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Miles Davis – Bitches Brew – Classic Music Review

blah blah blah . . . so many ideas it leaves an unfocused impression . . . blah blah blah . . . not quite compelling . . .  blah blah blah  . .  . part and parcel of the commercial crap that was beginning to choke and bastardize the catalogs of such dependable companies as Blue Note and Prestige . . . blah blah blah  . . . essentially just a big trash-out for Miles . . . blah blah blah . . . Davis was firmly on the path of the sellout . . . blah blah blah . . . subtle shades of Latin and funk polyrhythm that never gather the requisite fervor . . . blah blah blah . . . just silly, out of tune and bad . . . blah blah blah . . . profoundly flawed . . . blah blah blah . . . unfocused, rhythmically redundant, regressive work, one missing the true elements of jazz . . . . blah blah blah . . . gigantic torso of burstingly noisy music that absolutely refuses to resolve itself under any recognized guide . . . blah blah blah . . . obsessed with remaining young and therefore willing to follow any trend in pop music . . . blah blah blah . . . Davis is now a surly sellout who wants his success to seem like a heroic battle against the white world . . . blah blah blah . . . Gone is the elegant and exigent Afro-American authenticity of the likes of Ellington, at ease in the alleys as well as in the palace, replaced by youth culture vulgarity that vandalizes the sweep and substance of Afro-American life . . . oh for fuck’s sake.

We can thank Robert Christgau, Donald Fagen, Stanley Crouch, Martin Williams, Bob Rusch and The Penguin Guide to Jazz for providing us with fresh examples of paradigm paralysis; the old Copernicus-Galileo earth-around-the-sun hoo-hah was getting rather tiresome. In case you were asleep or outside smoking a joint when you should have been attending that Philosophy class, paradigm paralysis is “the inability or refusal to see beyond the current models of thinking.” It is similar to the Semmelweis reflex, “the reflex-like tendency to reject new evidence or new knowledge because it contradicts established norms, beliefs, or paradigms.”

I’d qualify the blah blah blah directed at Bitches Brew to be more refusal than inability and definitely more reflex-driven.

“Many critics had an investment in being adult, in resisting the rising tide of rock,” noted Miles Davis biographer John Szwed. Their paradigm defined jazz as sophisticated music in contrast to the unruly offerings of rock ‘n’ roll. Bitches Brew disrupted their orderly world, overtaxed their brains and threatened their livelihoods.

To make sense of the recording, listeners would have to abandon their belief in the improvised solo as the apotheosis of jazz. Form would have to be rethought, suspending the weight put on balanced, narrative-like compositions that resolve to well-made endings. If there was form in Bitches Brew, it was through-composed [not based on repeated sections or verses, with different music for each verse], repetitive but slowly unfolding—“like Chopin,” said Teo (Macero).

Szwed, John. So What: The Life of Miles Davis. New York, NY, Simon & Schuster, 2002. p. 297

The controversy in the jazz community had to do with the perception that Miles Davis was cheapening jazz by introducing rock elements into his music, a brouhaha that began when Miles released In a Silent Way. “Rock critics thought In a Silent Way sounded like rock, or at least thought Miles was nodding in their direction, and practically wet themselves with joy. Jazz critics, especially ones who didn’t listen to much rock, thought it sounded like rock too, and they reacted less favorably,” noted Phil Freeman in The Electric Music of Miles Davis. “Less favorably” may have been the reaction to In a Silent Way, but the response to Bitches Brew can only be described as “the dinosaurs went apeshit.”

I find these reactions extremely puzzling, for two reasons.

First, “nodding in their direction” is an accurate description of the rock content of both albums. If you were to buy Bitches Brew on the premise that it would be something like Miles Davis meets Bob Seger, you would find yourself sorely disappointed. Yes, sometimes the drums accentuate the backbeat and yes, John McLaughlin plays the electric guitar on both albums, and yes, Miles brought in Harvey Brooks to play electric bass on Bitches Brew—but all those little nods hardly add up to a rock ‘n’ roll extravaganza:

Miles never thought of Bitches Brew as rock. When accused of hiring a rock guitarist, John McLaughlin, he rightly answered, “I didn’t use John as a rock player . . . but for special effects. John’s no more a rock player than I’m a rock trumpet player.”

Szwed, John. So What: The Life of Miles Davis. New York, NY, Simon & Schuster, 2002. p. 297

What is true is that Miles had begun to explore rock and funk music in the period leading up to his fusion albums and became enamored with the full-bottom sound coming from James Brown, Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix. He was particularly fascinated with Hendrix:

Miles asked Hendrix’s producer, Alan Douglas, to set up some kind of project between them. According to Douglas, ‘Miles wanted to work with Jimi very badly.”

‘Jimi was probably the only musician Miles could not fully understand. He couldn’t figure out where Jimi was coming from, because he wasn’t writing any music, he was just flowing. Bitches Brew was the result of Miles hanging out with Jimi for two years. Not that there wasn’t a mutual admiration, but Jimi had the contemporary edge and Miles was always reaching out for that.’

Szwed, p. 271

What Miles borrowed from Hendrix and others had little to do with form or style, but everything to do with the application of electric rock power to jazz music . . . something he picked up on when his then-wife Betty took him on a tour of the big New York discotheques:

At such volume, it was possible to feel sound even deeper in your body, as when an acupuncturist uses needles with an electric charge. It was a new way of feeling about music. There, in a flash, he saw the problems of balance in acoustic groups he had been putting up with, such as the pianist having to play with the loud pedal down in order to be heard . . . Jazz records had begun to sound the same way to him—sonically thin and weak, especially when compared to what he was hearing in rock.

Szwed, p. 287

Second, it’s pretty obvious that jazz aficionados were either living in an elitist cul-de-sac or had their heads up their asses and remained stubbornly oblivious to the fundamental gestalt of the Sixties—progress. In music, progress manifested itself in the curiosity of Western musicians who experimented with genre-mingling and the exploration of “foreign” musical traditions. Folk-rock was an early example, and as we know, traditional folkies went into paradigm shock when Dylan went electric. Country-rock soon followed (though you can easily argue that the country-rock link existed long before Gram Parsons). The Beatles introduced the West to the sitar in “Norwegian Wood,” and one could argue that the first song to qualify as “raga rock” was “Within You, Without You” (though you probably didn’t get the rock aspect until Liam Gallagher convinced his brother to transform it into a rock-heavy arrangement). Meanwhile, the jazz community went into a collective hissy fit when in 1967 Gabor Szabo announced, “Jazz as we’ve known it is dead” and completely failed to appreciate that Miles Davis was offering a path to rebirth when he ventured into what came to be known as jazz fusion. Miles wasn’t the originator of jazz fusion (several others can make that claim), but as a jazz icon, his initial explorations into fusion drew the most attention and condemnation.

The recording and post-production processes used for Bitches Brew proved to be as influential (and as controversial) as the music itself. As Miles was determined to jack up the power factor, he essentially took the core working band he used for gigs and on In a Silent Way and doubled the percussive elements: two drummers, two bassists (one acoustic, one electric) and two electric pianists (three on “Pharaoh’s Dance”). To further strengthen the bottom, he brought in Bernie Maupin to play bass clarinet. This unusual lineup certainly gave Miles, McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter (soprano sax) and the two pianists (Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul) solid ground on which to solo.

Which raises the question, “Solo to what?” To which Miles might have replied, “Oh, we’ll figure it out as we go.”

Except for Wayne Shorter’s “Sanctuary,” Miles had little to offer the ensemble in terms of specifics other than a couple of sketches and proto-pieces that the core band had tinkered with during gigs. Sometimes he’d tell them to play anything they wanted as long as they stuck to a specific chord; sometimes he’d say “play this sound” or point at one of the musicians to inspire him to enter the fray. While this may sound like a recipe for chaos, Miles’ approach was entirely deliberate. His vision embraced improvisation as opposed to “prearranged shit.”

“As the music was being played, as it was developing, Miles would get new ideas,” Jack DeJohnette [drums] commented. “This was the beautiful thing about it. He’d do a take, and stop, and then get an idea from what had just gone before, and elaborate on it, or say to the keyboards, ‘Play this sound.’ One thing fed the other. It was a process, a kind of spiral, a circular situation. The recording of Bitches Brew was a stream of creative musical energy. One thing was flowing into the next, and we were stopping and starting all the time, maybe to write a sketch out, and then go back to recording. The creative process was being documented on tape, with Miles directing the ensemble like a conductor an orchestra.”

Paul Tengen, “Miles Davis and the Making of Bitches Brew.” Jazz Times.

Dave Holland, who handled the acoustic bass, remembered “Miles always gave the minimum amount of instructions. Usually he’d let you try and find something that you thought worked, and if it did, then that would be the end of it. His approach was that if he needed to tell someone what to do, he had the wrong musician.” (Tengen, Jazz Times.)

Meanwhile, the tape was running continuously, capturing every snippet of music and Miles’ spoken suggestions. The baseline recording of Bitches Brew took three days, with the ensemble working three or four hours a day, generating about nine hours of music. Out of that nine hours, just over an hour and a half appear in the finished product.

Nine hours with all that starting and stopping meant that the post-production would take quite a bit longer, with producer Teo Macero and engineer Ray Moore burning the midnight candle for about six weeks. In the end, the methods and results of post-production proved to be as influential (and controversial) as the music itself:

Bitches Brew also pioneered the application of the studio as a musical instrument, featuring stacks of edits and studio effects that were an integral part of the music. Miles and his producer, Teo Macero, used the recording studio in radical new ways, especially in the title track and the opening track, “Pharaoh’s Dance”. There were many special effects, like tape loops, tape delays, reverb chambers and echo effects. Through intensive tape editing, Macero concocted many totally new musical structures that were later imitated by the band in live concerts. Macero, who has a classical education and was most likely inspired by ’50s and ’60s French musique concrète experiments, used tape editing as a form of arranging and composition. “Pharaoh’s Dance” contains 19 edits – its famous stop-start opening is entirely constructed in the studio, using repeat loops of certain sections. Later on in the track there are several micro-edits: for example, a one-second-long fragment that first appears at 8:39 is repeated five times between 8:54 and 8:59. The title track contains 15 edits, again with several short tape loops of, in this case, five seconds (at 3:01, 3:07 and 3:12). Therefore, Bitches Brew not only became a controversial classic of musical innovation, it also became renowned for its pioneering use of studio technology.

Paul Tengen and Enrico Merlin, “The Making of Bitches Brew

The bit of engineering that is most noticeable from the get-go is Teo Macero’s use of space. Each individual musician had been close-miked to minimize bleed; when Teo pasted all those contributions together he managed to give each of the players a discrete spot in the sound field through a combination of precise panning and reverb. Instead of two drummers fighting for attention, you can hear how their different rhythmic approaches complement each other. Instead of the electric bass drowning out the double bass, you hear both contributions with beautiful clarity. The soloists are placed closer to the middle, with Miles dominating the front and center, the spot where most lead vocalists earn their living.

We’ll consider the other bits of studio wizardry as we move through each track, but while I acknowledge the power of Miles’ vision, the superb contributions of the marvelous musicians he managed to assemble and Teo Macero’s inventive production techniques, there is one aspect of Bitches Brew that I latched onto the first time I heard the album and remains my focal point when I listen to the album to this day.

Miles Davis was having fun! Moody, surly, grumpy, serious, super-cool with an understandable-chip-forever-on-his-shoulder Miles Davis was having the time of his life! He never played with such delightful ferocity and abandon as he did on Bitches Brew, and he found the role of orchestral conductor endlessly satisfying:

I would direct, like a conductor, once we started to play, and I would either write down some music for somebody or would tell him to play different things I was hearing, as the music was growing, coming together. While the music was developing I would hear something that I thought could be extended or cut back. So that recording was a development of the creative process, a living composition. It was like a fugue, or motif, that we all bounced off of. After it had developed to a certain point, I would tell a certain musician to come in and play something else. I wish we had thought of video-taping that whole session. That was a great recording session, man.

Davis, Miles; Troupe, Quincy (1990). Miles: The Autobiography. New York, NY. Simon & Schuster, 1990.

“I think it was a lot of fun for him, with his favorite musicians on their respective instruments,” recalled Jack DeJohnette. “It was different and it was fun.”

I’d advise you to keep that in mind as we explore the album. There’s a shitload of complicated music on Bitches Brew, and it’s easy to get lost trying to navigate through its many elaborate musical statements. Just forget about the notion of jazz as “serious music,” turn off your analytical mind, and as you float downstream, close your eyes and call up an image of Miles Davis smiling. Here—let me help:

Tom Palumbo from New York City, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

*****

The first two pieces are the lengthiest on the album, each taking up a full side of vinyl and both clocking in at over twenty minutes. “Pharaoh’s Dance” and “Bitches Brew” are also the tracks where the concept of “the studio as a musical instrument” was put to the test. Teo Macero devoted most of his time and effort shaping these two compositions.

While at first it may appear that neither piece has a recognizable shape, Paul Tengen noted in his analysis on Jazz Times that “It appears that Macero found part of his inspiration for his postproduction treatments on Bitches Brew in classical music.”

The English composer Paul Buckmaster pointed out that on “Pharaoh’s Dance” and “Bitches Brew” the producer created structures that have echoes of the sonata form that was at the heart of late-18th- and 19th-century instrumental music. The basic elements of the sonata form, employed by composers like Mozart and Beethoven, are an opening exposition with two themes, a middle section called a development (in which the exposition material is worked through in many variations), a recapitulation (which contains a repetition of the two themes of the exposition), and a final coda.

Without getting too deep into the arcane language of music composition, a “sonata” is a loosey-goosey term applied to instrumental works, one of several forms of musical composition that involve creating a balance between unity (involving the repetition of specific themes) and contrast (adding additional, contrasting themes). Note that if there’s any singing going on, it’s not a sonata but a cantata. Using those definitions and adding the exposition-development-recapitulation pattern to the mix, you can impress your friends by asking them the innocent question, “Did you know that ‘Toad’ by Cream is a sonata but ’21st Century Schizoid Man’ by King Crimson is a cantata?”

Check that. You may lose all your friends if you ask that question, and I’m certain you will never get laid again.

As we’re talking about jazz musicians here, the development phase is where they spend most of their time, and in both pieces you’ll hear multiple passages dedicated to development. If you want a blow-by-blow account describing the timing of the various segments, Paul Tengen provides one in his analysis. For those of you who just want to get on with it, the basics of sonata form can provide a road map to get you through what appears to be a very twisty route: listen for the main themes in the first few minutes, immerse yourself in the inventiveness on display in the development sections and feel the joy when you stumble upon recapitulation—which might occur in the middle, three-quarters through or near the end (in other words, you’re not going to hear the big “ta-da” that typically closes a symphony).

“Pharaoh’s Dance” is in many ways the perfect gateway to the revolutionary nature of Bitches Brew because it introduces many of the heretical deviations that appear in all the remaining tracks.

Joe Zawinul set the piece to E Dorian mode, but don’t let that freak you out. “Eleanor Rigby,” “Purple Haze,” “Oye Como Va” and “Scarborough Fair” also employ E Dorian. What it means in practical terms is that the ensemble pretty much sticks to four chords: E major and minor; B major and minor. All the pieces on Bitches Brew employ relatively simple chording.

The absence of the complex chords that dominated modern jazz compositions raised another sticking point for some critics, according to Victor Svorinich in an essay featured on All About Jazz:

One criticism that always followed Bitches Brew is the lack of linear development within the solos. Certain critics felt that with its straight rock rhythms and sparse number of chords, the music becomes dull, too open-ended, and loses structure. Jazz enthusiasts admire the complexity in sound that dense chord progressions offer, where a soloist would have to constantly weave through changing harmonies. John Litweiler, in his lukewarm appraisal of Bitches Brew argued that rock beats and modes that emphasize color and texture over harmonic structure diminish the depth of improvisation.” The gravitational pull of the modern rock beat upon soloists’ accenting discourages anything but the simplest kinds of linear development.” In other words, without chord changes and highly stylized jazz rhythms, the decorative elements such as mood and color become the highest common denominator.

Boo fucking hoo. The irony of jazz critics attempting to place strict boundaries around the improvisational and exploratory essence of jazz will forever blow my mind. Once you get past the shock of freshness and listen to “Pharaoh’s Dance” a few times, it becomes painfully obvious that the piece is primarily a rhythmic composition and when they’re not soloing or providing counterpoint, all the players contribute to the strengthening of the rhythm. Bitches Brew is a work that places greater value on rhythm, mood, color and texture than melody (“linear development”) and harmony. Nothin’ wrong with that—except it was “different” at the time.

Referring to Tengen’s analysis of the sonata structure, the two basic themes of the two-and-a-half minute exposition appear at 00:03 (Zawinul on electric piano-right with Maupin providing counterpoint on bass clarinet) and 00:46 (Corea on electric piano-left). Jack DeJohnette heads the rhythm section with quick light beats on the right, soon complemented with a nice bit of double bass from Holland and sweet cymbal work from Lenny Davis on the left. The magical sound created by cascading notes from the electric pianos contrasts beautifully with Maupin’s groaning bass clarinet and McLaughlin’s initial forays. Miles brings the exposition to a close at 2:32 with a light and mellow solo, cueing the first development phase.

The initial period of development finds Miles and Maupin testing the waters in a series of brief call-and-response vamps. Meanwhile, the rhythm section welcomes Don Alias on congas while beginning a gradual build in volume and intensity and more pronounced attention to the backbeat beneath the polyrhythms. This is where my hips and ass kick into gear and where Miles moves from tentative to assertive in a take-no-prisoners solo. He gives way to Maupin’s rough touch on bass clarinet, a solo supported at first by the cascading pianos riffing on the basic themes and then by McLaughlin’s high-treble answering riffs. Things start to quiet down at about the eight-minute mark . . . then at 8:29, we hear an ominous-sounding chord that marks a break from the sonata structure. Tengen refers to this passage as a “dramatic section” patched together by Teo Macero consisting of tape-delayed Miles and a repeating tape loop. My guess is that Teo had two pretty strong but distinct development takes to work with and decided he needed an intermission to separate the two.

The foundation of the second development phase at 9:01 is a clearer commitment to a Latin-tinged funk beat that validates the rhythmic emphasis and the use of the word “dance” in the title. The solos in this passage are more complex; Miles, Maupin and Wayne Shorter follow the rising tide of the rhythm section and blow with a vengeance; McLaughlin’s guitar piece mixes rough tones with lightning-quick chromatic riffs that lean towards the chaotic. The music eases up at the 15:20 mark, where we’re treated to a brief duet featuring bass and electric piano that serves as the lead-in to the main theme played by Miles at 16:38, which Tengen identifies as the coda (though I think “fade” is the more apt term in this case, as the music fades out in about four minutes). I would also identify the passage as a powerful reaffirmation of the rhythmic priority—the funk-backbeat emphasis is especially strong in the fade. Though Teo may have cheated by throwing an intermission into the mix, “Pharaoh’s Dance” meets all of the essential criteria of a sonata, but whatever you want to call it, there’s no question that the composition blends unity with exceptional diversity.

“Bitches Brew” was the second track to receive the full Macero treatment, but his edits weren’t quite as effective in this case. To be fair, he didn’t have much to work with. “Bitches Brew” was the first track recorded and it sounds like the players needed more of a warmup to get into the groove and synchronize their collaborative intent. According to Szwed, “‘Bitches Brew’ was intended to be a five-part suite but only the first and second parts were kept for the record.” The third piece became the track “John McLaughlin” and the other two were set aside. The strongest segment in “Bitches Brew” is the exposition, opening with an uneven double bass line suddenly interrupted by the crash of an eerie, dissonant chord (Cm with an added B note) that conjures up images of the weird sisters from Macbeth cooking up a brew in a deep dark forest. That pattern is repeated several times while Miles blows a series of clarion calls intensified by echo effects that serve as a warning of danger lurking nearby. The exposition is so strong that Teo repeats it twice (with some variation)—once beginning at 14:40 and then again in the closing 2:55. The problem lies entirely in the development stage, which never really comes together—you can hear the ensemble petering out just before the eight-minute mark, where Miles whispers “John” and McLaughlin steps in to rekindle some of the energy. The most enjoyable aspect of the development section is Miles himself, who blows with confident abandon. It seems like he knew where the piece should be going but some of the musicians weren’t entirely clear about where he wanted them to go.

“Spanish Key” has been identified by Italian jazz artist and Miles Davis expert Enrico Merlin as an attempt “to adapt the idea of ‘Flamenco Sketches’ to the musical experimentation of that time.” The two pieces are built around the same structural guideline: shifts in the tonal center are initiated by each soloist, providing a signal to the next soloist to get his butt into gear. Unlike “Flamenco Sketches,” “Spanish Key” moves at the speed of a freight train on its 17-minute ride. The rhythms are punctuated with an extended double-drum set/conga transition fill, also cued musically by the soloist. Miles takes the first solo, sometimes echoing the mournful tones from Sketches of Spain’s “Saeta” but more often in joyful, brighter movement up the scale. McLaughlin follows, ripping away in a fabulous combination of bursts, bends and rhythmic reinforcement. His piece ends when Miles inserts the main thematic phrase and turns it over to Shorter, who begins with due modesty before his fingers explore the entire range of the soprano saxophone. Shorter signals the rhythm section to launch the transitional fill, and Miles comes back with another thematic statement—and for a minute we’re not sure who’s going to step into the limelight, but the question is resolved when Corea and McLaughlin engage in a back-and-forth duet for a minute or so until Miles joins in the fun, toning things down a bit while reviving the tone of “Flamenco Sketches.” Tengen believes they should have ended the song at the 13-minute point, but I heartily disagree, as the last few minutes feature spread-the-joy rhythmic energy, cascading piano and Bernie Maupin’s solo. His bass clarinet adds a touch of Morocco to “Spanish Key,” a more than appropriate addition to the texture of the piece. If you’re introducing someone to Bitches Brew who might get a bit squeamish when faced with uncertainties of free improvisation, I suggest you ignore the track order and start off with “Spanish Key.”

As noted previously, “John McLaughlin” is a segment lifted from “Bitches Brew” and sanctioned as a separate track by Teo Macero. I have no problem with McLaughlin’s guitar work, no problem with the back-and-forth between McLaughlin and Corea, no problem with the delightfully mad drumming and I never have a problem with Bernie Maupin’s bass clarinet. The problem I have is that it sounds like an excerpt, in large part due to the lack of an appropriate introduction. This is going to sound weird, but the track feels lonely out there all by its lonesome. I think Teo should have listened to the Dead’s Anthem of the Sun or consulted with the band before making the edits—I am positive The Dead could have come up with a better solution.

“Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” would be my second choice for an introduction to those squeamish types. My thinking is this: get them into “this isn’t so bad” mode with “Spanish Key” and then hook them for life with “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down.” This is the track that displays the rhythmic emphasis of Bitches Brew most clearly and realizes Miles’ vision of enriching jazz with a stronger bottom. The most obvious contribution in that regard is the exceptionally strong bass line, a result of Dave Holland trading in his big acoustic bass for an electric model, thereby doubling up with Harvey Brooks on his electric bass to create an unbreakable floor. The drummers make a vital contribution as well, with Don Alias leaving his congas behind and taking a seat behind the kit, helping to drive the song with what Tengen called a “slow-burning, driving New Orleans drum groove” with DeJohnette responding with muscular counterrhythmic drum fills. The piece opens with due subtlety, the basses and Alias establishing the fundamental beat, supported by Maupin’s low growls. Miles takes the first solo, entering with blues clearly on his mind, bending the long notes and adding contrasting clipped notes in the rhythmic spaces before introducing a flutter that morphs into a blues-influenced flurry in the upper register as the rhythmic contributions intensify. McLaughlin takes over shortly after the four-minute mark with a tight solo that merges beautifully with the dominant rhythms, permitting himself to indulge in a display of fretboard mastery at top speed for a few precious seconds. Shorter enters with his mind on the blues as well, while Maupin sneaks in and provides some bottom in support of the soprano sax. Zawinul’s solo takes a slightly different path than the others, overwhelming the soundscape at times with too many runs up and down the keyboard that throw him out of sync with the base rhythm. It’s quite a relief when Miles returns for his grand finale and re-establishes the rhythmic connection, varying his attack between stutter-stop and bluesy bends, signaling a return to the comparatively quiet presentation of the introduction. Miles may have hated the title, but “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” is one damn sexy piece of music that conclusively proved his contention that jazz could handle a strong bottom.

“Sanctuary” is an “expressive and muscular” version of a Wayne Shorter piece recorded a couple of years before that would eventually appear on the compilation album Circle in the Round. The core of the debate over which version is better has to do with a perceived lack of subtlety in the Bitches Brew version in comparison to the original. While my opinion may be skewed by the fact that I heard the Bitches Brew version first, I think the original is subtle to the point of being boring, but I also think Miles and the boys went overboard with their irritatingly loud “enhancements” midway through the piece and ruined the sweet melancholy reflected in the original and in the first four minutes of the remake. Word on the street is that Miles asked Shorter to give him co-writing credit and Shorter refused, so Miles decided to mess with the piece and went a bit too far—all it needed was a little more muscle, not Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In defiance of the controversy, Bitches Brew became one of the most influential recordings in history. From Jazzwise:

At the time of its release in 1970 Bitches Brew’s influence was immediate, musicians who played on the session were empowered by the new spirit of the age; Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter went on to form Weather Report, John McLaughlin formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Chick Corea formed Return to Forever. Herbie Hancock formed the Headhunters, Joe Henderson recorded Black Is The Color, Larry Young recorded Lawrence of Newark, Donald Byrd recorded Electric Byrd and Santana recorded Lotus.

Today, there is no shortage of musicians basking in its aurora such as Cassandra Wilson’s Electric Miles; Henry Kaiser and Wadada Leo Smith’s Yo Miles; Bill Frisell’s Unspeakable; Ben Monder’s The Distance; and Craig Taborn’s Junk Magic. Other ensembles have been empowered by the spirit of Bitches Brew such as Bobby Previte’s Voodoo Orchestra, The Bitches Brew Band playing out of Boston, and David Fiuczynski’s Screaming Headless Torsos. It has also left its mark on popular culture – Aphex Twin, Tricky, Brian Eno, Can, Portishead, Flying Lotus, and Joni Mitchell have all cited the album as an influence while Radiohead’s OK Computer was directly inspired by it.

Thom Yorke got it right when he said, “It was building something up and watching it fall apart, that’s the beauty of it. It was at the core of what we were trying to do.” Creativity is often paired with the act of destruction—shattering old ways and means and replacing them with fresher perspectives and new insights. Contrary to the belief of the dinosaur critics, Miles and his ensemble did not destroy jazz but rebuilt it from the bottom up to give the genre a new lease on life.

Bitches Brew isn’t perfect, but the destructive-creative cycle can be a messy thing. What Bitches Brew conclusively proved is that the possibilities in music creation are limited only by a stubborn lack of imagination.

 

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