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
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