Listen to This: Miles Davis and Bitches Brew by Victor Svorinch

It is surprising that Victor Svorinich’s Listen to This: Miles Davis and Bitches Brew is the first full-length book devoted to examining the 1970 double-album that set the trumpeter on a electrified path from which he never wavered until his death in 1991. Fortunately, Kean University music instructor Svorinich, whose previous work has examined electric Miles albums In a Silent Way and On the Corner, is up to the task’s demands, and his book is an essential if imperfect addition to the library of Davis scholarship.

Listen to This smoothly grounds Davis’ new direction in the context of its times. The product of recording sessions begun the day after Woodstock, Brew reflected the evolving sensibilities of an artist dedicated to never putting his muse in park. He had become enamored of the seismic explorations of popular black musicians like James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, and the unprecedented mainstream success of these artists had Davis worrying that he would be abandoned in the musical past. “I wasn’t prepared to be a memory yet,” said Davis, and in order to create the freshest sounds imaginable, he assembled a band that included saxophonist Wayne Shorter, a longtime collaborator; more recent cohorts like guitarist John McLaughlin and electric pianist and composer Joe Zawinul; and a few young musicians with whom he had never played or recorded, notably bass clarinetist Bennie Maupin, whom Svorinich calls the album’s “hidden gem” and for whom the inaugural Brew session marked the first time he and Davis had met.

Svorinich’s book is at its best when tackling the sheer nuts and bolts of recording Bitches Brew. He goes virtually bar by bar through the album’s six compositions-a term to be understood loosely, given the project’s freeform, jam-based improvisations. He doesn’t shy away from calling out certain musicians for problematic moments during the sessions, like drummer Lenny White, whose overreaching slickness got him cut from “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” and electric bassist Harvey Brooks, who saw every single one of his solos removed from the final LPs. But the writer also captures the truly collaborative nature of the album’s sprawling, expansive music, and he includes transcriptions of numerous melodic lines and solos, particularly from Davis and Shorter, that will be valuable to musicians and composers. Also worth noting is the attention Svorinich pays to the contributions of Brew producer Teo Macero, whose vast influence on the final product-kickoff track “Pharaoh’s Dance” includes 19 separate edits-has led some to controversially regard the producer as the album’s true “author.”

Svorinich also digs deep into Brew‘s marketing, chronicling Davis’ insistence that the music be positioned to appeal to young black listeners who were then largely abandoning jazz. The book includes reproductions of letters from Columbia brass addressing everything from Davis’ salary demands to the trumpeter’s potentially panic-inducing album-title selection. Svorinich tackles the frequently hostile response to Davis’ new musical direction; many have seen it as a cynical attempt to cash in on rock’s popularity, with critic Stanley Crouch branding Brew an act of “self-violation.” Svorinich swiftly and skillfully details the five years of audacious, electrically driven music that followed Brew; Davis’ half-decade of drug-fueled hermitage, during which he did no touring or recording, following the viciously ill-received 1975 live album Agharta; and his re-emergence in the early ’80s, still playing electrified music, still pursuing untraveled paths.

Svorinich’s book, like the Brew sessions themselves, is not without its problems. His portrait of Davis’ often forbidding interpersonal style and fiery racial consciousness is sharply drawn, but merely reiterates long-understood knowledge without providing any truly revelatory insights. The author’s attempts to position Bitches Brew as “a social commentary on African-American culture” also remain frustratingly abstract, Svorinich never concretely defining the music’s intended stance on the titanic shockwaves blasting through American black consciousness at the time. Despite these reservations, however, no fan of Davis or student of contemporary jazz should skip this penetrating and fast-reading take on an album that still, 45 years after its release, gives us much to hear, say and contemplate.

Read Paul Tingen’s in-depth article on the making of the Bitches Brew album.