Miles Davis and Making Bitches Brew

I came to develop a love of jazz in college in 1983 or 1984. I am pretty sure it started with the Pat Metheny Group release Offramp. In Macomb, Illinois, where I went to college, there was this little record store called the Co-Op. You could smell the incense from the outside. When you walked in, you could cut a hole in the smell and hear the latest cool sounds in music. And there was a lot of music to discover for a 20-21 year old young guitarist/future history teacher.

At the time, I knew very little about jazz aside from New Orleans Jazz. Once I bought the album, I began a slow study of the great American art form. Eventually, I found my way to recordings by Miles Davis. It was through the biopic “Bird” by Clint Eastwood that I discovered the roots of the history of Miles. I knew who Miles Davis was in the late 1970s and 1980s, but I was not, nor I am now, a fan of that era of his work. However, for over 20 years Miles Davis made the most innovative form of music and reshaped jazz and rock. Through albums such as “Birth of the Cool,” “Porgy and Bess,” “Sketches of Spain,” and “Kind of Blue,” Miles Davis was “the man” before anyone else. MilesDavis2

America in the late 1960s was changing. The war in Vietnam polarized the country and the Civil Rights movement had seen successes and failures aplenty. But music had also undergone a massive transformation in the 1960s. And by music, I mean rock and roll. And by transformation, I mean sonic transformation. The electric guitar in 1969 was nothing like the electric guitar of 1960. In between the instrument was beefed up with massive amps, distortion pedals, feedback, flange, reverb, echo, and any other sound you could possibly want. Jimi Hendrix was shattering allusions of what the instrument could do. Folk artist Bob Dylan even went electric. Jazz in the mid 1960s was slow to resist. You might see an electric bass here or there, but for the most part, the old acoustic instrumentation was still the foundation of the ensemble.  Miles Davis changed all that.

In 1969, for the recording of In a Silent Way, Miles assembled a collection of the best young players of the era to record the record on one date in January. Keyboardists Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, and Herbie Hancock all played together with bassist Dave Holland, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, drummer Tony Williams, and guitarist John McLaughlin (essentially a who’s who of what would become 70s and 80s jazz). The record was two songs – each covering one side of the album. The title track, written by Joe Zawinul, was the impetus for the recording. By using electrical instruments, Miles had shifted the paradigm of modern jazz. The album is seen as only the beginning of the transformation. In a Silent Way was not a full on rock record, it still was Jazz at its core, just electrified. The culmination would come on the next record, Bitches Brew.

The story for Bitches Brew begins in the summer of 1969. That summer Miles toured behind In a Silent Way and his road band was quite different that his studio band. First, Jack DeJohnette manned the drumkit. Jack was a much more propulsive and elements of rock could be heard in his playing. In addition, percussionist Don Alias was brought on board. With him, Alias brought in Afro-centric rhythms unfamiliar to jazz. Combined with the electrification, another bassist, a second drummer, and bass clarinet player Bennie Maupin, a total of 12 musicians showed up to record the sessions over three days in August of 1969.

Producer Teo Macero oversaw the recording and assembling of what would be a double album containing 94 minutes of the most revolutionary jazz music ever created. For Miles, being a band leader was like being a story teller. Each musician or character had a story to tell. The problem going into tumblr_m087bajKvE1r2uguoo1_500the sessions was that he was unsure of what story he wanted to tell. The band had only rehearsed the first half of the title track, but they had played several songs on the tour that summer including “Spanish Key,” “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” and “Sanctuary.” Contrary to popular opinion, the songs were somewhat fleshed out before recording. Keyboardist Joe Zawinul had written ten songs for the record. Miles had picked the ones he liked along with other selections by himself and Wayne Shorter.

Recording the songs was somewhat unique. Second drummer Lenny White describes the sessions:

During the session we’d start a groove, and we’d play and then Miles would point to John McLaughlin and John would play for a while, and then Miles would stop the band. Then we’d start up again and he’d point to the keyboards, and someone would do another solo. All tracks were done in segments like that, with only the piano players possibly having a few written sketches in front of them [...] Bitches Brew was like a big pot and Miles was the sorcerer. He was hanging over it, saying, ‘I’m going to add a dash of Jack DeJohnette, and a little bit of John McLaughlin, and then I’m going to add a pinch of Lenny White. And here’s a teaspoonful of Bennie Maupin playing the bass clarinet.’ He made that work. He got the people together who he thought would make an interesting combination [...] It was a big, controlled experiment, and Miles had a vision that came true.

Over the three days, the process continued. When the recording was complete, the musicians went back to Miles’s house and listened to the unedited versions of the tracks. When the record came out in January 1970, the tracks sounded nothing like the musicians remembered. Producer Teo Macero armed with tape, glue, and an editor, restructured most tracks completely. Macero explains the process:

I had carte blanche to work with the material. I could move anything around and what I would do is record everything, right from beginning to end, mix it all down and then take all those tapes back to the editing room and listen to them and say: ‘This is a good little piece here, this matches with that, put this here,’ etc, and then add in all the effects—the electronics, the delays and overlays. [I would] be working it out in the studio and take it back and re-edit it—front to back, back to front and the middle somewhere else and make it into a piece. I was a madman in 12756763the engineering room. Right after I’d put it together I’d send it to Miles and ask, ‘How do you like it?’ And he used to say, ‘That’s fine,’ or ‘That’s OK,’ or ‘I thought you’d do that.’ He never saw the work that had to be done on those tapes. I’d have to work on those tapes for four or five weeks to make them sound right.

In the review by Rolling Stone, the magazine states:

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.

But don’t let my cerebral bent influence your listening. Whatever your temperament, Bitches’ Brew will reward in direct proportion to the depth of your own involvement.

The record redefines what jazz can be, of what music can be. It combines different and disparate elements of music. The fusion movement was born and many rock bands would try to recapture the sense of adventure and discovery found on the record. The record comes alive with the incredible rhythm section of 2 drummers and 2 bassists, combined with the percussion of Don Alias. All the while the electronic keyboardists percolate and provide pallets and templates for Davis, Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin, Bennie Maupin, and themselves to tell their stories.
At the core of the sound is what appears to be a simple structure of a groove made up of two to three chords with a solo on top. What makes the music so complex is the rhythmic structure. Still, some 40 years later, jazz has not had another turning point in the form to come close to this record. Bitches Brew was a rock record in its attitude and electrified sounds, jazz in its musical structures and solos, but it was more than the sum of its parts. It was new music for a new era. The musicians who played with Miles would go on to lead their own bands. Shorter and Zawinul would form Weather Report. Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock would form their own bands while John McLaughlin would form his own project, the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Each musician defined the fusion era and influenced many jazz and rock musicians by playing on Bitches Brew as much as they did in their own bands.
As a listener, I still find the grooves scintillating, spellbinding, and mesmerizing. Many times over the past few summers I have put Bitches Brew on the iPod for a bike ride and disappeared into the northern Illinois countryside. Bitches Brew is still a record ahead of its time. Even after 40 years, the music sounds so fresh and timeless. This is a particular favorite of mine.
Here is an interesting video of how the album and band came to be.
For further reading:
Quincy Troupe’s bio of Miles is essential
Quotes of Lenny White and Teo Macero come from: http://jazztimes.com/articles/20243-miles-davis-and-the-making-of-bitches-brew-sorcerer-s-brew
Rolling Stone Review: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/albumreviews/bitches-brew-19700528#ixzz2Jkz5ZjaS

The Concept Album: A Brief History

Two weeks ago on June 12, 2012, the nerd within me awoke with the release of Rush’s Clockwork Angels. While musically current, the collection of songs lyrically tells the maturation of a boy, who through a series of adventures (some tragic), questions his faith and the universe run by a rigid watchmaker, all the while, evolving from a boy into a man. Listening to it, I tend to think of the whole concept of the album as an allegory telling the life story of drummer Neil Peart. After a few brief spins, I was transported back in time to 30+ years ago when the concept album was once standard practice for the band.

The concept album is not new, but in today’s disposable music industry, it is quite a risk for band to release a concept album. In a music world driven by the single on iTunes, I find it refreshing for Rush to take a chance like this. One could easily argue that this is their first full length concept album. While 2112 and Hemispheres are both considered concept albums, only one side of the records is conceptual.

For history, the original concept album dates back to Woody Guthrie’s Dustbowl Ballads. While somewhat conceptual by today’s standards, it was unique for it’s time. All the songs were about one topic although the record does not have a main character or storyline that was in every song. Released in 1940, the record was highly influential on future folk songwriters Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan as well as Bruce Springsteen. The album contained the now classic, “Do Re Mi.”

But it was not folk or popular music that turned the concept album into an art form, it was Jazz. Beginning in the late 1940s, Jazz artists began experimenting with sounds and styles. These concepts became the theme of the record. Whether it was rhythms, chord progressions, or scales, jazz was at the forefront of the movement. Two of the biggest innovators were Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis. Sinatra’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers and the Wee Small Hours were ahead of their time. Davis, on the other hand, tended to reinvent himself several times throughout the fifties and sixties with Birth of the New Cool, A Kind of Blue, Porgy and Bess, and Skteches of Spain. John Coltrane would also join in with Giant Steps.

The 1950s also saw the rise of Rock and Roll. Rock did not initially lend itself to the concept album. However, some tried liked the Ventures. But the album that started the hey day of concept albums actually was not a concept album. The Beach Boys released Pet Sounds in 1966. The sounds on the record would heavily influence the Beatles. Ironically, Pet Sounds had been heavily influences by the Beatles Rubber Soul. What Pet Sounds did was to sonically challenge the Beatles to come up with unique sounds for what would become Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Depending on which you Beatle you ask, you could have gotten four different responses what Sgt. Pepper was all about. But one thing most people can agree on was that rock and roll could be art. Ideally, the record was a headphone record as it was one of the first records to use an 8 track versus a four track recording. The experimentation with sound became the defining mark of the album culminating in the epic song, “A Day in the Life.”

Soon after, most bands tried to make their own concept album. A plethora of bands joined in. A whole new movement emerged in the late 1960s. Most of the classic rock and roll bands began at art schools throughout England. The style of rock was changing. Pete Townshend of The Who went a step further and created the Rock Opera, Tommy. Art rock was fully born. Bands such as Yes, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Genesis, and others sprang up and made some great music.

Throughout the early 197s, each of the aforementioned bands recorded long form songs and made concept album after concept album. They knew no other way. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon came to epitomize a new high in concept album history. Unfortunately, Tales from Topographic Oceans by Yes signaled a death knell for the art rock movement. A double album, Tales contained four songs – one for each album side. In response, punk music rebelled against the nature of the art rock movement. But the art rock movement did not stop.

The concept album reached its high water mark with Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The Wall was meant to symbolize walls put up between people, The Wall came to symbolize walls put up by authority and dualistically fit with the Cold War Berlin Wall.

Throughout the 1980s, the concept album began to wane as the influence of MTV began. From time to time, the occasional concept album emerged but few captured the public’s interest. Marilyn Manson, Green Day, Dream Theater, Jay Z, and other bands have tried their hands at the concept album.

For me, most of my spare time in the 1970s and early 1980s was spent listening to concept albums. My favorites will most likely differ from yours.

For example, I love two concept albums by Genesis. One is The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and the other is Duke. For me, Duke is hugely important as we just moved from the only home I had known after my freshman year of high school to western Illinois, three hours away. In the coming years, these two records were two of my best friends. I adore these records because of where I was in my life and what they did for me.

I always liked the concept album. Whether the album had a lyric that told the story throughout the record, or whether it was a stylistic sonic choice, I associate those type of records as the best. I can still picture myself sitting around Stuart Jackson’s dining room table, smoking cigars, listening to Rush, and playing Dungeons and Dragons. Maybe it was all just the late 70s, early 80s teen lifestyle, but it was enjoyable. It was art, creative, and fun.

Now, for me, Clockwork Angels is easy to listen to. The music is great, the songs are great, but the story is even greater. It takes me back to many memories of my young adulthood…As the song’s opus, “The Garden,” concludes

The future disappears into memory
With only a moment between
Forever dwells in that moment
Hope is what remains to be seen
(c) 2012 Anthem Records
Lyric by Neil Peart