A true jazz classic re-assessed...
'Bitches Brew' artwork

Can an album truly be a product of a particular period in time, and yet also be timeless? Miles Davis' classic jazz opus 'Bitches Brew' certainly comes close to achieving just that.

Late 1969 was a heady time, when rock and revolution seemed to go hand in hand, and a new musical freedom seemed to open up to all. Limitations - be they of genre, style, instrument or duration - were torn down in euphoric free-for-all, with even the most mainstream of musicians picking up new instruments and embarking on meandering adventures in improvisation and composition.

In jazz, the 'new thing' - better known as free jazz - had been gathering force since the late 50s thanks to early salvoes from Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor, with the highly politicised music becoming closely bonded to the civil rights movement erupting across the USA. Considering his stature as one of the foremost geniuses in jazz, it is perhaps surprising that Miles Davis was far from convinced by the braying, blaring atonality of the 'new thing', despite his constantly exploring nature.

The trumpeter was, however, acutely aware of the brave new directions being taken by black artists in the soul, funk and rock genres, with the influence of bands such as Sly and the Family Stone, Parliament/Funkadelic and Jimi Hendrix radically transforming his own music.

Starting fully with 1969’s 'In A Silent Way' - and crystallised completely across the four sides of vinyl that make up 'Bitches Brew' - Miles Davis would achieve something akin to what Bob Dylan did to folk in 1965, taking his music into new realms. Quite simply, Miles plugged in.

The first thing that strikes you when listening to the opening bars of opening track 'Pharaoh’s Dance' is the electric piano. Now a frequent component of jazz music, back in the late sixties the instrument was altogether more unusual. The effect of the electric guitar is similar - at least performed as it is here by John McLaughlin who, whilst restrained, still lets parcels of feedback, distortion and the odd robust solo creep into his performances.

Meanwhile, Dave Holland and Harvey Brooks alternate between the traditional upright bass and electric, further enhancing the subtle muscularity of tracks already bolstered by two drum kits. What’s particularly impressive is how so many extra textures, contrasts and instruments are added (on the title track there are no fewer than 12 musicians working in tandem) without the music losing any of its jazzy intricacy.

Fusion often fails to capture these moments in jazz, especially to describe Miles, but given the way hard edges and subtle details are so expertly folded together on 'Bitches Brew', it may not be so apposite after all.

The recording and assemblage of the tracks was remarkable in and of itself. Instead of traditional sessions with pre-composed and heavily rehearsed pieces, Davis opted to give his players a few hints on mood, tempo and chords, allowing the musicians to build the music intuitively - with an onus on listening to one another. Indeed, at certain times on 'Bitches Brew', you can actually hear Davis whispering instructions to the musicians.

In many ways, it’s an approach very close to the “jamming” so favoured by a lot of contemporaneous psychedelic rock band, albeit performed by some of the most skilled and nuanced jazz musicians around. There the comparison ends, however, as 'Bitches Brew' features extensive editing; various sections of the recordings spliced together, with the epic pieces generally made up of shorter sections all expertly woven together in a wonderful collage.

Despite this, tough, the whole album moves as a seamless whole, a never-ending, stretched out cosmic journey that is easily as rapturous and mesmerising as the best “trippy” albums put out at the time by Frank Zappa, Quicksilver Messenger Service or The Grateful Dead. And it’s a whole lot funkier too.

As a starting point, not just for Miles' own music but for the wider prism of popular music, 'Bitches Brew' is unequalled. Through singular conception and production it’s as experimental as the most abrasive free jazz, and acts as a blueprint for both fusion and the jazz-funk that Davis himself would lift to unparalleled heights on the the murky, gnostic slab of improvisation that is 'On The Corner'.

And, despite flummoxing traditional jazz fans and journalists alike, it went gold – indeed, the first gold record of Miles' career. 45 years on, 'Bitches Brew' is still as mysterious, psychedelic and addictive as ever.

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