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Album Review: Miles Davis – Bitches Brew

Screen shot 2016-04-08 at 1.18.16 PMEver since the world discovered Miles Davis, he was always seen knocking at the doors of musical styles not yet known. Miles, who rose to fame from the popular uproar of bebop in New York City during the 1940’s, was never content with staying in the same lane. By the end of the 1940’s Davis had introduced ‘cool jazz’ to the world with his Birth of the Cool sessions, and barely a decade later, turned the jazz community on its side again by debuting his ‘modal jazz’ style, backed by his album Kind of Blue, the success and praise of which has gained the album musical immortality. By 1967, Miles remained one of the most prominent jazz icons. However, the 60’s were ‘brewing’ and there was a huge influx of new musical styles that Miles Davis was not ignorant of. Saxophonist Wayne Shorter is quoted saying that at this time Miles was “…looking for something with more traction.”  At this point Miles was already being influenced by the R&B sounds of the decade; in addition, his soon-to-be second wife, Betty Mabry, introduced Miles to even more new sounds and fashions of the time. Miles was inspired to discard his fitted suits for the technicolor garb of the decade, and play the records of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone.  With his 1969 release of In a Silent Way, a divergent and experimental fusion album, Miles had now almost completely alienated the jazz realm with his off-beat musical reinvention. However, In a Silent Way was only a prequel to Davis’s new style. In 1970 Miles would take a huge step forward, releasing his monumental, avant-garde album Bitches Brew

Bitches Brew was unique in that it reinvented not only how music at the time sounded, but also how it was made. Miles Davis pulled out all the stops for this album, convening an ensemble of 12 renowned jazz musicians. Miles Davis recruited some musicians who played on his In a Silent Way sessions: Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, John McLaughlin, and Dave Holland. Davis also added Jack DeJohnette, Harvey Brooks, Lenny White, Don Alias, Jim Riley (“Jumma Santos”), and Bennie Maupin. A thirteenth member, Larry Young, would also join for the recording of “Pharaoh’s Dance.” Almost all of the musicians involved in the Bitches Brew recordings would continue on to their own prosperous careers.

For Bitches Brew, Davis aimed to expand his work, both in the length of the tracks and the number of musicians: he wanted a more complex, larger-scale work. Among his musicians, Miles Davis had on his roster two bassists, two drummers, three electric keyboardists, and a bass clarinet player: the instrumentation on its own was something to be recognized. Before going into Columbia’s studios for three days of recording, the group rehearsed for the sessions by only by sharing small sketches with one another. The night before the first day of recording, they only practiced the first half of the album’s title track! Miles Davis certainly took on a peculiar approach for the recordings of Bitches Brew. His method was to present the musicians with sketches they had never seen before while they were in the studio, and keep the tape rolling at all times while the musicians played and improvised together. On describing the recording sessions, drummer Jack DeJohnette said: “As the music was being played…Miles would get new ideas…This was the beautiful thing about it…One thing fed the other…The recording of Bitches Brew was a stream of creative musical energy…The creative process was being documented on tape, with Miles directing the ensemble like a conductor an orchestra.”  As the tape kept recording in the studio, Miles Davis would cue musicians in and out, driving the development of the group’s current groove. While the musicians played, Miles would write something down for one person to play or them to play various sounds that Davis was hearing: in this way the musicians were able to all come together. In Miles Davis’s own words about the first day in the studio: “that recording was…a living composition.”

However with so many hours of recordings, much of the album’s work was spent in live production and post-production: Teo Macero, who had also produced In a Silent Way, took on the job for Bitches Brew. Macero let Miles have a free hand in the studio and encouraged him to use electronic equipment. Likewise, Teo Macero says he “had a carte blanche to work with the material.” Macero, like Davis, wanted the recordings to be spontaneous and natural. Macero would put tracks together and take them to Miles, who would either approve or disapprove of the work. However, Macero’s work went beyond just mixing the tracks. Teo Macero employed his own creativity not only by cutting and pasting session clips together, but also by editing tiny tape segments to create completely new musical themes. The tape editing for the first two tracks on Bitches Brew, “Pharoah’s Dance” and “Bitches Brew” were made with incredibly complex tape editing. “Pharoah’s Dance” was only completed after a hefty 17 edits; it is now renowned for its opening theme, which was created in post-production by Teo Maceo who would repeat loops of the same tape fragments; Maceo also used this ‘tape fragment’ method in other parts of the song, repeating even only one-second-long clips. Additionally, Teo Macero expanded his horizons on Bitches Brew by employing studio effects like reverb, echo, slap, and tape delay. Macao’s music production innovations had far-reaching influences on music, just like Bitches Brew itself. However, production didn’t overpower the instrumentation of the album in any way. Macao perfectly placed his influence on the album in a way that would add another layer of complexity to the album’s sound, as well as tighten up the 12-piece ensemble’s improvisation so that each detail would be able to stand out.

Bitches Brew was released on March 30, 1970. On finally hearing the fully mastered album, the session members were astonished by the results of their efforts and by the production. As drummer Lenny White put it, “…once the three days were over we…listened to all the unedited tapes…Half a year later a record came out that was totally different, because they’d taken the front end of one tune and put that in the middle and so on.”In the same vein, electric pianist Joe Zawinul recalled not understanding or even enjoying the recording sessions at the time, but being blown away by the remarkable album when it was released. But it’s exactly this wide-eyed vision and spontaneity in the studio that distinguishes Miles Davis as a musical innovator, and Bitches Brew as a landmark album. Perhaps Miles’s greatest feat in the making of Bitches Brew is that he was a leader to his musicians and producers by encouraging their freedom in the studio. This approach truly speaks volumes towards Davis’s character and trust in his fellow musicians. This quote from Dave Holland gives due credit to Miles: “…when you put together improvised music, you’re dealing with musicians and their approach and style of playing. One of the things I learned from Miles is that you don’t come in with a fixed vision. The vision is there, but it is not finished.” This is exactly what Miles Davis wanted and achieved with Bitches Brew. The album opened up an unknown style of music by allowing each musician to individually contribute to a part of Davis’s vision. Not to mention, Miles constantly stirs the whole Bitches Brew record with his soulful and unparalleled trumpet.

-Review by Sara Merker