#7 Out of 10 Albums Vital (To Me)
In 1975, I came home one day from my job at Liverpool High School north of Syracuse, and I found, on the living room table in the decrepit farm house I rented with three fellow teachers, my copy of Miles Davis’s 1969 album Bitches Brew. On it, my housemate, Dave Eagle, had taped a note that said, “Ginger. Take this back to Del’s room.” Ginger was Dave’s cockapoo, and the note was Dave’s way of giving me a hard time about my taste in music.
I laughed and took Miles up to my room. I wasn’t an avid fan of Dave’s sweet folk rock (though he had an admirably sweet voice and fine guitar himself), so I had no need for him to applaud my choices in music. Besides, I was the one with the unusual taste. My housemates wanted music to be pretty and romantic or danceable or suitable to street fighting maybe, but not dense and “intellectual” and weird. But to me, Bitches Brew wasn’t intellectual; it was emotive and gripping and sometimes transcendent. And that did not feel weird to me.
Nor to an awful lot of other people. Bitches Brew is Miles’s second highest selling album, and it’s the one that launched Miles once again into the role of most popular jazz musician in the country and probably the world (even as traditionalists said he’d abandoned jazz altogether). In some ways it meant to Miles’s career what Sgt. Pepper’s had meant to The Beatles’, certainly by being so dramatically original, but also by being dependent not just on musicianship but also on technology and studio editing, as Miles’s long-standing producer, Teo Macero, shaped the recordings into four sides of revolutionary music.
If George Martin was the 5th Beatle, Macero was the 2nd Miles. He had produced all of Miles’s records since Davis signed with Columbia in 1955. As he had with Miles’s earlier album In a Silent Way, on Bitches Brew “Macero used the recording studio in radical new ways…There were many special effects, like tape loops, tape delays, reverb chambers and echo effects. Through intensive tape editing, Macero concocted many totally new musical structures that were later imitated by the band in live concerts” [Wikipedia]. The album is in some ways a collage, something like Matisse’s cut-outs, though Matisse used paper while Miles relied on the inventiveness and exploratory courage of all the other musicians.
Fourteen musicians join Miles on Bitches Brew, and several of them are also giants of modern music. But many were nonplussed, if happily so, by the strangeness of working on the album. In his excellent short book about Bitches Brew (and really about Miles’s career), George Grella, through interviews with the musicians, describes the recording process, explaining that, although every minute in the studio was recorded, only Miles and Macero were even permitted to hear playbacks. That way no player would hear something he liked in what he’d done and then strive to repeat it when he returned to recording. Spontaneity and lack of direction were the whole point. Bennie Maupin, bass clarinetist on the session, told Grella that “Miles would set up these rhythm patterns and conduct. He’d use hand gestures and facial gestures and he walked around while the tape was rolling and motion for certain people to play and they would play for a moment and then he would wave them out…I had never been in a recording situation where anyone had done that, plus the music was just really basically totally improvised” . Of course the resulting album was totally original.
Should we say it was ahead of its time? Maybe. But if so, its time has yet to arrive. Even Miles moved on to funk without seeing his accomplishments in the Bitches Brew era turn into a movement. Others have called the album influential, but without imitating its sound. George Grella argues that the album has remained “a sub rosa presence in rock and jazz,” offering up ideas that “are still rippling out along the surface” of our culture . But ripple out as it might, Bitches Brew has no imitators, or at least none that have garnered a fraction of the attention that Miles earned with this album. He went from playing concert halls to filling arenas. And Grella, too, in a later part of his essay, recognizes the radical singularity of the record. “There is literally no other recording anything like Bitches Brew,” he writes, “and there is little in or outside music like it” [8-9].
On my list of ten most influential albums, Bitches Brew is probably the one I now listen to the least. It’s not my favorite Miles Davis album; it’s not in a league with Round Midnight, Kind of Blue, or Miles Smiles. Even when it comes to the electronic Miles, I listen to In a Silent Way more. But I’m nearing 70 years old and am quieter and calmer–and less thrilled by the shattering of traditions–than the 18-year-old who had his mind blown by Bitches Brew.
Still, when I went out walking today, wearing my mask and isolating against the threat of Covid-19, I listened to Bitches Brew and found myself going happily along for the ride. I could attend to each distinctive thread in the collective improvisation, each musician’s spontaneous yet searching contribution to the mix. At the same time I could let my mind drift with the current of the music. It flowed and curved, dropped and lifted, paused and rippled, all with no sense of progress, no need for a destination, as I made my way back home.
Grella, George. Bitches Brew. Bloomsbury Academic. New York. 2015