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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

Enter Teo Macero

The tape editing on the two opening pieces of the album, “Pharaoh’s Dance” and the title track, is remarkably complex, and has a far-reaching effect on the music. In addition, Macero expanded his tool kit with studio effects like echo, reverb and slap (tape) delay, the latter courtesy of a machine called the Teo One, made by technicians at Columbia. This effect can most clearly be heard on the trumpet in the beginning section of “Bitches Brew” and “Pharaoh’s Dance” at 8:41.

Enrico Merlin’s research, as well as the 1998 release of the four-CD boxed set The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions, has cast important new light on the album’s postproduction process. They show how Macero did not only use tape editing to glue together large musical sections, as on “Circle in the Round” or In a Silent Way, but extended his scope to editing tiny musical segments to create brand-new musical themes. Courtesy of both approaches, “Pharaoh’s Dance” contains an astonishing 17 edits. [12] Its famous stop-start opening theme was entirely constructed during postproduction, using repeat loops of 15- and 31-second fragments of tape, while thematic micro-edits occur between 8:53 and 9:00, where a one-second-long fragment appearing at 8:39 is repeated five times.

“I had carte blanche to work with the material,” Macero explained. “I could move anything around and what I would do is record everything, right from beginning to end, mix it all down and then take all those tapes back to the editing room and listen to them and say: ‘This is a good little piece here, this matches with that, put this here,’ etc., and then add in all the effects—the electronics, the delays and overlays. [I would] be working it out in the studio and take it back and re-edit it—front to back, back to front and the middle somewhere else and make it into a piece. I was a madman in the engineering room. Right after I’d put it together I’d send it to Miles and ask, ‘How do you like it?’ And he used to say, ‘That’s fine,’ or ‘That’s OK,’ or ‘I thought you’d do that.’ He never saw the work that had to be done on those tapes. I’d have to work on those tapes for four or five weeks to make them sound right.” [13]

It appears that Macero found part of his inspiration for his postproduction treatments on Bitches Brew in classical music. The English composer Paul Buckmaster pointed out that on “Pharaoh’s Dance” and “Bitches Brew” the producer created structures that have echoes of the sonata form that was at the heart of late-18th- and 19th-century instrumental music. The basic elements of the sonata form, employed by composers like Mozart and Beethoven, are an opening exposition with two themes, a middle section called a development (in which the exposition material is worked through in many variations), a recapitulation (which contains a repetition of the two themes of the exposition), and a final coda.

In “Pharaoh’s Dance” the section 00:00 to 02:32 can be called the exposition, since it contains two basic themes, with theme number one first played between 00:00 and 00:15 and theme number two at 00:46. Starting at 02:32 is a solo section, or “development,” containing references to the material of the “exposition” at 02:54 and 07:55. A dramatic section is edited in between 08:29 and 08:42, with tape delay added to Miles’ horn, then repeated at 08:44 to 08:53, and followed by a one-second tape loop that repeats five times between 8:53 and 9:00. When Miles at long last plays Zawinul’s stirring main theme (referred to earlier in the track, but never actually played), at 16:38, it can be considered the coda.

The influence of the sonata form on the structure of “Bitches Brew” is not as clear-cut, but still apparent. Enrico Merlin’s analysis notes 15 edits in the piece, including (as in “Pharaoh’s Dance”) several short tape loops that create a new theme (in this case at 03:01, 03:07, 03:12, 03:17, and 03:27). Another section that leaps out at the listener is the tape loop from 10:36 to 10:52, where Macero creates excitement by looping a short trumpet phrase, making it sound like a precomposed theme. The section from 00:00 to 03:32 can be called the exposition, with the first theme appearing at 00:00 (the bass vamp) and at 00:41 (the corresponding melodic theme). The second theme is pasted in at 02:50. The development occurs between 03:32 and 14:36, with solos by Miles, McLaughlin, Shorter and Corea. At 14:36 there’s a recapitulation of the first theme, followed by another development, beginning at 17:20. The final recapitulation, a literal repeat of the first 02:50, can be interpreted as a coda.

Macero’s strong editorial involvement in “Pharaoh’s Dance” and “Bitches Brew,” as well as his selection of “John McLaughlin” for inclusion on the album, may well have to do with the fact that these were the tracks that had not been broken in by the live band. Miles most likely did not have a clear vision for the final structure. By contrast, “Spanish Key,” “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” and “Sanctuary” had all been played live, giving Miles time to develop a functional structure. Only “Sanctuary” contains an edit, at 05:13, at which point Macero pasted in another take. It also seems likely that Macero was influenced in his edits by the form Miles had given to these three tracks, especially “Spanish Key,” which has a circular structure, with Miles stating the main theme at 00:36, 09:17 and 16:48, and the solo section containing several references to the main theme.

“There’s very little dialogue between Miles and myself,” Macero elaborated on his working relationship with Miles. “If we say 20 words in the course of a three-hour session, that’s a lot. But there’s no mystery. I spend as much time listening to it as he spent creating it. He may have gone over a composition in his mind, mentally, for weeks, and that’s exactly what I do when I listen to the tape. One thing about Miles and his music, in working with Miles you can experiment as much as you wish. You can take his music, you can cut it up, you can put the filters in, you can do anything you want to it as long as he knows who it is. I mean, he’s not going to let just anyone do it. I don’t take liberties on my own, unless I check with him. The final decision is up to the artist, because he has to live with the record.” [14]

The genius of Macero’s editing on Bitches Brew, and his role in Miles’ electric music in general, can be compared to that of George Martin’s work with the Beatles. Like Martin, Macero often added a classical sensibility to his protégé’s music, and worked with him over a long period of time (from 1958 to 1983). Yet his influence, especially in the case of Davis, has not been widely recognized. [15]

Publicly, Miles rarely acknowledged Macero’s role. He mentioned the producer just a few times in his autobiography, and only in passing. It’s not hard to suspect that this may have had to do with their love-hate relationship, exemplified by Miles’ refusal to talk to Macero for more than two years after the producer was involved in the release of Quiet Nights in 1964. Huge rows, as well as Macero’s assertion that their relationship was like “matrimony,” [16] confirm the picture of a creatively fruitful but personally tension-filled connection.

In Macero’s view, “Miles always wanted to take the credit for everything—on a lot of albums he didn’t want the names of the musicians on the cover.” [17] Once, when Macero asked for a bonus, he claims that Miles responded, “I don’t think you deserve it. Anybody could have done it.” [18] The most likely reason for Miles’ reluctance to openly credit Macero was that he saw at several stages during his life how white men would take, or be given, the credit for black men’s creative achievements. In his autobiography Miles stated, “Some people have written that doing Bitches Brew was Clive Davis’ [head of Columbia at the time] or Teo Macero’s idea. That’s a lie, because they didn’t have nothing to do with none of it. Again, it was white people trying to give some credit to other white people where it wasn’t deserved, because the record became a breakthrough concept, very innovative. They were going to rewrite history after the fact like they always do.” [19] And in a 1973 interview Miles complained, “As long as I’ve been playing, they never say I done anything. They always say that some white guy did it.” [20] (This was the reason why he had the text “Directions in Music by Miles Davis” placed on the covers of Filles de Kilimanjaro and In a Silent Way. Bitches Brew was his last recording to carry the legend.)

But just like the enormous influence of George Martin doesn’t detract from the genius of the Beatles, emphasizing the importance of Macero in no way diminishes Miles’ greatness. In reality, the freedom Miles gave to Macero is an illustration of the trumpeter’s greatness. Many modern artists tend to want to control every aspect of record-making, producing and sometimes engineering their own albums. This does not necessarily lead to better results. Macero once noted, “Miles would leave it up to me to make all the fucking decisions. People today, they want to be producer, writer, they want to do everything. I’m saying, Jesus Christ, then do it yourself. Save yourself some money.” [21]

Great art has more chance of emerging when artists are acutely aware of their strengths and limitations. As an improvisational, here-and-now musician pur sang, Miles did not have the inclination, the patience or the skills to get deeply involved in the time-consuming, laborious postproduction process. Moreover, one of Miles’ main strengths was the freedom he allowed the musicians with whom he worked. Delegating responsibility for the postproduction process to Macero reflects the same attitude. Given how sacrosanct music was to Miles, he must have trusted Macero deeply.

“Both of us have learned something from the things we’ve done together,” Macero remarked. “I learned from the standpoint of editing, shifting the compositions around. It’s a creative process being a producer with Miles. In fact, it’s more of a creative process than it is with any other artist. You have to know something about the music. You really need to be a composer, because for a lot of it he relies on you and your judgment. I’m going through them as a composer, Miles as a composer-musician-performer. You must be very creative along with the artist, because if you’re not as creative as he is—forget it.” [22]

It seems that Miles and Macero wanted to force attention on the collaborative nature of their work by placing the two most-edited and experimental tracks, “Pharaoh’s Dance” and “Bitches Brew,” at the beginning of the album. They are like a declaration of intent. Macero’s edits are not immediately apparent, but create a subliminal sense of both unrest and structure, something that’s initially hard to grasp, but immediately lifts the music out of the level of a jam. The edits are also successful in that they do not detract from the interaction between Miles and the ensemble. Although McLaughlin, the keyboardists, Maupin, Shorter and Holland all take solos, they are mixed in a way that makes them float momentarily on top of the brew. Unlike Miles, they do not rise above it. This has led some jazz critics to complain that Bitches Brew doesn’t really contain any solos, thereby not only missing the solos that were actually there, but more importantly the point that the musical essence of the album is not about sequences of solos, but about the interplay between Miles and his ensemble.

Miles’ trumpet is mixed much further to the front, like a singer. This makes it possible to hear the strength and range of his playing, the way he phrases his notes and guided the other musicians. After five years of being pushed to his limit in the second great quintet, and being in good health, he was at the peak of his trumpet-playing powers. Miles’ sound is round, full and powerful, and the way he drives the ensemble with often declamatory phrases that have predominantly a rhythmic rather than a melodic function is remarkable. A good example is his solo in “Pharaoh’s Dance” starting at 03:34, where he sounds like he’s wrestling, or perhaps boxing, with the band, pushing it, pulling it, steering it and creating constant tension and release. Rather than a soloist playing over changes, Miles creates contrast, interest and excitement in relation to a large mass of players that on their own could easily have sunk into amorphous anonymity.

Billy Cobham, an up-and-coming drummer at the time, played on the additional material on The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions. [23] Cobham still had the sound of awe in his voice when he remembered: “Miles was just coming out of the greatest band that he’d ever had, the second great quintet, and his trumpet playing was at a peak. He always played the ultimate musical phrase, even if it wasn’t technically correct. It was unbelievable! When you listen to Freddie Hubbard you hear trumpet proficiency par excellence, and then you hear Miles and he had a way of taking what Freddie did and compacting it in five notes. Those five notes said it all. The air around them became musical, and the silence became more profound and important. You just don’t learn that. Miles somehow could just do that. He was like Merlin the magician. It was based on Miles’ innate ability to use space. Not playing became more important than playing. But it had to be the right spaces at the right time! It was uncanny how he’d play one note, and that note would carry through five or eight bars of changes. That note would be the note.”

A major piece of work by any definition, “Pharaoh’s Dance” was never performed live, and one wonders whether Miles had any doubts about the track’s success. The title track, on the other hand, was a staple of the live band for more than two years, until October of 1971. It was invariably played at about half the length of the album time (26:58), thereby raising the issue of the extreme length of the two opening tracks of the album. (“Pharaoh’s Dance” clocks in at 20:05.) There are two ways of looking at this. If one relates to the music as an “abstract,” ambient atmosphere, a jungle environment that one can enter and roam, the length of these tracks becomes a significant aspect of their attraction. But from a more traditional, figurative perspective, in which the focus is on solos, themes, grooves, variety, development, “Pharaoh’s Dance” and “Bitches Brew” are too long, and would both work better if cut substantially. The drastic cut in the length of “Bitches Brew” during live performances was partly due to the smaller size of the live band, but also suggests that Miles shared this opinion.

As with “Circle in the Round,” Macero’s editing was only partly successful. This is demonstrated by “John McLaughlin,” the outtake from the track “Bitches Brew.” It is only 04:22 long and sustains interest from beginning to end, making it a good example of how this music works in a much tighter format. Moreover, the major tracks that weren’t edited, “Spanish Key” and “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” are much more focused, and contain Miles’ best solos. “Spanish Key,” a revisiting of the Spanish influences Miles had explored on Sketches of Spain and “Flamenco Sketches” on Kind of Blue, is a flowing, fluent boogie based around several different scales and tonal centers. Enrico Merlin has pointed out that the track employs what he calls “coded phrases,” meaning musical cues with which the band is steered towards the next musical section. “[The] modulations are always initiated by the soloist who performs a phrase in the new key, thus signaling his own wish to change the tonal center,” Merlin wrote. “This device was used for the first time in ‘Flamenco Sketches.’ I believe that Davis was trying, and he succeeded brilliantly, to adapt the idea of ‘Flamenco Sketches’ to the musical experimentation of that time [the late ’60s].” [24] Sweltering and riveting throughout, “Spanish Key” would have been even stronger had it ended around 13 minutes, when the music appears to come to a natural halt. “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” is probably the most successful track on Bitches Brew, courtesy of a beautiful, deep bass line, Alias’ slow-burning, driving New Orleans drum groove, a tight structure, and excellent solos by Miles, McLaughlin, Shorter and Zawinul. It remained a favorite in live performance until August 1970. Finally, the version of “Sanctuary” on Bitches Brew is expressive and muscular, but lacks the subtlety of the first recording with the second great quintet in February of 1968.

Regardless of how the quality of the music on Bitches Brew is judged, it is important to recognize the astonishing concoction of influences that had gone into Miles’ cauldron. Miles had combined improvisational working methods that he developed in the late ’50s with musical influences such as rock, folk, soul and African music. Moreover, the ensemble’s collective improvisation, based on the working methods developed by the second great quintet, and the call-and-response structure between Miles and the ensemble, both find their roots in early jazz. In his autobiography Miles likened Bitches Brew‘s collective improvisations to the jam sessions he attended at Minton’s in Harlem in the late ’40s. Like many writers, Miles also made comparisons between the recording’s kaleidoscopic sound world and the noises of New York City. Then, in the words of Lenny White, he mixed in a “dash” of this musician and that composer, not only skillfully blending their qualities, but also enlarging jazz and rock’s sonic palette with bass clarinet and extensive percussion. Both were novel sounds in jazz and rock music around 1969.

To this explosive mixture Teo Macero added mid-20th-century studio trickery, a 19th-century classical-music awareness of structure, and a way of looking at music as abstract blocks of sound, which he freely cut and moved around. In other words, the two most heavily edited tracks on Bitches Brew were hybrids of figurative and abstract art. They combined, respectively, the traditional musical line of something akin to a sonata form with the cut-and-paste ideas that had come out of musique concrète, serial music and studio technology, which later influenced ambient and dance music. Add to this the strongly chromatic improvising of the keyboard players, which has echoes of classical atonal music, and it is clear that an impressive amount of influences went into the making of Bitches Brew. This is no doubt one of the major reasons for the recording’s immense success and influence. Virtually anyone willing to listen to it with an open mind is able to recognize something familiar in the music, despite the fact that it contains few easily identifiable melodies, hooks or vamps.

Bitches Brew encompasses about every musical polarity of the late ’60s, whether jazz and rock, classical and African, improvised and notated music, live playing and postproduction editing. Its greatness lies in how it managed to bridge these polarities, including and transcending all the disparate ingredients into a completely new whole, and ended up with much more than the sum of its components. Bitches Brew explores a new, intangible musical universe, and any attempt to fully explain or define its concept and its music will inevitably diminish it to some degree. If one must find a label for the music, Lenny White probably had a good stab at it when he called it “African-American classical music—a combination of the harmonic language developed in the West over several hundreds of years, played from an African-American perspective, with an African-American approach to rhythm.”

How Bitches Brew opened up a new, unknown musical paradigm is humorously illustrated by an anecdote told by Joe Zawinul that mirrors John McLaughlin’s incomprehension during the In a Silent Way sessions. The keyboardist had been so baffled by the Bitches Brew sessions that he didn’t even recognize the resulting music when he heard it later in another context. “I didn’t really like the sessions at the time,” Zawinul reminisced. “I didn’t think they were exciting enough. But a short while later I was at the CBS offices, and a secretary was playing this incredible music. It was really smoking. So I asked her, ‘Who the hell is this?’ And she replied, ‘It’s that Bitches Brew thing.’ I thought, Damn, that’s great.” [25]

Of course, the recording also had its era on its side. The late ’60s and early ’70s were full of music that people didn’t necessarily understand, but that made them feel alive, that spoke to them. It was a time when audiences were prepared to go out of their way to enjoy the unusual and the controversial. The energy and mystery of the music, the title, the eye-catching and ultra-hip cover and the stream-of-consciousness liner notes by Ralph J. Gleason all perfectly expressed the zeitgeist. All elements came together in one seamless package, and the effect was powerful: The recording sold 400,000 copies in its first year, and earned Miles a Grammy for Best Jazz Performance, Soloist with Large Group. As a result, Gleason’s showy words sounded prescient rather than hyped-up: “This music will change the world like Cool and Walkin’ did and now that communication is faster and more complete it may change it more deeply and quickly.”[26]

In addition to the music recorded during August of 1969, The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions also contains material from sessions in November of 1969, and January and February of 1970. The total amount of music is dramatically extended from the 94 minutes of the original album to almost 266 minutes. Some of the additional material had already been issued on the albums Big Fun, Circle in the Round and Live-Evil, but there are also nine previously unreleased tracks, totaling about 86 minutes of music.

Macero was invited by Columbia/Sony to participate in the creation of the boxed set, but declined after a first meeting. The long collaboration between Miles and Macero created a deep bond between the two men, and it’s understandable that since Miles’ passing, Macero sees himself as a custodian of his legacy. In assuming this role he has loudly declared to anyone who wanted to listen that he disagrees with the way Sony/Columbia is reissuing the Miles Davis back catalog in general, and The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions in particular. He boldly stated that “Miles Davis would never have agreed to the unreleased material being released, nor to the way the original material has been remixed and remastered,” and that’s to quote one of his milder exhortations. Macero has also supported the argument that the boxed set is a misnomer.

The original Bitches Brew sessions took place over the course of three days in August of 1969, and were complete in themselves. It appears a commercially inspired stretch to include material recorded several months later, with different personnel and a radically different musical feel, and declare it part of the Bitches Brew sessions. Reissue producer Bob Belden and executive producer Michael Cuscuna have reason to argue in the boxed set that Miles entered a new musical phase in March of 1970, when he started to work with a small, guitar-based group. However, the boxed set, awarded another Grammy in 1999 for “Best Boxed Recording Package,” could have been called something like The Bitches Brew Era, since the additional material can easily be seen as a phase in itself, typified by the addition of Indian instruments like sitar, tamboura and tabla. Most of this material has a pastoral atmosphere completely at odds with the storm of the original Bitches Brew sessions.

With regard to the issues that Macero raised concerning remixing and remastering, much of the Miles Davis music issued on CD by Sony during the late ’90s has undergone this process, including all four boxed sets released to date. The triple-Grammy-winning Miles Davis & Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings, as well as Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings, 1955-1961, were remixed from three tracks, and The Miles Davis Quintet, 1965-1968 from four tracks by Sony staff engineer Mark Wilder. The small amount of tracks meant that Wilder’s freedom to change the nature of the music was limited. However, Bitches Brew was recorded on eight-track, and involved multitudes of complex edits and intricate sound effects. This made it more difficult to reconstruct the original version in a remix, and gave the remixer much more freedom to impose his own vision. In addition, some of the original effect equipment, like the Teo One, was not available anymore, making an exact replication even harder. Finally, Wilder and Belden decided to make some fundamental changes to the sound and nature of the mix, leaving themselves open to accusations similar to those aimed at one time at the restorers of the Sistine Chapel.

“Let me make clear that when Sony told me that they wanted me to recreate the whole album, I knew immediately that we couldn’t do any tinkering or release alternative takes or extend pieces,” Belden explained in response. “I did not want to play Teo Macero. Instead, we wanted the boxed set to flow seamlessly. That is why we had to remix all the material. The two-track masters for the original Bitches Brew album were in bad shape, and there was a lot of disparity between them and the other material, whereas the previously unreleased stuff had not been mixed at all. Moreover, for the original LP they boosted the bottom and cut out the high end, taking out a lot of clarity. We put that clarity back in. We also decided to try to recreate what the musicians would have heard in the studio. There were always two distinct Fender Rhodes players, so we wanted to make sure that Chick Corea was always on the right and the guest on the left. That gives a sense of continuity. And we wanted to bring out the sound of Miles’ trumpet and make it sound more in the pocket, the way you would have heard it during studio playbacks. We wanted to bring out the natural interplay between the musicians. At the same time we followed Teo’s edits as faithfully as we could.”

“Of course it’s much more of a challenge to remix eight-tracks,” Wilder agreed. “But I was able to get a very accurate approximation of the original mixes. We tried to pay homage to Teo’s original edits and mixes as much as we could, but we also tried to bring out the musicality of the sessions. Those guys played some killing stuff that got a little lost in the technology of the mix and the postproduction. So yes, we tried to create a feeling of people playing music together. The musicality of what occurred during these sessions was paramount for us, and we wanted to remove some of the original mix technology to bring this out. They had made some very wild fader movements during the mix that we couldn’t replicate anyway. But at the same time there are those signature things that were done during the mix, the slap [tape] echoes on Miles’ trumpet, that we tried to replicate as best as we could. We would run my mixes and edits against the original LP version, and sometimes we’d compare with my version in one speaker and the original in the other to make sure that there were no edits that we had missed or mistimed. We worked amazingly hard on this.”

Phrases like “removing some of the original mix technology” or “recreate what the musicians would have heard in the studio” will alarm purists. But as always, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and from this perspective the work of Belden and Wilder is more than vindicated. All original edits are retained (although the new version of “Pharaoh’s Dance” curiously loses four seconds that were in the original version, 08:29 to 08:33) and the instrumental balance of the mixes on The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions does not sound significantly different from those of the original album. The sound is greatly improved, however, displaying more aliveness, depth, and detail, partly because the Dolby that suppressed the high end (as well as the hiss) in the original is removed. There’s a pleasant roundness to the new sound that was missing in the sometimes thin and abrasive-sounding original.

Belden and Wilder also succeeded in their aim of bringing out the interplay between the musicians. The improved high end especially has added a transparency that makes it easier to distinguish between the various percussion instruments, and to imagine oneself in the studio with the musicians. It seems like a cloud has lifted from the recordings, and some extra hiss is a small price to pay. Macero strongly criticized the new mixes, complaining that Miles sounded only “one inch tall,” but the overall consensus, including from the musicians who played on the sessions, is that the new mixes sound excellent. The parallel with the restoration of the Sistine Chapel that appears apt is that of the brighter colors that emerged, which initially shocked traditionalists.

The additional material included in The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions begins with four tracks recorded on November 19. Wayne Shorter was replaced by the eighteen-year-old saxophonist Steve Grossman, Dave Holland with Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette with Billy Cobham. Guest musicians Bennie Maupin, Harvey Brooks and John McLaughlin returned, and Herbie Hancock sat in as second keyboard player. Miles also added the exotic sounds of Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira, plus Khalil Balakrishna on sitar and Bihari Sharma on tabla. Corea was the only musician from the live band at these sessions, and there is some historical confusion with regards to the reasons.

In his autobiography, Miles stated that Wayne Shorter left the band “in late fall 1969” and that he then “broke up the band to find replacements.” [27] This is incorrect, because Shorter played with the live band until early March of 1970. Miles’ assertion that Shorter had “told me ahead of time when he was leaving” and that he wanted to try out new musicians (thereby adding to his growing list of stock company players) was probably closer to the mark.

The size of the band may suggest a direct line to the Bitches Brew sessions three months earlier, but the introduction of the Brazilian and Indian elements took things into a totally different direction. Indian music influences had become popular in the late ’60s, mainly through the Beatles’ and the counterculture’s interest in Eastern mysticism, and sitars were occasionally employed in Western popular music, especially psychedelic rock. Miles was one of the few jazz musicians who did more than just flirt with this influence, and Indian instruments intermittently played an important part in his music from 1969 to 1973.

During this stage in his career Miles appeared almost obsessed with incorporating as many disparate musical influences as possible, seemingly using anything or anyone he could lay his hands on. The question has often been asked whether Miles had a vision for the end result or was just randomly throwing things into his cauldron, and was as surprised by the results as anyone else.

“I think that Miles definitely had a vision,” Dave Holland commented. “But when you put together improvised music, you’re dealing with musicians and their approach and style of playing. One of the things I learnt from Miles is that you don’t come in with a fixed vision. The vision is there, but it is not finished. The composition a classical composer writes is finished, and all musicians do is interpret it. Improvised music is different. Part of your palette is the musicians you’re working with, and so with this group it will come out one way, and with that group it will come out another way. So if you ask me, ‘Did Miles have a vision?’ I’ll say ‘Yes.’ But ask, ‘Did he know what the end result would sound like?’ and I’d have to say ‘No.’ He couldn’t. When he was putting something together, he was listening and selecting what he liked. To me this is the great art of putting together improvised music. Miles worked in the tradition where you create a form that’s clear, but that also has enough room for the musicians to be creative with. Miles was giving us a context for the music, and then we found what we could do within that context.”

Still, throwing different musicians together to see what will happen is a risky approach, and this was demonstrated in a series of failures. The track “Great Expectations,” recorded on November 19, is an example. It was first released on Big Fun in 1974, and has a structure similar to that of “Nefertiti” in June of 1967, with a repeating main melody underpinned by an ever-varying drum section. The bass relentlessly plays a rock riff not dissimilar to that of “Peter Gunn,” and the Brazilian and Indian elements add some color and variation. But it’s not enough to save the rather dreary and repetitive effort, which is weak on the figurative side (an unengaging melody and little melodic development) and offers little on the abstract side (the atmosphere is feeble and unfocused).

Zawinul’s “Orange Lady,” recorded on the same day and also first released on Big Fun, is better, partly because the melodic line is more interesting, and partly because it is reasonably successful as a tone poem, an exercise in creating a mood. The other two tracks recorded during this session were previously unreleased, and, as Macero argued, with good reason. “Yaphet” sounds like it starts where “Orange Lady” left off, meanders for nearly 10 minutes, and adds nothing significant whatsoever. “Corrado” is no more than a directionless 13-minute jam. Apart from Miles’ incisive playing, it has no engaging features.

Things didn’t get much better at the next session nine days later on November 28, with a similar ensemble. Organist Larry Young joined Hancock and Corea, and possibly to inject some energy from tried-and-tested elements, Miles reinstated his live band rhythm section: Holland played bass, and DeJohnette was on drums next to Cobham. The previously unreleased “Trevere” is a kernel of an idea that never takes off, and halfway through the band comes to a halt, from the sound of it because they had no clue where to take things next.

The same problems also apply to “The Big Green Serpent,” which is basically a group of musicians trying out an idea and getting nowhere. Belden sounds almost apologetic about the inclusion of “The Little Blue Frog,” and its alternate take (“A jam in G. That’s all it really is. Just a jam.”) [28], but at least the musicians sound as if they’re having fun, and McLaughlin and the rhythm section lay down a satisfactory groove. A 02:42 section of “The Little Blue Frog” was released as a single in the United States in April of 1970, before the release of Bitches Brew, and in France in 1973, and must have left listeners completely at a loss. “What were they (and who were they?) thinking?” [29] indeed. Originally Published