Miles Davis - Bitches Brew - Classic Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Miles Davis - Bitches Brew

by James Weiskittel Rating:10 Release Date:1970-03-30
Miles Davis - Bitches Brew
Miles Davis - Bitches Brew

Miles Davis famously said “do not fear mistakes - there are none”.  He’s also the man who reinvented jazz ‘four or five times'.  He’s the man who played his trumpet through one decade after another.  He was an innovator, originator, and a visionary.  His audience spans a handful of generations at this point and most importantly, his music has more than endured the test of time (there are not many other artists with sixty and seventy year old releases still topping the Amazon vinyl charts).  But while the list of superlatives and adjectives could go on forever, Miles Davis is perhaps best described as musical force of nature; a fact that is clearly demonstrated on his 1970 double-album release Bitches Brew.

While Davis’s 1959 release Kind Of Blue is widely regarded (and rightfully so) as one of Jazz’s hallmark albums, enjoying cross-generational accessibility via Starbucks and department store vinyl racks worldwide, the record does little to pull back the curtain on one of music’s most brazen artists.  While initially a hotshot jazz trumpeter turned bandleader, Davis would quickly earn a reputation as an intrepid composer, pushing the limits of his audience’s expectations with near constant line-up changes and a prolific run of records that would grow increasingly indulgent throughout the 60’s and 70’s.

By 1969, Davis was in full-on ‘fusion’ mode; he had made the transition and ‘gone electric’ (with the incomparable In A Silent Way) and was ready to push the limits of his new band which featured a who’s who of up-and-comers (many of whom would become bandleaders in their own right).  Over the course of three days in August of that year, Davis, along with producer Teo Macero, would conduct a series of sessions that would eventually give birth to Bitches Brew.

The recording of Bitches Brew is the stuff of legend: Davis calling in musicians with little or no notice, briefly giving them fragments of instruction before guiding his various lineups into full-blown performances, conducting his musicians through his mental compositions.  The band (notably featuring such heavyweights as Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, and Dave Holland) plays with a jaw-dropping cohesion, especially considering the haphazard way in which the recordings took place.  In fact, the sessions proved so fruitful that material would continue to be mined for future releases until Davis’s 1976 hiatus/retirement.

As for the actual album itself, Bitches Brew is an expansive affair, with each side of the first LP solely dedicated to the first two tracks.  The twenty minute “Pharaoh’s Dance” unravels slowly, almost as an exercise in meditative minimalism, before exploding into a backbeat-driven groove, highlighting Davis’ newfound love of aggressive rhythms and rock-driven textures.  The hard-panned, double-drumset work of Lenny White and Jack DeJohnette provides an tangible foundation for the overlapping solos and vamps (the interplay between John McLaughlin's guitar and Davis’ trumpet are a highlight through the second half of the piece).

The title track opens with a nearly impenetrable sonic collage before careening into another heavy-handed groove.  The band careens back and forth, ebbing and flowing between drum-fill-driven bursts of notes and unsettling periods of silence punctuated throughout by Davis’ chaotic playing.  The song settles into one final breakdown before dissipating back into a free-form diminuendo.  For his part, Davis’ typically understated playing is given a complete overhaul on Bitches Brew; where predictably somber lead-lines may have carried the melodic weight in the past, both halves of the record find Davis playing with an incredible aggressiveness, puncturing the music with cascades of notes, errant runs, and tortured long-tones.

The second LP features some of the more focused pieces from the sessions, where the faux-shuffle of the seventeen-minute “Spanish Key” and the cleverly-named (and appropriately guitar-driven) “John McLaughlin” provide a nice sense of counterpoint and balance to the record.  “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” features some of Davis’ most emotive playing to date while the understated “Sanctuary” functions almost as a musical exhale.  To top it all off, the Mati Klarwein designed gatefold-artwork is the very definition of iconic and is easily one of the greatest album covers of all time.

Bitches Brew was as much a landmark release for it’s musicianship as it was for its production.  The record's tracks were heavily edited by Macero, where he implemented all sorts of tape manipulation and studio processing.  While the reaction (both then and now) from Jazz purists has remained somewhat tepid over the years, it was the record’s ability to crossover with rock audiences (thus exposing Davis’ heady brand of fusion to a whole new, and much larger audience) that really set Bitches Brew apart from much of what had come before.                             

To be honest, there are half a dozen Miles Davis records that could have just as easily been the subject of this article, each existing as an equally impactful substitute for the other.  And while Bitches Brew would hardly make an appropriate selection for someone looking to ‘check out’ Miles Davis, that doesn’t immediately relegate it to the ‘for completists only’ pile either.  The bottom line is that the ‘best place to start’ with any artist as prolific as Miles Davis is always going to be a subjective matter; but for anyone looking to really understand the complicated artistic motivations of Miles Davis, there may be no better example of the man’s abilities as a player, composer, bandleader and most importantly, an innovator, than that of Bitches Brew.

Overall Rating (1)

5 out of 5 stars
  • Great stuff James. Fitting that your review is posted just before the Hendrix one by Jeff, because Miles was enamoured by Hendrix’s freeplay and they might have played together if Hendrix survived. I have the 40th Anniversary Box and it’s phenomenal- with a brilliant Tanglewood live concert in 1969

  • Rated 5 out of 5 stars

    .....and a wonderful DVD of a Copenhagen performance. My favourite Miles though came a few short years later with Agharta. As you say everyone who played with him is a superstar; the inspiration running very deep.