CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Bitches Brew: 10 Musicians’ Perspectives

Fifty years after the release of Miles’ electric masterpiece, Craig Taborn, Gerald Cleaver, Brandee Younger, and more discuss its legacy

Cover of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew

In the latter half of the ’60s, Miles Davis was in the studio on the reg, recalibrating previous moves to render the parade of new possibilities filling his head. More and more, acoustic instruments were in the rearview mirror, piled by the side of a road that was disappearing quickly. Filles de Kilimanjaro and In a Silent Way were the first volleys of yet another emerging temperament. By the late summer of ‘69, he convened his largest squad yet, testing the waters with multiple keyboardists, bassists, and drummers—a swampy electric confab that gave trad-jazz tenets a hot foot while concocting an indelible atmosphere. Bitches Brew

JazzTimes readers know the impact of this album, released on March 30, 1970. It was a juggernaut that made a dent on the Billboard charts, expanded the trumpeter’s audience, moved him into rock & roll concert venues, and cemented his status as a wily experimentalist. In the jazz world, confusion and grousing ran hand in hand with hosannas and support. Miles and his producer Teo Macero, who creatively edited the ensemble’s live performances for the final presentation of Bitches Brew’s six tracks (delivered on a then-novel-for-jazz double album), were provocateurs breaking new ground. Columbia’s advertising campaign deemed the album “A Novel by Miles Davis.” Novel indeed. To celebrate this classic’s 50th anniversary, we chatted with 10 improvisers about its significance and lasting influence. 

 

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KASSA OVERALL

I went back and listened to it last night, and it’s funny how the ear evolves. It was like, “Yo, this album was extremely ahead of its time.” The whole concept of looping improvisation and chopping up samples definitely shed a light on hip-hop. Miles was the first artist doing that. When I was younger, I didn’t even know that part, but listening to it now, it almost sounds like they want you to notice. I can hear the air in the room when the loop point comes around. And it’s almost part of the music for me; I hear it as part of the rhythm. You have a chaotic improvisation, but at the point they loop, it gives it an anchor, like an arrangement, something to lean on. I’ve always known that’s what Teo Macero was doing, but I never really noticed it on an editing level like I do now. That’s exactly what I’m doing with my music. 

I once saw this picture of all the edit points that Miles and Teo agreed upon. It’s amazing. Because it shows how complex it is. Ten seconds from this tape, a minute from that one. And it was tape! Imagine how much work that was—grab two minutes of something and move it around. I do it now in Ableton, put the end at the beginning or whatever.

Gotta be honest: Bitches Brew isn’t my favorite Miles album, and that’s okay. But it’s one of the most innovative albums of all time. That he would do this when the concept didn’t already exist, it’s crazy. You think about being a musician/composer—it’s a whole other level when it exceeds composition and starts to experiment with the human psyche. The edits have a psychological implication. It shows you what to pay attention to, using the musicians and technology to move forward toward something that’s never been done before. That’s how great art is born. Bitches Brewis right now, a 2020 situation in a post-hip-hop world. It’s getting ready to be uncovered again. It’s still got more stuff to reveal.

 

STEVEN BERNSTEIN

These records … I mean, this is who I am. The funny thing is I got to Bitches Brew late because of who I am. [Multi-instrumentalist/composer] Peter Apfelbaum was our ringleader growing up in Berkeley, and we were definitely into the far-out shit. First concert I saw at the Keystone Korner was Eddie Harris, the second was Rahsaan [Roland Kirk], and then Peter turned me on to Cecil [Taylor] and the Art Ensemble [of Chicago] in the summer between eighth and ninth grade. Miles came through, but most Keystone Korner concerts were $8 and the Miles show was $15, so we didn’t go. 

Bitches Brew is like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young to us. It’s pop music. I don’t think I bought it until I got to NYC, in my twenties, and by the time I listened to it, it was “Oh yeah, this is cool, man, this beyond makes sense.” That’s why I said CSNY; I don’t mean it’s boring, I mean it’s so well-crafted. Archetypical, easy to listen to, totally grooving, EVERYBODY HAD A COPY OF IT. I put it on just now so I could re-remember it, and the first thing that hit me were all the drum stops. I realized how much that influenced me, even though I didn’t know it. But I’m always using drum stops in Sexmob. I tell drummers, “It’s so much better when you don’t play and then you come back in and the people go, ‘Oh my God, that sounds so good,’ you know?” I tell ’em, “I got the beat, it’s your job to play the drums.”

Early on in Facebook’s history, I get a message from someone named “Funky Football.” “Would you play Bitches Brewwith us at the Vossa Festival?” Well, I don’t know who Funky Football is, but a gig is a gig, so I’m like, “Yeah! Who is this?” And he says, “Enrico Merlin.” He’s the guy who wrote the book that documented every single edit made on Bitches Brew [Bitches Brew: Génesis de la obra maestra de Miles Davis, co-authored with Veniero Rizzardi]. It’s insane. So a guy from Italy hires me to play Bitches Brew at a festival in Norway and I get the gig through Facebook. He sends me the original Joe Zawinul chart to “Directions,” and a couple other charts. I say, “Is there anything in particular you want me to do?” and he says, “No, play it however you want to play it.” But you know how I am, man. I like to learn shit, so I started writing up what Miles played so I have an idea where to go. I get out a notebook and I’m on about the third or fourth page of writing, and I look at what I’m doing and I get a bizarre feeling that I’ve already written this before. So I go back and I realize—holy shit—the end isn’t kind of like the beginning, it is the beginning. I don’t think a lot of people know this. What Teo did is start and end with the exact same thing that Miles is playing, so it’s completely structured. The reason it makes sense is because it makes sense.

I don’t think Miles could do anything that was boring. He was magic all the way round, man. To the very last note, really. There’s a phrase I grew up with that you so rarely hear now: “opening up the doors of perception.” And I think Bitches Brew really did that for the world. 

 

JAIMIE BRANCH

When I heard it in high school, I wasn’t sold immediately. I think I was introduced to it by a hippie kid first of all, and I was more on the punk-rock contingent. But really, I think I just wasn’t hip enough yet to get it. Later it became one of my favorite records; I think it was when I got the box set [The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions, released in 1998] and listened to everything [recorded] around Bitches Brew and started flipping out. And part of that is because he sets up these environments. It all feels like it’s a different world. The sonic layout is so specific it almost feels like you’re in a cartoon or something … or a psychedelic desert. That’s the shit that really freaks me out now; man, he’s setting up these environments that are so saturated and so specific. The music lives in these individual worlds.

And the way he plays. It’s a different sonic approach, and a different timbre than he’s had in the past. His horn sounds super-focused, almost like a laser cutting out these gestural lines. Not like Don Cherry gestural lines, but more architectural, if that makes sense. I say “architectural” because he leaves out all the middle. He’s outlining all the tops and outlining all the bottoms, and everything in the middle is inferred; it’s like he leaves out all the bebop.  

Miles was super into Jimi Hendrix, and I think he was with Betty Davis already at this time? His whole paradigm had been shifting, but this is the first record where everything gets blown out of the water. Everyone always mentions that Miles is one of those musicians who constantly reinvents himself. Okay, but he reinvents himself at a higher level every time! Incredible.

 

MATT MITCHELL 

I got the album on cassette when I was 13 or so. I had Kind of Blue, but Bitches Brew is one of the first Miles things I heard, and I was obsessed with it. I was already familiar with psychedelic music. As a kid I was into Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, and Stevie Wonder. So I was inching my way into jazz, and hearing Bitches Brew as a kind of psychedelic album in the context of these modern artists. 

The cut-up aspects of it, Teo Macero’s editing choices, obviously contribute to its character. I mean, “Pharaoh’s Dance” is constructed from a lot of specific used and reused fragments of tape. That’s a huge part of the album’s vibe, though I didn’t know it at the time. I enjoyed the sound of it on an elemental level. It didn’t take too long to learn that there was editing happening. Maybe four years later, I got it. But I was learning a lot about music really quickly back then. It was an absorption-heavy time for me. I got obsessed. For a while I just liked long tracks. That was really my shit, a slab of music you can get into. Side-long tracks. It’s still a thing I like. This kind of music from Miles is still my favorite in a lot of ways. 

Jazz musicians will say it about their fave music of bygone times, and it’s kinda clichéd, but this album still sounds advanced, so far beyond. It’s still relevant to me, no question. The only reason I don’t listen to it so much lately is because I listened to it so INSANELY much before. 

 

GERALD CLEAVER

It’s like this masterpiece of creative thought. I was reading someone who was saying, “This thing is wonderfully unresolved. It never gives you a happy ending.” I agree. It’s got this feeling of search floating through it. You’re almost there but you’re not quite there. You can see the destination, but you never arrive. It’s fascinating. 

The music was hip. It felt like a bunch of dudes standing around smoking, being cool, sharing ideas. It felt like a team. But it was controlled; Miles was in charge. He had all these sounds put together in a way you never heard before. Electric guitar with acoustic bass, the Rhodes with a wah-wah trumpet, and then they’re not playing songs, they’re playing textures, and insinuating all these rhythms and cross-rhythms. It was hypnotic, this trance-like thing. You put your head in, and once you’re in there, the journey is endless. That’s sort of what this music represents to me. It broke those rules of things supposedly having a beginning, middle, and end.

Miles is the number-one musical influence in my life, most definitely, and it plays out in so many different ways. He has influenced every one of my groups to a certain extent. Interestingly, the one he has the least influence on is the straight-ahead group [Violet Hour], which is more beholden to Wayne [Shorter] or the [Andrew Hill’s] Point of Departure personnel. But Miles is definitely in the Black Host stuff and my electronic stuff too, because I wanted the melodies to be clear, precise, and heartfelt. Miles always brings that to the table. And soulfulness, of course. That’s what I want.

 

Jim Macnie

Jim Macnie is a music writer who contributes to DownBeat and blogs at Lament For a Straight Line. He’s been working in digital media since since 2000, initially as VH1.com’s Managing Editor and, currently, as a Senior Producer and Editor at Vevo. He enjoys Little Jimmie Dickens, Big Joe Turner and Medium Medium.