Miles Davis: Bitches Brew
Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 2149 (2 discs)
Jazz - Fusion
Davis conceived Bitches Brew by having the musicians stand in a semi-circle, where he pointed at them with vague directions for tempo, solos, and cues. The collective improvisation and interplay spawned a galaxy of melodies and grooves that were later spliced together by producer Ted Macero. Here, these distinct creations take shape with utmost realism. Our double SACD envelops you in expansive warm tonal blankets. Compositions stretch across jet-black backgrounds and paint abstract canvasses on par with those of Axis: Bold As Love and Abraxas. Juxtaposed percussion, loose jams, and melodic segues explode with impressionistic verve.
Gathering a Hall of Fame-worthy lineup of musicians and tweaking it according to his desires, Davis follows through on his idea to “put together the greatest rock and roll band you ever heard” on Bitches Brew. Central to his proposition is the presence of two (and sometimes three) drummers and two bassists, a tactical move that thrusts rhythms into a central focus. Akin to the futuristic album cover art, the drum-driven suites head toward distant universes and uncharted territories—at once hypnotizing and grooving, charting maverick adventures with quixotic rock, funk, and R&B elements.
Conceptually, Davis described Bitches Brew as “a novel without words” and “an incredible journey of pain, joy, sorrow, hate, passion, and love.” The vast psychedelic expanses of warped echoes, liquid reverb, and tape loops confirm such ambitious contrasts of light and dark, fear and hope. Yet the most absolute characteristic of this watershed effort lies in how it resists definitive interpretation and encourages free thought—the very principles with which Davis conceived the everlasting beauty and fascination that is Bitches Brew.
Review by Mark Werlin - August 11, 2015
When "Bitches Brew" was released in April 1970, the controversy about Miles Davis' turn to electric jazz almost overshadowed the musical content of the album. Was it a blatant commercial sellout, as claimed by many of Miles' fellow musicians and the older generation of jazz critics? Had Miles turned his back on jazz and become a rock musician?
Close listening to the new Mobile Fidelity SACD clears away the debris of those misconceptions. The music on "Bitches Brew" was far outside the mainstream of 1960s rock music—in fact, it would prove to be a template for new directions in American and European improvisational music in the decade to come.
Intrigued by the rhythm arrangements in James Brown's band, the interlocking percussion and drum section of Santana, and the virtuosity and extended tone palette of Jimi Hendrix, Miles began incorporating amplified instruments on his records more than a year prior to "Bitches Brew". He instructed Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea to play Fender Rhodes electric piano on the "Filles de Kilimanjaro" sessions. For Hancock and Corea, the challenge of realizing an expressive tone on the limited-dynamic instrument led to experimentation with amplifiers, reverb, delay and distortion—the tools of rock guitarists. More studio sessions with electric instruments in late 1968 remained unreleased for many years, making the appearance of "In a Silent Way", which featured multiple electric keyboards and electric guitar, seem like a bolt out of the blue. The precedent for "Bitches Brew" was clear, but sales of "In a Silent Way" were disappointing; the record alienated long-time fans and failed to connect with younger listeners. Miles was at an artistic and commercial crossroads.
Following an acrimonious verbal feud with Columbia Records chief Clive Davis, Miles withdrew a threat to quit the label and instead called for three days of studio time and a large assemblage of players that included drummers, percussionists, electric keyboardists, a Fender bass player, electric guitarist John McLaughlin, bass clarinetist Benny Maupin, along with his current performing sidemen, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Chick Corea, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette, and significantly, pianist-composer Joe Zawinul.
"Bitches Brew" was a further step along Miles' "new directions" musical path. Many of the players called to the session had never met, performed or recorded with Miles; and while Davis and Zawinul had discussed and worked up some thematic sketches, the recording dates constituted the only full rehearsal the pieces received. The loosely structured, rhythmically extroverted and densely textured performances captured on August 19, 20 and 21, 1969 couldn't have been further from the cerebral, modernist jazz compositions of Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams that characterized the quintet of the 1965-68 period. Participants in the "Bitches Brew" sessions recall Davis allowing the group to work through its own dynamics without his interference. While the tape machines were running, the leader stayed mostly in the recording booth, emerging from time to time to start and stop recording takes, or to gesture at the musicians when they should begin or end their solos.
On the title track, Bitches Brew, Miles plays long melodic lines, assembled and restructured with tape editing. But on Joe Zawinul's composition Pharaoh's Dance, and the piece Spanish Key, there are long stretches without the familiar Davis trumpet bursts, smears and lyrical phrases. This was intentional: Miles' withdrawal opened space for the other players. Zawinul's keyboard excursions and Shorter's essays on the soprano sax, soon to be the signature sound of the group they formed the following year, Weather Report, and bass clarinetist Benny Maupin's "outside" solos up and down the range of the instrument, clearly marked the music as jazz, even as the steady-state drum patterns and minimal chord changes superficially resembled rock.
The stop-and-start drumming heard in the early minutes of "Pharaoh's Dance" would recur in Miles' bands from 1970-1975. While the enlarged ensemble of multiple keyboards and drum kits provided a dense rhythmic framework for Miles to play over and against, it had the disadvantage of blunting the impact of Jack DeJohnette's propulsive drumming. Compare the "Bitches Brew" studio recordings with live performances from the March 7, 1970 Fillmore East "It's About That Time" CD, and it's clear that something was lost in the endeavor to capture so many instruments playing in the same room at the same time.
The importance of Teo Macero in the making of "Bitches Brew" cannot be understated. In Davis' autobiography, in Jack Chambers' book "Milestones", and most usefully, in quotes from the principal musicians cited in Paul Tingen's article on the Miles Beyond website (http://www.miles-beyond.com/iaswbitchesbrew.htm), there is consensus that Macero willingly took on the Herculean task of shaping compositions out of hours of multiple incomplete takes. Working with reels of segments and fragments, Macero and mixing engineer Ray Moore managed to pare down nine hours of 8-channel tape into a 90 minute stereo master while satisfying Miles' demands for specific cuts and combinations—a remarkable accomplishment. Macero was an experienced saxophonist who had played with Charles Mingus and others in the 1950s. He understood the risk Miles was taking in abandoning the forms of music they both had played, years earlier.
Mobile Fidelity took on another kind of challenge: transferring a fragile, 45 year-old stereo master tape which included all of Macero's and Moore's cuts, original studio reverb and tape echo effects. Listening to that same master tape in 1999, engineer Mark Wilder and producer Bob Belden decided instead to remix and recreate the album from the 8-channel studio work tapes. For that reason, the two versions of "Bitches Brew" are not directly comparable. Teo Macero did not approve the remixing of the album or the issuance of unused session material on the "Complete Bitches Brew Sessions" box set. Those who have only heard the 1999 remix of "Bitches Brew" owe it to themselves to listen to the MoFi SACD. Drums are carefully set back in the soundstage; keyboards float across the stereo panorama; the horns emerge and blend back into the mix without stridency; and the Fender bass guitar and acoustic upright bass can be clearly distinguished.
The music on "Bitches Brew" still sounds vital 45 years after its appearance. Beyond the album's landmark historical importance, it is also one the last studio recordings of Miles Davis where his open bell trumpet playing can be heard at the peak of his technique and tone. After the early 1970 sessions that appeared on "Jack Johnson" and "Big Fun", Miles played with a combination of mute, wah-wah pedal and amplification that distorted his classic sound and curtailed much of its emotive beauty.
"Bitches Brew" offers a glimpse into a new direction that Miles himself would not follow.
Copyright © 2015 Mark Werlin and HRAudio.net