Jazz Classics | Miles Davis – Bitches Brew

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30 March 1970 provided the music world with one of the most provocative and extraordinary album ever recorded. It's Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew".

Since its release on 30 March 1970, Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” has gone from a largely misunderstood project to being the album recognised as the progenitor of the jazz-rock sound, as well as a major influence on the evolvution of of rock and funk in wider consciousness.

“Bitches Brew” marked Miles’ continuing experimentation with electric instruments that he had first established on his previous album, the acclaimed “In a Silent Way”, released in 1969. With instruments such as the electric piano and guitar, Davis departed from traditional jazz rhythms in favour of loose, rock-influenced arrangements centred around improvisational techniques.

The music on Bitches Brew is both provocative and extraordinary. For Miles Davis’ career it meant a point of no return from the musical direction he had first initiated with the recording of “Circle in the Round” in December of 1967. Until August of 1969 he had remained close enough to the jazz aesthetic and to jazz audiences to allow for a comfortable return into the jazz fold. But the ferocity and power that this album carried created a momentum that was impossible to flip into reverse. The hypnotic grooves, rooted in rock and African music, heralded a dramatic new musical universe that gained Miles a new audience and propelled him into a new stratosphere as a musician.

Miles Davis – Bitches Brew (Live In Copenhagen, 1969)

The recording’s enormous influence on the jazz music scene was bolstered by the fact that almost all the musicians involved progressed to high-profile careers in their own right. Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter (with percussionist Airto Moreira) were involved in Weather Report, Herbie Hancock and Bennie Maupin set up Mwandishi, John McLaughlin (with Billy Cobham) created Mahavishnu Orchestra and Chick Corea founded Return to Forever with Lenny White.

By January 1969, Davis’ core working band had stabilised around Wayne Shorter on soprano saxophone, Dave Holland on bass, Chick Corea on electric piano, and Jack DeJohnette on drums. For his next studio album, Davis brought in former band members Tony Williams on drums as he wished to use his style and Herbie Hancock on additional electric piano as they had previously agreed to work with Davis on studio recordings. In the following month, the six were joined by Austrian keyboardist Josef Zawinul after Davis had called him and asked to bring musical ideas for the group and English guitarist John McLaughlin, who had been in the United States for less than two weeks to join The Tony Williams Lifetime before Davis asked him to attend the recording session. 

Although Davis’ live performances and recent albums Miles in the Sky (1968) and Filles de Kilimanjaro (1968) had indicated his stylistic shift towards electric instruments and jazz fusion, In a Silent Way featured a full-blown electric approach by Davis. It has been regarded by music writers as the first of Davis’s fusion recordings, while marking the beginning of his “electric” period. It is also the first recording by Davis that was largely constructed by the editing and arrangement of producer Teo Macero, whose editing techniques have incorporated elements of classical sonata form in Davis’ recordings for In a Silent Way.

Sonata Forms: a musical structure consisting of three main sections: an exposition, a development, and a recapitulation. It has been used widely in classical composition since the middle of the 18th century.

Both tracks on the album consist of three distinct parts that could be thought of as an exposition, development, and recapitulation, with the first and last third of each track being the same piece.

By August 1969, Davis gathered his band for a rehearsal, one week prior to the booked recording sessions. As well as his five-piece, they were joined by Zawinul, McLaughlin, Larry Young, Lenny White, Don Alias, Juma Santos, and Bennie Maupin. Davis had written simple chord lines, at first for three pianos, which he expanded into a sketch of a larger scale composition. He presented the group with these “musical sketches” and told them they could play anything that came to mind as long as they play off of his chosen chord. That was it.

“It was like an orchestra, and Miles was our conductor. We wore headphones. We had to be able to hear each other. There were no guests at that session. No photos allowed. But there was one guest that nobody talked about, Max Roach. All live recording, no overdubs. 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., for three days.”

Lenny White

Perhaps its most important innovation was rhythmic in nature. The rhythm section used for this recording consisted of two bassists (one playing bass guitar, the other double bass), two to three drummers per track, two to three electric piano players, and a percussionist – all playing at the same time. Additionally, nlike most jazz records of the time, the recorded music laid down by each ensemble was then significantly edited in post-production. Short sections were spliced together to create longer pieces, and various effects were applied to the recordings. Bitches Brew not only became a controversial classic of musical innovation, it also became renowned for its pioneering use of studio technology.

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.”

Taken from “The Making of Bitches Brew”. by Paul Tingen and Enrico Merlin.

Selling more than one million copies since it was released, Bitches Brew was viewed by some writers in the 1970s as what spurred jazz’s renewed popularity with mainstream audiences that decade. This led to other fusion records that “refined” Davis’ new style of jazz and sold millions of copies, including Head Hunters by Herbie Hancock and George Benson’s 1976 album Breezin’.

The Penguin Guide to Jazz called Bitches Brew “one of the most remarkable creative statements of the last half-century, in any artistic form.” In 2003, the album was ranked number 94 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.


Bitches Brew

Released30 March 1970
Recorded19-21 August 1969
StudioColumbia Studio B (NYC)
GenreJazz Fusion, Jazz Rock
Length94:11
LabelColumbia
ProducerTeo Macero

Musicians

Miles DavisTrumpet
Wayne ShorterSoprano Sax
Benny MaupinBass Clarinet
Joe ZawinulPiano
Chick CoreaPiano
John McLaughlinGuitar
Dave HollandBass
Harvey BrooksBass
Lenny WhiteDrums
Jack DeJohnetteDrums
Don AliasCongas
Juma SantosShaker, Congas
Larry YoungPiano
Billy CobhamDrums
Airto MoreiraPercussion, Cuica
Check the full credits for ensemble per track here.

Tracklisting

No.TitleWriter(s)Length
Side One
1.Pharoah’s DanceJoe Zawinul20:05
Side Two
2.Bitches BrewMiles Davis26:59
Side Three
3. Spanish KeyMiles Davis17:29
4.John McLaughlinMiles Davis04:26
Side Four
5.Miles Ruins The Voodoo DawnMiles Davis14:04
6.Sanctuary Wayne Shorter10:52
“Feio” written by Wayne Shorter was added for a 1999 re-issue.

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