In 1970, the year of its release, Bitches Brew sold nearly a half million copies, and sent the jazz world into a state of confusion: Was this the end of jazz, or a new beginning? Jazz purists weren’t wrong to suspect that Davis’s new music had something to do with commercial pressures. Clive Davis, the president at Columbia Records, had called him to a meeting about his declining record sales. Miles Davis was a deeply competitive artist, and the idea that he was losing audiences to white rock musicians with inferior skills—and, worse, had to open for them at concerts—inspired him to beat them at their own game. But he did so very much on his own terms. What one hears in Bitches Brew, as Grella argues, is not pandering but searching and striving: “a great work of abstract music inside the sounds, beats, and riffs of commercial music,” “avant-garde with soul and a beat.”
Bitches Brew was a more ungainly work than its predecessor, the shimmering tone poem In a Silent Way, but its sprawl was a measure of Davis’s audacity, his hunger for new forms. It featured an unusual ensemble of thirteen musicians, including three electric keyboardists, two drummers, and two bass players. Perhaps the most distinctive ingredient is Bennie Maupin’s bass clarinet. For much of the album, Maupin plays almost entirely in the lower register of his horn, making guttural noises, short, agitated phrases that add an incantatory undercurrent to the “brew.” Every musician, even Davis himself, contributes at one point or another to that roiling brew, to which the soloists respond and over which they occasionally collide.
Bitches Brew bids farewell to almost every musical convention, including the traditional cues for foreground and background. Most of the tracks are exceptionally long (twenty-six minutes, in the case of the title track), and they are not so much songs as—in Grella’s words—“waves” of improvisation, leaving the “disorienting sensation of…simply stopping without coming to a formal end or resolution of any kind.” Here were the sonorities of the free jazz Davis had claimed to disdain, only set against electric grooves and churning, tribalistic percussion.
Bitches Brew is very much an ensemble work, but the defining sound is Davis’s trumpet, as confident and fiery as ever. We hear him in an extraordinary range of moods: the fierce, growling swagger of “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” a hot blues in the key of F, set to a languorous New Orleans march rhythm; the hypnotic call-and-response of “Bitches Brew,” a cousin of the Andalusian pieces Davis had loved playing since Sketches of Spain; and the plaintive, mysterious lyricism of Wayne Shorter’s “Sanctuary,” with its echoes of “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” a Davis favorite. Blues, balladry, and the “Spanish tinge”: the effect here is a kind of kaleidoscopic self-portrait.
How could so many jazz critics have overlooked Davis’s powerful trumpet playing on Bitches Brew, and its continuities with his previous work? The reason for their bewilderment was, in large part, the brew, the music’s muddy electric bottom, which bore no resemblance to the jazz they knew. Davis had never been a pure bopper, but his music had always made allusion, however oblique, to the grammar of Parker and Gillespie. On Bitches Brew, Davis decisively broke with his roots in bop. As Grella argues, building on the pivotal work of Greg Tate and Paul Tingen, the more revealing points of comparison were no longer to be found in jazz but in the psychedelic guitar of Jimi Hendrix, the warbled vocals of Sly Stone, and the bass lines of James Brown.
Davis, as Grella sees it, was a bluesman even before he was a jazz musician. And in the late 1960s he had begun to worry that he was losing his “blueness,” his connection to popular black music and black audiences; he said he missed “the sound of $1.50 drums and the harmonicas and the two-chord blues.” Hendrix, Sly, and Brown showed him the way back to the blues of his East St. Louis childhood, the real “Rosebud” of his art. As he put it, “I don’t play rock, I play black.”
The music Davis made from 1969 to 1975 was some of his blackest ever, sometimes directly based on bass lines and riffs he heard in James Brown and Sly Stone.4 Yet it was also bristling with jagged, sometimes disturbing dissonances that grew out of his interest in the European avant-garde, particularly Karlheinz Stockhausen. It would prove no less demanding, and no less dazzling in its variety, than his acoustic work.5 There were slow, meditative compositions of breathtaking lyrical expansiveness, from In a Silent Way to “He Loved Him Madly,” his eerie requiem for Duke Ellington. There was the hallucinatory syncopation of his 1972 record On the Corner, perhaps the strangest funk album ever made. And, finally, there were the raucous, throbbing mid-1970s concerts, in which Davis had to hook his trumpet up to a wah-wah pedal to even be heard above the din of electric guitars. Like the early minimalism of Philip Glass, it was music you did not so much listen to as inhabit, an environment of sound where you were free to tune in and out.
Part of the enduring fascination of records like Bitches Brew lies not only in what they sound like but in how they were put together. Here Davis grudgingly shared credit with his producer, Teo Macero. A saxophonist and composer who had worked with the musique concrète composer Edgard Varèse, Macero was as important a Davis collaborator during these years as Gil Evans had been in the late 1950s. Macero sat in the control room with Davis at every session while the sidemen performed, often without being told if they were rehearsing or playing an actual take. Their relationship was volatile—the Bitches Brew recordings began just after an explosive row in which Davis demanded that Macero fire his secretary—but Davis thrived on such tension, and his trust in “Teo” was total.
With a razor blade, splicing block, and tape, Macero edited what were unruly jam sessions into suite-like compositions, often using loops—short sections of material—to create ostinato patterns. The two tracks of In a Silent Way are both sandwiched between such loops. Assuming this must have been an error, the jazz critic Martin Williams complained in his review about the “faulty tape splicing.” Others insinuated that Davis had cheated by stretching a half hour of music into forty minutes.
Today these criticisms seem rather quaint. Davis and Macero were, in effect, using the studio as an instrument. And on Bitches Brew, their aim was to create effects similar to those Davis had always sought in his playing: a dramatic expansion and enhancement of our perception of space. As the musician Brian Eno, who was deeply influenced by the electric Miles, has pointed out, the musicians sound as if they are “miles apart…the impression that you have immediately is not that you are in a little place with a group of people playing, but that you’re on a huge plateau.” That impression was powerfully reinforced by the now famous cover art of Abdul Mati Klarwein, which depicted a naked black couple on a beach, facing the sea against a backdrop of blue sky, red flowers, and yellow flames. A storm appears to erupt directly out of the woman’s hair; above the couple an imposing black face appears in profile, dripping with either beads of sweat or tears, as dauntingly inexpressive as the Pyramids.
We seem to be observing an Afro-Futurist rite of spring, and, as Grella observes, there are moments when the brew sounds “uncannily like fragments plucked from The Rite of Spring.”6 The master of this ceremony is Davis himself. He is higher than anyone else in the mix, as befits a lead singer, and, as Grella writes, “the physical power of his playing…cannot be overstated.” Even when he is absent, we feel as if we can hear him. He is summoning the ancient spirit of the blues, and at the same time leaping into the future, binding it to the sound of his trumpet, determined, as ever, not to be left behind. He cannot imagine music going forward without him, and neither, for as long as he plays, can we.
From my perspective, I have always enjoyed BB but the more impactful recordings of this era from Mile's were booken'd to BB- the transitional Filles des Kilimanjiro (1968), which displays the hypnotic pacing that would soon engulf Davis's music and Live/Evil where the new generation of collaborators (Bartz, Jarrett, McLaughlin, Henderson) really dig in and expand the electronic palate as can be evidence from the session originals from the 70's Cellar Door concerts over a three night period which continue to sound fresh and new today.