Classic Album: Miles Davis - Bitches Brew

“Miles didn’t just play instruments - he played people.”
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Jazz had long stood at the forefront of groundbreaking music: pushing new ideas into popular culture, worshipping the beat, the rhythm, the groove which stood quite simply for the disenfranchised and the downtrodden.

Yet by the summer of 1969 jazz felt out of step with a rapidly changing world. The civil rights movement had caused huge ruptures to open up across America, and jazz musicians were struggling for a means to express those feelings. Sure, outcasts and mavericks such as Albert Ayler may have strived to turn the anger and beauty of the ’60s into sharps and flats, but compared to the action in the streets those were timidly written artistic manifestos striving to equal the ferocity of a Molotov cocktail. Something had to be done.

Miles Davis virtually defined modern jazz on his ‘Kind Of Blue’ album, but seemed content to sit the ’60s out. Forming his second great quintet the trumpeter taunted his critics - eager for a return to the hushed modal jazz of his 1959 set - by pushing bebop out into unreached territory. Yet still the St. Louis-born musician chafed at the safeguards put on his playing. Introduced to the music of Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone and James Brown by his then girlfriend Betty Davis, Miles began to focus on a new, intricate form of composition, which would test any conventional notion of jazz music.

Split into two segments, two sides of vinyl, ‘Bitches Brew’ was a powerful statement of intent from the very first note. With Bennie Maupin’s gargling bass clarinet rampaging around the groove, teenage drum prodigy Tony Williams lays down a beat that is one part Max Roach and one part James Brown. ‘Pharoah’s Dance’ is a dense work that sluices together free jazz with funk and rock, recalling the tribal rhythms of Africa yet with a defiantly futuristic feel. Dissonant, the album is a world apart from the smoky moonlit scenes of ‘Kind Of Blue’. This isn’t twilight but the deepest, darkest depths of midnight. Guitarist John McLaughlin spent his formative years trundling around the British R&B scene before focusing on his primary love: jazz. A capable bop player, it is his grounding in English beat which seems to come to the fore on the epic first track. Lightning quick solos give way to discordant passages, like The Animals gone feral or Cream gone sour.

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This is an excerpt from an article that appears in the May issue of Clash Magazine. Pick it up in stores from April 2nd. You can read the full issue online HERE and subscribe to Clash Magazine HERE.


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It is the second track in which Miles Davis really cuts loose. ‘Bitches Brew’ seethes and writhes as the trumpeter conjures up note after passionate note. Perhaps this is the key to the album’s longevity. Lacking the sheer velocity of bop counterpart Dizzy Gillespie, the trumpeter had developed a style which focused on very minimal melodies. By the time of ‘Bitches Brew’ this had been honed to almost ludicrous degrees. Two note passages are eked out over minutes, Miles Davis howling at the moon. Single notes are turned into entire orchestras, the musician burning up with a desire to find a new type of musical language.

The sheer density of the album is reflected in the cast list. Miles Davis uses only one saxophone and a single guitarist, choosing instead to rely on the power of an electrified group - but what a group. Five drummers and a percussionist cross rhythms to craft perhaps the deepest, blackest groove known to music. Two bass players hook together to shroud the drums in a little decency, like a loin cloth over an ancient Pharoah. Three piano players use the only recently invented electric instrument, bouncing chaotically from each other. At the centre of it all sits Miles Davis, the archetypal jazz shamen.

Miles didn’t just play instruments - he played people. Capable of bringing radically different musicians together into the same group, the trumpeter’s powers of persuasion were on a par with a medieval dictator. Few stepped out of line, even less spoke their mind. All were focusing on becoming a conduit for Davis’ musical vision. Jazz, rock, funk, classical are melted down in the boiling pot of his imagination, poured out in dream-like soliloquies that veer from fantasy to nightmare.

Yet it would be wrong to attribute the artistic success of ‘Bitches Brew’ to Miles alone. The album reeks of individuality, a microcosm of American society. Hell, that most African of grooves ‘Pharoah’s Dance’ was conjured by Joe Zawinul - an Austrian piano player tempted to American by the legacy of the bebop magicians. Often labelled as the beginning of Miles’ ‘blackest period’ - in reality the one that corresponds most to the odious term ‘Black Music’ - ‘Bitches Brew’ is in fact a rainbow of colour. From white to black, through almost every shade, the album’s multi-racial cast and challenging music pointed to a way forward not just for jazz but for America.

Words by Robin Murray

Miles Davis - ‘Bitches Brew’
Released: April 1970
Producer: Teo Macero

TRACKLIST
1. ‘Pharaoh’s Dance’
2. ‘Bitches Brew’
3. ‘Spanish Key’
4. ‘John McLaughlin’
5. ‘Miles Runs The Voodoo Down’
6. ‘Sanctuary’

MUSICIANS
Miles Davis - trumpet
Wayne Shorter - soprano saxophone
Bernie Maupin - bass clarinet
Joe Zawinul / Chick Corea / Larry Young - electric piano
John McLaughlin - electric guitar
Dave Holland / Harvey Brooks - bass
Tony Williams / Lenny White / Jack DeJohnette / Don Alias / Billy Cobham - drums

1970: IN THE NEWS
- Concorde makes its first supersonic flight.
- The Beatles officially split.
- Brazil beat Italy in the Word Cup Final.
- Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin die.

1970: THE ALBUMS
‘After The Goldrush’ - Neil Young
‘All Things Must Pass’ - George Harrison
‘Fun House’ - The Stooges
‘Workingman’s Dead’ - The Grateful Dead





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