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Counterbalance No. 88: Miles Davis' 'Bitches Brew'

This week’s Counterbalance runs the voodoo down with Miles Davis’ electric masterpiece -- the 88th most acclaimed album of all time.

Miles Davis

Bitches Brew

US Release: 1970-04
UK Release: 1970-04
Label: Columbia

Mendelsohn: I love the effect that time has on music, Klinger. Such an intangible, arbitrary measure of our existence, but it never ceases to amaze me what the passage of time can produce. Just over ten short years after Miles Davis changed the way people looked at jazz with Kind of Blue, he turns around and does it again, this time with the wilder, avant-garde trip of Bitches Brew. Playing these albums back to back sounds like we're listening to two different artists from two different planets. Which leads me to ask: what happened to Davis during the 1960s, man?

I never really got Kind of Blue but I find Bitches Brew to be an absolutely arresting ride (most of the time). Maybe that has to do more with the things I recognize -- the nods to rock, the electric guitar of John McLaughlin and keyboard of Chick Corea, the winding, looping song structure that would reappear in certain quarters of electronic music several decades later. Plus, at loud volumes, this record won't put me to sleep.

Klinger: On one hand, I'm not surprised that Bitches Brew is the first jazz album we've covered that you've been able to bond with. (And while we're on the subject, this makes three jazz albums on the Great List so far compared to hip-hop's two. I say that not because I have anything against hip-hop, but just because I enjoy annoying you.) It's certainly full of references to funk and rock that should be instantly familiar. And the bubbling rhythmic percolations have indeed informed a lot of what has come since.

On the other hand, I'm a little surprised at your state of arrestment, given that these tunes are generally served up in great huge 20-plus minute slabs of sound that I find get away from me very easily. Unlike most jazz forms, I find that if my attention meanders away from the record for too long, it's hard to get back into it, and it sounds like an impenetrable mush for a while until I can regain my bearings. Maybe that's why jazz critics were so hard on Bitches Brew initially, even as rock critics were responding well to Davis' change in direction.

As for what happened to Miles in the '60s, I can oversimplify that in one word: Betty. Betty Davis (nee Mabry), who went on to record a few albums that were recently rediscovered, and her connections with the contemporary scene were an eye-opener for Miles. And although she got him away from those cool suits and into some much dodgier haberdashery, she also got him moving in this (and this is the word that dare not speak its name in many circles) fusion directions. Again, let me stress that this is a vast oversimplification, but it might be a useful one.

Mendelsohn: Well, thank you Betty Davis. I imagine that as the person at the forefront of JAZZ (as in the entire genre), that Miles Davis would feel the need, or immense pressure, to push the boundaries of his music, it just strikes me as such a marked change from the cool of Kind of Blue to the roiling boil of Bitches Brew. I guess, never underestimate the influence of a good woman.

And for the most part, I do find this record arresting, but not in the active listening sense where it grabs you by the lapels and shakes the love into you. Maybe hypnotic would be a better word. I like the slabs of music; I like being able to put this record on and letting it flow into my brain by osmosis. One minute I'm working on something, and then next I'm just staring off into space as the music converges in my brain. Sure, there are times when it's going to get away from you, but as long and winding as these songs appear to be, there is a cyclical nature to them that always brings them back around. I might just be conditioned to listen to this type of music from my years of exploring the jazzier side of electronic music and the Intelligent Dance Music subgenre. From what I understand, Bitches Brew was also pushing to boundaries of technical innovation as a lot of these songs were literally stitched together in post-production to create these colossal jaunts of jazz.

Klinger: That is correct, and we largely have producer Teo Macero to thank for that. We heard the genesis of this concept on Davis' previous album, In a Silent Way, and here it is writ large. Plus, on Bitches Brew, we hear Davis, Macero, and the entire crew turn their improvisations and studio jiggery-pokery toward something entirely more sinister. Make no mistake, this is a dark record—Dave Holland's brooding bass lines underpin the urgency of Chick Corea's keyboards and John McLaughlin's scratch-scruff guitar. And I can't help finding Benny Maupin's drizzling bass clarinet runs distinctly chilling.

So call me crazy, but not only do I prefer the lighter, defter touch of In a Silent Way to the more menacing Bitches Brew, I also find it downright difficult to really think of the album as a collection of distinct songs. Sure, the more delicate "Sanctuary" stands out in my mind, as does the more immediate groove of "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down" (of course, part of me has always wanted someone to say that I've run the voodoo down), but this album's burblings are maybe a little too much of a piece for me. But that's the part you find so hypnotic, Mendelsohn?

Mendelsohn: Predictably, I like the things that you find a bit unsettling. I also wouldn't characterize this record as dark although it certainly isn't light-hearted. And since you brought it up, I could do without the more conventional "Sanctuary". Most of the time I've just skipped it, preferring to pretend that the album comes to an end with the excellent "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down". Speaking of which, should I ever have the sad, though honored, privilege to speak at your funeral (assuming we aren't going to live forever), I promise to begin the eulogy with, "Klinger ran the voodoo down, the voodoo didn't take it so well..."

You mentioned earlier that this record was not well-received by the jazz elites but gained traction with the rock types. Is this causing conflict for you? How do you listen to this record? Is it with rock 'n' roll ears? Or do you hear it in the jazz way? This is still somewhat foreign territory for me and I've been pushing this record through the prism of much newer music, and that leaves me wondering if there really is a rift that this album is somehow crossing or if it’s just jazz freeing itself from the shackles of button down suits?

Klinger: I'd like to think I listen to everything with the same ears. It's all music—a sacred diversion, trivial and crucial at the same time. I try not to make the kind of distinctions where I say, "This is a very important jazz record—I must be reverent and solemn and really listen for those inverted triads and harmolodics and such." What it all comes down to is how it hits you. For jazz critics in 1969, this must have sounded like music from another planet. There's a good chance that many of them had no frame of reference for it. I've even heard some of them describe it as sounding too commercial, like Bitches Brew is the freakin' Archies or something.

You've mentioned in the past that we are fortunate to have the benefits of context when we listen, and that's true. We're able to hear Bitches Brew as less of a seismic shift within a community and more of a new branch on the tree. Miles Davis may not have been the fastest player and he didn't go for the highest notes, but he was one of only a handful of true musical visionaries of the 20th century, and this move toward electric jazz was really his most radical, even more than the cool jazz and modal jazz movements that he more or less invented previously. Traditional jazz more or less recovered once the Marsalis regime took hold in the 1980s, but the imprints of Miles' electric innovations were destined to remain a part of the conversation.

But anyway, I'm surprised you don't hear the darkness that's all through Bitches Brew. We had the same discussion about the "White Album". Do your ears just have some sort of filter for that?

Mendelsohn: I think if you go looking for darkness, no matter the time or place, you'll be able to find it. But you can't have black without white. We wouldn't know it was dark if we didn't have the light. That is why my world is mostly shades of grey—a mix of light and dark—because try as we might to separate them, you can't have one and not the other. By my count, we've seen only two truly dark albums, Joy Division's Closer, as it detailed Ian Curtis' fight with depression, and Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, because listening to it literally makes me want to die.

With Bitches Brew, where you see ominous overtones, I see the explosion of creation. For me, this album is an untamed landscape of the primordial Earth in the middle of the messy business of creation. Holland's bass lays down the foundation, anchoring the unruly drums and burst of light from Corea and McLaughlin that bubble forth like lava as Davis' trumpet stabs like lightning, illuminating the skies. Maupin's bass clarinet? Just a little rain to cool the fire bubbling up from below.

Some people will look at it in one of two ways—as a rough place without much light or the crucible of life itself. For me, it's both.

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