along with the era that this was recorded. Some of my favorite films, such as “Dolemite,” ”Coffey,” “Shaft” and “Sweetback’s Revenge” are all connected by the common thread of the music. What was hip about the late 60s and early 70s was the beginning of what became fusion. The mix of African and Cuban and Brazilian styles and rhythmic language alongside the “pocket,” a term used to describe the thick groove of Black Soul Music. Miles Davis was clearly at the forefront of this. [Bitches Brew] also spoke to young blacks at the time, which brought about a whole new listener. It was definitely innovative. In ways, we are looking at similar elements in what many call jazz today. There are elements of hip-hop and pop culture being intertwined in all sorts of creative music, making it appealing to new ears. We have what Robert Glasper has been doing for some time, and now when we listen to new records/gigs today, and hear what many call “trap jazz,” I can’t help but wonder – would Miles Davis incorporate trap elements into his music if he were around today? 🙂
When I first moved to upstate New York and wanted to connect with other players, one of the first things I turned to was Bitches Brew. It’s something to share, and it’s actually a teaching tool, a great way for people to enter the performance world. You can’t really approach the brilliance of what was done by those original musicians. But because Bitches Brew is, for lack of a better word, free, especially free harmonically, it’s one of those classic things that’s easy to sound okay on. It doesn’t have strict rules, like bebop or Romanticism or 12-Tone, so all you have to know is general skills and having an open mind. Of course, it takes a LOT more to play it as well as the masters did, but because of those things, I’m able to use it as a template to point and show and teach: “This is the kind of thing that’s possible.” It’s also a great project to do if you’re trying to have people play without fear, because you have to be fearless if you’re going to try this. Those guys who made Bitches Brew were fearless musicians. That’s essentially that’s what I’m doing [when I convene the Voodoo Orchestra these days], using it to help musicians play with a little abandon. It’s a great can opener; it’s like taking the shackles off people.
Maybe how you hear it depends on your point of entry. That window of Miles’ work, the Filles de Kilimanjaro, In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew era – I sometimes hear it as a roughly 10 year re-encountering of the Kind of Blue/Sketches of Spain modal approach with an awareness and an ear to the changes in the time. Specifically using electric instruments and engaging in contemporary rhythms of that era. It’s a remarkably similar space in terms of what the project is attempting to do and what it does with the information at hand; to me they are reminiscent of his previous postures, extended approaches. That’s not to say it’s all modal by any means, but compared to playing short tunes, let’s say.
I was around 13 when I got the record. This was early on for me, so I wasn’t that informed about Miles in general, or the whole musical terrain. It did speak to me because I was already getting into a lot of things around that time. I could identify it in the expanse of things I was checking out, including, let’s say everything from the Art Ensemble of Chicago to Soft Machine. I could locate it in a larger terrain of progressive rock stuff and other kinds of avant garde jazz, and it occupied an interesting space. That stuff, and some of the more open things, challenged me for sure. I remember hearing it as the improvised event that it was, but understanding that process…there was something about it being an extended improvisation as opposed to being just a regular jam. I could start to hear that things were being worked upon. It involved the way those musicians had to bring themselves to it. Especially with the two drums, all those keyboards. It didn’t have a deep jam quality to it, with the music going from solo to solo. It was a dense thing with an inter-reactive quality, something that I recognized from stuff like the one or two Art Ensemble records I had. I had a beginning awareness of that kind of playing, and it was amazing to hear Miles doing it, but his version had a kind of rock quality…not really rock, but something else. It sits in a really interesting space between a lot of things, because it’s different than Tony Williams Lifetime, which was really rock, and more of a chamber kind of vibe that had relationships to the free jazz that was going on.
There’s something great about all the details, too. The element of the Airto’s constant cuica – it’s like the singer in the band in a way, so vocal and so present all over the record. Miles brought Brazil and India into the mix, with the sitar and tamboura and tabla. The combination of those things with a bass clarinet? That’s really what makes this a tasty morsel. Bass clarinet is really great. Instantly, it’s like, “What’s that? What’s that sound? And it’s all over the record. The droning tambora with bass clarinet. It’s a very particular texture. Amazing. Drum-wise, I was never fully conscious that it was Jack [DeJohnette] on the right side and Lennie [White] on the left. But man, Jack is seriously laying it down. So solid. I would have thought it was Lenny laying down the R&B type groove. But no, it’s Jack. Pretty great. Amazing how Miles was able to stay current, right? This record is him looking into the future.
EXCERPTS FROM A JAZZTIMES CELEBRATION OF BITCHES BREW.
MORE QUOTES FROM EACH OF THE ARTISTS AT JAZZTIMES.COM