Psych album of the week: Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew (1970)

There is no denying the lasting ability of this album to provoke thought and transport the listener to a land with no rules

Bitches-Brew

Miles Davis, Bitches Brew

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The English band Spacemen 3 once released an album called Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To, which is an amusing title and probably pretty accurate as far as Spacemen 3 was concerned. Of course, you don’t have to take any drugs to enjoy music; music is arguably its own kind of mind-altering substance. For those so inclined, however, we offer the following as a must-hear.

April of 1970 saw famously cantankerous jazzman Miles Davis release Bitches Brew, his 45th album since his 1951 debut. That’s more than two albums a year for almost 20 years. This astonishing output was to decrease significantly over the balance of his career, but at the time, Davis was at the height of his “electric” period and he showed no signs of running out of ideas or slowing down. 

The Penguin Guide to Jazz called Bitches Brew “one of the most remarkable creative statements of the last half-century, in any artistic form. It is also profoundly flawed, a gigantic torso of burstingly noisy music that absolutely refuses to resolve itself under any recognized guise.”

The album’s sound leans more towards rock and fusion than jazz and has become a major influence for rock and funk musicians. Disorienting trills, loose rhythms, and staccato stabs of delay-drenched trumpet move in and out of the extended arrangements, which feature the improvisational prowess of his band including John McLaughlin on guitar, Wayne Shorter on soprano saxophone, and Joe Zawinul and Chick Corea on electric pianos. 

In addition, Davis used an electric and an upright bass player along with two drummers and a percussionist, all playing together to help realize the richly textured and sometimes chaotic sounds of the album sessions. 

Davis was curious about the new psychedelic sounds coming from the U.K. and picked the British McLaughlin’s brain: “He was asking me about Jimi [Hendrix],” McLaughlin said. “We had played together and I loved Jimi. Miles had never seen him. So, I took him to this art movie theater downtown to see the film Monterey Pop where Jimi ended by squirting lighter fluid on his guitar, setting it on fire. Miles was next to me saying: ‘Fuuck!’ He was enchanted.”

Setting new standards for postproduction in popular music, Davis and long-time producer Teo Macero used the studio to effectively sample his musicians prior to the popularization of digital sampling technology.  Sections and individual performances were sliced, looped, and rearranged in unprecedented ways. “It was Miles painting with music,” McLaughlin said, “and we were all his brushes.”

Reactions to the album were mixed. Although it won a Grammy in 1971, jazz purists were largely unreceptive. Eventually, the album gained momentum, peaking at No. 35 on the Billboard 200. As author Michael Segell wrote in 1978, jazz was “considered commercially dead” by the 1960s, until the album’s success “opened the eyes of music-industry executives to the sales potential of jazz-oriented music”. 

Whether you find the album’s “order in disorder” approach compelling or stultifying, there is no denying the power of Davis’s imagination and the lasting ability of this album to provoke thought and transport the listener to a land with no rules. 

Key tracks

The looping madness of “Pharaoh’s Dance”, the concise but overflowing “John McLaughlin”, the stylistic chameleon of “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down”.

Sonic psych-out

About 11 minutes into opening track “Pharaoh’s Dance”, underneath bursts of Davis’s trumpet, a dizzying flurry of bass clarinet runs, electric-piano arpeggios, saxophone chirps, and acoustic piano all twist and roil, sparring for space.   

In his own words

“If anybody wants to keep creating they have to be about change. Living is an adventure and a challenge. When people come up to me and ask me to play something like ‘My Funny Valentine,’ some old thing that I might have done when they were fucking this special girl and the music might have made them both feel good, I can understand that. But I tell them to go buy the [new] record. I’m not there in that place any longer and I have to live for what is best for me and not what’s best for them.” (Miles Davis on keeping his music fresh)

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