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The Enduring Appeal of “Bitches Brew”

miles davis

“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 with OK Computer.” Frontman Thom Yorke isn’t describing The White Album as his muse for Radiohead’s third album but rather Bitches Brew, Miles Davis’ impossibly complex, endlessly rich, sprawling double album. It was jazz which fused improvisation with electronic technique while asking its musicians to “keep it tight” before loosening up in the studio afterward. Just as John Lennon wanted to alienate listeners with the loop-oriented “Revolution 9” and the screams of internal suicide in “Yer Blues,” Miles had put together an album that left his own audience of jazz purists and enthusiasts alike confounded. But if this 90-minute avant -funk record scared many listeners on the first listen then it also hooked them for life on the second.

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Looking back, Bitches Brew is just as great, ambitious and worthy of reverence as The White Album. Every part of the album feels complete and deserving of inclusion. It also features a much more imaginative cover than the minimalist artwork that graced The Beatles: a gold fold of Afrofuturism, by German-born artist Mati Klarwein, who crafted a world in which cool surreal landscapes contained tableau of people coming together in various ways.

What’s inside the jacket sleeves is an interesting pairing of talents too as producer Teo Macero (who was well-versed in French avant-garde) and Davis himself (whose understanding of the trumpet seemed often tactile) composed all but two of the songs. The title track has an unfortunately dated name in 2018, but as a piece of music, the tune still delivers magic as a slow, haunting, hallowed, exciting piece of pulsating jazz. Psychedelic in parts, “Bitches Brew” contains passages of the French “Marseillaise” within it while drummers Lenny White and Jack DeJohnette mesmerize as they tower the song through dueling drum patterns. Davis’ trumpets on “Spanish Key” and “Pharaoh’s Dance” are densely populated with Miles’ powerful persona; even his non-appearance on the comparatively brief “John McLaughlin” is colored by his shadow.

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Visceral in clicks, fast cuts, and whispers, Bitches Brew is a moody masterpiece, an understandable favorite of those misery-makers in Radiohead. In an album that capitalizes on length (tracks average about twenty minutes), the record never feels too indulgent because it’s paced on beats with Miles audibly leading the band where they need to go next. Sparsity is the issue here: there are two drummers, two bassists, two keyboardists playing in synchronicity thirteen years before Sting would sing of that type of cohesion. To the Academy’s credit Bitches Brew was duly recognized with a Grammy for “Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album” in 1971 thereby proving that purist puritanical tastes weren’t going to influence the award-makers.

 

Free to use a variety of analog and taping devices, Miles embraced the chance to play with the levered length of Ravi Shankar’s The Sounds of India. There are slower drum clatters — as the album opens with a faux march beat; there are changes in tone and speed; there’s an erratic closer in “Sanctuary” culminating in screaming guitars and seductive keys. In its own way, Miles was testing the jazz album format as much as his pop counterparts The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and The Band. There’s a tribal immediacy similar to that heard on Led Zeppelin’s first three albums and a “Wall of Sound” rawer than anything Phil Spector ever achieved. Polyamorous or polyrhythmic? A case could be made for both. Ultimately, it’s foolish to try to pigeonhole Bitches Brew, which isn’t the outlier in Miles’ discography so much as its the crown jewel.

-Eoghan Lyng

Photo Credits: Miles Davis at North Sea Jazz Festival The Hague (the
Netherlands), 15 July 1984 courtesy of the National Archives of the
Netherlands.

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