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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

JON IRABAGON 

The title track … that groove. Even in college I remember putting it on at parties and that it just mesmerized a ton of us—music school kids, business school kids, actors, regular students, anyone in the room who had an open mind. The music helped bring people together, especially “Bitches Brew.” The groove is infectious, and I remember loving it.

His trumpet playing on Bitches Brew is on a completely other level. His sound is searing on this thing, it’s crazy. I check in with the Plugged Nickel box set [The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel, released in 1995] all the time; it’s one of my pillars. The story is that Miles was going through some dental things around Plugged Nickel time, even though he still sounds strong. But it’s fascinating to hear how different and better he sounds on Bitches Brew, just a few years later. The command, the force behind his playing, but also the depth and weight of his sound. Like a wizard casting laser beams. It’s pretty epic coming back to Bitches Brew after listening to Plugged Nickel for so many years.

The sound world that he and Teo creates is just as interesting. You’re going to put a bass clarinet and soprano sax over double electric pianos and have them fit like a glove? No one had really explored that kind of thing before. It became part of our language. I’ll name one example I’m thinking of: Dave Douglas’ record The Infinite [2002], the Fender Rhodes thing that he was going for, was in some way influenced by the Bitches Brew sound world and timbres. For my generation and the generations one or two above me, and probably for most of the 20-year-olds that are coming out of music colleges right now, that sound world he made is absolutely accepted and it’s part of any progressive or creative music that’s going on right now. At the time the jazz purists might have condemned Miles for it, saying that he sold out or whatever. But as far as people creating vibrant music, it’s a benchmark.

 

BRANDEE YOUNGER 

“Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” is hands down my favorite track on Bitches Brew, because it takes me on a journey. It has so many elements and layers intertwined—rhythmic and harmonic elements, texture, space—and each layer introduces itself, bringing the listener along for the ride. I can’t help but think about blaxploitation films of the 1970s when I hear it, which goes right along with the era when this was recorded. Some of my favorite films, such as Dolemite, Coffy, Shaft, and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, are all connected by the common thread of the music.

What was hip about the late ’60s and early ’70s was the beginning of what became fusion. The mix of African and Cuban and Brazilian styles and rhythmic language alongside the “pocket,” a term used to describe the thick groove of Black Soul Music. Miles Davis was clearly at the forefront of this. [Bitches Brew] also spoke to young blacks at the time, which brought about a whole new listener. It was definitely innovative. In many ways, we’re looking at similar elements today. There are elements of hip-hop and pop culture being intertwined in all sorts of creative music, making it appealing to new ears. We have what Robert Glasper has been doing for some time, and now when we listen to new records/gigs and hear what many call “trap jazz,” I can’t help but wonder—would Miles Davis incorporate trap elements into his music if he were around today? 🙂 

I took a fresh listen [to the album] with [bassists] Dezron Douglas and Rashaan Carter and we talked about how the many layers make the piece like a ritual. It can seem like madness, but once we understand each piece, it plays a very important role in defining the space. The harmonies, textures, and polyrhythms seem to transport you within this ritual, but the groove always brings you home to solid ground. There are various points that Miles allows the percussionist to be free while the bassist is almost the only glue of the track, and the role of the bass is somewhat free, but conceptually in a forward motion. The groove is infectious and the musicians are playing stylistically and conceptually. Though I wasn’t alive [when it was released], I truly feel that this is what connected true art with popular trends.

 

BOBBY PREVITE

When I first moved to upstate New York and wanted to connect with other players, one of the first things I turned to was Bitches Brew. It’s something to share, and it’s actually a teaching tool, a great way for people to enter the performance world. You can’t really approach the brilliance of what was done by those original musicians. But because Bitches Brew is, for lack of a better word, free, especially harmonically, it’s one of those classic things that’s easy to sound okay on. It doesn’t have strict rules, like bebop or Romanticism or 12-tone, so all you have to have are general skills and an open mind. Of course, it takes a lot more to play it as well as the masters did, but because of those things, I’m able to use it as a template to point and show and teach: “This is the kind of thing that’s possible.” It’s also a great project to do if you’re trying to have people play without fear, because you have to be fearless if you’re going to try this. Those guys who made Bitches Brew were fearless musicians. That’s essentially that’s what I’m doing [when I convene the Voodoo Orchestra these days], using it to help musicians play with a little abandon.

Everyone knows Miles was a genius and Bitches Brew was groundbreaking blah blah blah. But sometimes people miss the point of what the value of it really is, especially nowadays. As with any other work of genius, there’s a surface that, let’s be honest, many people never get beyond, and there’s the underlying message. The surface is the message of the chords and the basslines and the notes and the time. But then there’s the real, more powerful message of music. And getting to that, trying to figure that out and feeling it, is much harder. I often wonder, “Who am I to play Bitches Brew? You can’t really play this. That’s crazy.” It’s not like it’s a completely written piece of music that you can recreate, like a classical piece. It’s so of its moment. How can I possibly do that now with any veracity? I don’t do Bitches Brew to just present some music. I’m using this more as a way to have musicians connect with each other, getting them to use different neural pathways than they may be used to. It’s a great can opener; it’s like taking the shackles off people.

 

CRAIG TABORN

Maybe how you hear it depends on your point of entry. That window of Miles’ work, the Filles de Kilimanjaro/In a Silent Way/Bitches Brew era—I sometimes hear it as a roughly 10-year re-encountering of the Kind of Blue/Sketches of Spainmodal approach with an awareness and an ear to the changes in the time. Specifically using electric instruments and engaging in contemporary rhythms of that era. It’s a remarkably similar space in terms of what the project is attempting to do and what it does with the information at hand; to me they’re reminiscent of his previous postures, extended approaches. That’s not to say it’s all modal by any means, but compared to playing short tunes, let’s say. 

I was around 13 when I got the record. This was early on for me, so I wasn’t that informed about Miles in general, or the whole musical terrain. It did speak to me because I was already getting into a lot of things around that time. I could identify it in the expanse of things I was checking out, including everything from the Art Ensemble of Chicago to Soft Machine. I could locate it in a larger terrain of progressive-rock stuff and other kinds of avant-garde jazz. I remember hearing it as the improvised event that it was, but understanding that process … there was something about it being an extended improvisation as opposed to just a regular jam. I could start to hear that things were being worked upon. It involved the way those musicians had to bring themselves to it. Especially with the two drums, all those keyboards. It didn’t have a deep jam quality to it, with the music going from solo to solo. It was a dense thing with an inter-reactive quality, something that I recognized from stuff like the one or two Art Ensemble records I had. I had a beginning awareness of that kind of playing, and it was amazing to hear Miles doing it, but his version had a kind of rock quality … not really rock, but something else. It sits in a really interesting space between a lot of things, because it’s different from Tony Williams’ Lifetime, which was really rock, and more of a chamber kind of vibe that had relationships to the free jazz that was going on. That stuff, and some of the more open things, challenged me for sure.

 

BEN PEROWSKY

My dad is a musician, and he had the record when it came out, so I saw it sitting around. I was about three years old, and the album cover was actually kind of disturbing for a kid. It’s funny, he had a couple disturbing album covers—I remember that King Crimson album with the screaming face on it [1969’s In the Court of the Crimson King] sitting next to Bitches Brew, and it was like, “Wow, dad’s music is scary.” I’m sure I heard Bitches Brew and it was in my psyche before I ever really truly listened to it, because I didn’t start diving into his records until I was a teenager. 

Some of those sessions are incorporated in the Live-Evil stuff, aren’t they? For some reason, when I was a teenager Live-Evil was my record. I’m not sure why I gravitated to that first, but I did. That opening guitar stuff from [John] McLaughlin on, what’s it called, “Gemini/Double Image”?—just so nasty. As a teenager I was steeped in Hendrix and acid rock. That’s where I was coming from, but I was starting to become a jazz player too. So Bitches Brew and the electric Miles stuff was really like a bridge that connected both of those worlds. It’s a record that says, “You can do what you want.” He’s breaking all the laws. We’re always told, “You should be doing this or you should be doing that.” Miles is saying, “No, you can bring it all together.” The word “fusion” wasn’t a bad word yet, and he made a true fusion with psychedelia.

There’s something great about all the details too. The element of Airto [Moreira]’s constant cuica—it’s like the singer in the band in a way, so vocal and so present all over the record. Miles brought Brazil and India into the mix, with the sitar and tamboura and tabla. The combination of those things with a bass clarinet? That’s really what makes this a tasty morsel. Instantly, it’s like, “What’s that? What’s that sound?” Amazing. Drum-wise, I was never fully conscious that it was Jack [DeJohnette] on the right side and Lenny [White] on the left. But man, Jack is seriously laying it down. So solid. I would have thought it was Lenny laying down the R&B-type groove. But no, it’s Jack. Pretty great. Amazing how Miles was able to stay current, right? This record is him looking into the future.

Read an all-star conversation about Miles Davis’ electric period.

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.