Miles Davis: Forty Years of Freedom

The legacy of Bitches Brew

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Miles Davis circa 1970

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At 10 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 18, 1969, Jimi Hendrix finished up the final set at the Woodstock Music & Arts Festival with “Hey Joe,” an old blues he transformed from a weary lament into a triumphant, space-age swagger of ricocheting, buzzing notes. Four tunes earlier, Hendrix had transformed “The Star-Spangled Banner” even more radically, filling the anthem with guitar sounds that mimicked the bombs and screams of a Vietnam battlefield even as it staked the African-American guitarist’s claim on his own nation. The crowd had dwindled over the long night from half a million to about 100,000, but the mud-splattered diehards were witnessing the narrowing of the gap between rock ’n’ roll’s amplified song form and jazz’s instrumental improvisation.

Twenty-four hours later that gap narrowed even more. At 10 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 19, Miles Davis assembled a group of musicians in Columbia Records’ Studio B in Manhattan to record the music that would become Bitches Brew. Hendrix’s Woodstock band, Gypsy Sun & Rainbows, had included electric guitar, electric bass, drums and two percussionists. Davis’ musicians included all that plus a second drummer, two keyboardists, an acoustic bassist, trumpeter, saxophonist and bass clarinetist. Both bands were biracial and similarly attired: headbands, fringe, bellbottoms, leather vests, scarves, jeans and other trappings of 1969 bohemia. As guitarist John McLaughlin, bassist Harvey Brooks and keyboardists Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul plugged in their instruments and fiddled with their amplifier dials, it seemed that this session would not sound at all like Kind of Blue.

And yet, in a strange way, it did. While Davis’ choice of instrumentation was moving toward Hendrix’s, he was moving even further away from the kind of song form the guitarist embraced. The pieces of paper that the trumpeter passed out to the musicians contained mere sketches of the music with few chord changes, some basslines and minimalist melodic material. As on his 1959 masterpiece, Davis was providing a starting point, a feel and lots of open space for his handpicked cast to fill. The sonic colors were different and so were the rhythms, but the modal approach was very similar. Bitches Brew was no more a rock album than Porgy and Bess was a classical album or Sketches of Spain was a flamenco album. The distance between jazz and rock may have lessened, but the two genres hadn’t quite fused. “In whatever form he used, Miles was always Miles,” argues McLaughlin. “Kind of Blue used concepts invented by Miles, Gil Evans and Bill Evans, but Miles integrated all the elements in a completely personal way, as he did with the Hispanic/flamenco cultures on Miles Ahead. Miles had already started the ‘fusion’ movement, if you will, with these albums in 1957 to ’59. With Bitches Brew he integrated the elements that were available, but again he did it in a completely new way. You can say that the instruments and rhythms in the three recordings are different, but the approach is the same. You can hear in Bitches Brew phrasing that Miles was already using in 1957. It’s just a different form.”

Four decades have passed since Bitches Brew was released in 1970, and Columbia/Legacy Records is marking the occasion with a new box set, Bitches Brew: 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition. The set includes two CDs containing the landmark recording in its original eight-track studio mix plus alternate takes and single versions, a 180-gram vinyl replica of the original double-album, a DVD of a 1969 Copenhagen concert, an audio CD of a 1970 Tanglewood performance, a booklet and more memorabilia. Other than the six tracks from the original album, the new set doesn’t overlap at all with the company’s 1998 four-CD box set, The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions. (A Legacy Edition is also available, and includes the two CDs of Bitches Brew material and the Copenhagen DVD.)

Especially revealing is the DVD of the Nov. 4, 1969 concert, which took place in Denmark after Bitches Brew was recorded but before it was released. The 69-minute set includes three songs from the album plus five more in the same style. What’s fascinating is the way Jack DeJohnette, looking all 1969 in his ribbed brown pullover, nappy afro and wispy chin hair, drives the band from his drum set. He was a frank admirer of rock drummers such as Ginger Baker and Mitch Mitchell, and his loud, rambunctious attack bears a superficial resemblance to theirs.

But as the set goes on, it’s obvious that he’s not as interested in a driving 4/4 pattern as they were. Instead he seems to be soloing constantly, a tumbling turbulence of drum combinations, marking the beat not so much with particular snare shots as with crests in the waves of his sound. He sounds less indebted to rock than to free-jazz drummers such as Ed Blackwell, Rashied Ali and Andrew Cyrille, or postbop-era heavyweights like Elvin Jones and Tony Williams, his predecessor in Davis’ band. “A drummer can make or break a band,” DeJohnette asserts today. “A drummer who fires up a band can push them to play something they might not play otherwise. As a piano player myself I know what that means. On those live dates we were just a quintet rather than the all-star cast of players on the record. We were exploring the music live every night and taking it as far as we could. You had just that one chance to do it; that was the fun aspect.”

But whereas the fiery Williams found himself countered by the cool elegance of Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter, DeJohnette was allied with the equally blistering Chick Corea and Dave Holland in Copenhagen. On the DVD program, Corea, a blue headband around his long brown hair, sits behind a Fender Rhodes, whose speaker cabinet makes the instrument appear as a sort of spinet piano. He plays percussive patterns that rise into stabbing statements, echoing the apexes of DeJohnette’s drumming. And Holland, a nimbus of orange-red curls and a beard around his boyish face, attacks his acoustic upright with the same restlessness.

Except for the ballad feature “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” the rhythm section never stops churning; it’s as if all three of them are soloing non-stop. Davis, wearing a multi-colored patchwork vest over a bright pink shirt, and Wayne Shorter, wearing a brown leather vest over a blue shirt, follow the lead of the young rhythm section. The two horn players respond with sharp cries; short, squiggly phrases punctuated by pauses. “He gave us a lot of room in the music,” Holland recalls, “and we took these outrageous liberties. When any of us soloed, we went in all kinds of directions. In Europe, there were times when we’d all take out flutes and play them. Or Chick would play drums while Jack played piano. We were experimenting with Echoplex, wah-wah and every new device that was out there. We were listening to everything—Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Jimi, Cream, electronic music. Miles made room for it all in his music, which was great.”

The rest of this article appears in the September 2010 issue of JazzTimes.

Originally published in September 2010

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