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Miles Davis and the Making of Bitches Brew: Sorcerer’s Brew

The story behind the seminal jazz-rock album Bitches Brew

Miles Davis and the story behind the seminal jazz-rock album Bitches Brew
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis

The First Recordings

At 10 a.m. on Tuesday, August 19, 1969, 12 musicians, Teo Macero and engineer Stan Tonkel gathered at Columbia Studio B for the first day of the recordings of Bitches Brew. Miles described the sessions as follows: “I would direct, like a conductor, once we started to play, and I would either write down some music for somebody or would tell him to play different things I was hearing, as the music was growing, coming together. While the music was developing I would hear something that I thought could be extended or cut back. So that recording was a development of the creative process, a living composition. It was like a fugue, or motif, that we all bounced off of. After it had developed to a certain point, I would tell a certain musician to come in and play something else. I wish we had thought of video taping that whole session. That was a great recording session, man.” [9]

“As the music was being played, as it was developing, Miles would get new ideas,” Jack DeJohnette commented. “This was the beautiful thing about it. He’d do a take, and stop, and then get an idea from what had just gone before, and elaborate on it, or say to the keyboards, ‘Play this sound.’ One thing fed the other. It was a process, a kind of spiral, a circular situation. The recording of Bitches Brew was a stream of creative musical energy. One thing was flowing into the next, and we were stopping and starting all the time, maybe to write a sketch out, and then go back to recording. The creative process was being documented on tape, with Miles directing the ensemble like a conductor an orchestra.”

“During the session we’d start a groove, and we’d play,” Lenny White remembered. “And then Miles would point to John McLaughlin and John would play for a while, and then Miles would stop the band. Then we’d start up again and he’d point to the keyboards, and someone would do another solo. All tracks were done in segments like that, with only the piano players possibly having a few written sketches in front of them. Miles said that he wanted Jack DeJohnette to be the leader of the rhythm section, because he was wearing the sunglasses! I’m from Jamaica, Queens, and I had played with other drummers before. I was trying to be very aware of wanting the music to sound very organic and congruent, real tight and seamless, so that people couldn’t really hear that there were two drummers.”

Bitches Brew was like a big pot and Miles was the sorcerer,” White continued. “He was hanging over it, saying, ‘I’m going to add a dash of Jack DeJohnette, and a little bit of John McLaughlin, and then I’m going to add a pinch of Lenny White. And here’s a teaspoonful of Bennie Maupin playing the bass clarinet.’ He made that work. He got the people together who he thought would make an interesting combination. Harvey Brooks said he didn’t know why he got the call, but he made an interesting pairing with Dave Holland on acoustic bass. It was a big, controlled experiment, and Miles had a vision that came true.”

“The idea of using two basses and two drummers was very interesting,” Dave Holland agreed. “The role division between Harvey and me depended on the piece, but as I remember it, Harvey was taking responsibility for laying down the main line on the electric bass, and I had a freer part embellishing things on the acoustic bass. Miles always gave the minimum amount of instructions. Usually he’d let you try and find something that you thought worked, and if it did, then that would be the end of it. His approach was that if he needed to tell someone what to do, he had the wrong musician. If we used any notation it was often a collage-type thing with a bass line and some chord movement, and maybe a melody related to that. But it was never something long or extended. It was always a fairly compact section, and then we’d move to another section. The recording of Bitches Brew was therefore often very fragmented. We’d have these sketches of ideas, and we’d play each for ten minutes or so, and then we’d sort of stop, come to an ending of sorts. And then we might do one more take like that, and then move on to the next thing. Often I didn’t know whether we were rehearsing or recording, but Miles had a policy of recording everything.”

“I think it was a lot of fun for him, with his favorite musicians on their respective instruments,” DeJohnette added. “It was different and it was fun. There wasn’t a lot said. Most of it was just directed with a word here and a word there. We were creating things and making them up on the spot, and the significant thing was that the tape recorder was always rolling and capturing it. Sometimes Miles said: ‘This is not working. That’s not it. Let’s try something else.’ But it was never because somebody had made a mistake or something. Miles was hearing the collective. He was trying to capture moods and feelings and textures. He always went for the essence of things, and that was much more important to him than going back and redoing a note that wasn’t perfect. Perfection for him was really capturing the essence of something, and being in the moment with it. And then he and Teo later edited all these moments and put them all together. Some of the edits surprised me, but overall they were seamless, and captured the feeling and the intensity of the music.”

Having been rehearsed the night before at Miles’ house, “Bitches Brew” was the first track recorded on that initial day in Columbia Studio B. A beautiful example of Miles’ directing and of the recording-in-sections approach can be heard at 7:28, when the ensemble appears to drift to a halt. Miles gives some indecipherable instructions, and the musicians carry on, clearly still not quite knowing where to go, because the music soon dissolves into entropy again. At this point, at 7:50, Miles simply says, “John.” McLaughlin begins to solo and the band picks up the groove again. Enough material was recorded in this way to create a separate track from an outtake (on which Miles did not play), titled “John McLaughlin.”

After recording “Bitches Brew,” the ensemble—without Maupin, Zawinul, McLaughlin, Brooks, and White [10]—performed “Sanctuary,” a Wayne Shorter composition already recorded in a more gentle, sparser version by the second great quintet in February 1968, with George Benson on guitar. Following this, the full complement of twelve musicians tried their hands on two Zawinul compositions, “Pharaoh’s Dance” and “Orange Lady,” but these takes were rejected.

Shifting Personnel and Sounds

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“Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” (the title was a reference to Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile”) was recorded the next day. In this case the previous performances of the live quintet of the track led to problems with the studio rhythm section. The addition of seven other musicians significantly altered the feel and dynamics of the piece, and Jack DeJohnette’s medium-tempo, fairly loose live groove didn’t appear to work.

“Lenny and Jack were playing and somehow things didn’t jell,” Don Alias explained. “I think Miles really wanted that Buddy Miles sound; he was just getting into the funk thing. He counted off the second time, and it wasn’t happening. I couldn’t take it any longer. I had been practicing this drum rhythm while I was in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. I’m sitting there thinking, ‘I’ve got the perfect rhythm for this tune.’ I can’t take it any longer and Miles is about to count off for the third time and I interrupted and said, ‘Miles, I’ve got this rhythm and I think it would go with the tune.’ So he said: ‘Go over and play it.’ I sat down and played it, and he said: ‘Show Jack, show Jack.’ And it’s one of those kind of rhythms where you don’t need any chops. Jack couldn’t get it, so Miles said to me: ‘Just stay there’ [on Lenny White’s drumset]. That’s how I ended up being one of the drumset players on ‘Miles Runs the Voodoo Down.'” [11]

On the third and final recording day, White was back in his drum seat and Alias on congas. The 13th musician, Larry Young, was added to the ensemble on electric piano, creating once again a battery of three keyboard players, as on In a Silent Way. Two long tracks, “Spanish Key” and Zawinul’s “Pharaoh’s Dance,” were put to tape. Altogether, a wealth of material had been recorded over the three days.

“The sessions would go till about three or four in the afternoon, and once the three days were over we went to Miles’ house, and listened to all the unedited tapes,” White remembered. “Half a year later a record came out that was totally different, because they’d taken the front end of one tune and put that in the middle and so on. Basically Teo Macero had made a whole other thing out of it. I suspect that Miles said to Teo: ‘Go ahead and do what you think best,’ and that Miles then approved or disapproved what had been done.”

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Originally Published