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JazzTimes 10: Key Post-Bitches Brew Fusion Albums

In the wake of Miles' masterpiece, a new genre emerged—and here are 10 of the best examples

As we celebrate the recent 50th anniversary of Bitches Brew, Miles Davis’ 1969 magnum opus of jazz fusion, we naturally have a great deal to say about the album itself. However, the reason we still talk so much about it today is arguably less about its own musical content and more about the music it inspired. Bitches Brew was one of the most influential recordings of its day, spawning a wealth of imitators.

The most prominent of those imitators, as it turns out, were the musicians who played on the original album. These were legion; Bitches Brew won a Grammy Award for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Recording. Think of it as yet another demonstration of Davis’ shrewdness in selecting his bandmates: He wanted to work with musicians who had their own singular visions to which they could adapt Miles’ music, and vice versa. Below are 10 extraordinary examples, some of which have been neglected over the years. They are included here, along with the better-known children of Bitches Brew, in hopes of fostering the attention they deserve.

3. Chick Corea: Return to Forever (ECM, 1972)

3. Chick Corea: <i>Return to Forever</i> (ECM, 1972)
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The first album by Return to Forever was initially not available in America; U.S. audiences wouldn’t experience it until 1975, by which time another four RTF albums had been released. Had they heard it in 1972, though, it would still have been a complete surprise. On Bitches Brew, Chick Corea had been responsible for some of the most mysterious, abstract, foreboding keyboard playing on any album (jazz or otherwise) ever released. Return to Forever, however, is accessible, melodic, and hook-filled; its grooves (by Corea, bassist Stanley Clarke, and drummer Airto Moreira) range from mellow ride to bouncy polyrhythm; there’s even a lively, (dare we say) happy bossa-nova tune in “What Game Shall We Play Today,” with a kicky flute line from Joe Farrell and a pleasant lilt in Flora Purim’s vocal. Even the obligatory sidelong epic, the medley “Sometime Ago/La Fiesta,” is most remarkable for its immediate allure. Its Latin beat and dreamy, welcoming Purim vocal are accompanied by a gently rippling electric piano surface that glistens like sun on the ocean. This hard centrist turn would, along with Mahavishnu’s chops-fests, eventually outdo Bitches Brew as a template for jazz fusion in the ’70s. In its moment, though, Return to Forever was as refreshing and original as its forerunner.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.