Miles Davis - “Bitches Brew”
It’s kind of sacrilegious to doubt one of the top ten best-selling jazz albums of all time. Here’s the thing, though: I’m not entirely feeling it. What follows is an unfiltered analysis, which I need for my own exploratory purposes. It is entirely subjective. Every statement below should be read as starting with an implicit “I feel like…”, or “In my opinion…”, or “It seems to me…”, etc.
Obviously, “Bitches Brew” is an album with talented musicians directed by a gifted leader, rightfully called a genius by many. Mati Klarwein’s cover art is stellar as well.
Maybe most importantly, it’s an album produced by a tape splicing wizard, Teo Macero. The album’s compositional idea to go in and record short moments of interplay between the musicians that were later sequenced by the producer was, at the time, very forward-thinking. Today we can look at it and say: “hey, that’s sampling and sequencing”. And this particular instance produced explosive pieces that change at breakneck speed but somehow create a consistent sound. A sound that could be used as a backdrop to many kinds of movies, games, dance choreographies, and so on. But a sound that demands attention, a sound that is anti-ambient.
And all in all, I don’t like it very much. I don’t feel it.
It’s not “rock jazz”
I understand that one of the accepted truths about the album is that it’s a foundational work for the jazz-rock genre. I don’t buy it as there is very little rock there. In factualifies as “rock jazz”, as I prefer to call it, i.e. jazz with major rock influences.
First, let’s assume by “rock” we mean “instrumental rock”, which is already a much smaller niche. There are no vocals, but let’s assume we mean the instrumental kind. I can’t really find any typical characteristics of rock music on “Bitches Brew”. I guess that at the time of release, it was enough to use an electric lead guitar and an electric bass guitar in the rhythm section for a record to be dubbed “rock”. But where’s rock’s signature directness and clarity of structure? I don’t necessarily mean a rigid verse-chorus-verse-chorus piece arrangement, as many rock songs don’t follow it either. But they have structures that are discernible. They have a narrative focus. They are songs.
“Bitches Brew” is a collection of awesome jams by extraordinary masters of jazz. I just don’t find a song in any of those songs. In fact, analysis of the album by scholars greater than me often highlights that the tracks on it don’t really reach a resolution, a final point. Instead, they simply end because the musicians stop playing or the producer fades the music out.
What’s a song, anyway?
If you have listened to “Bitches Brew” many times, as I have now, you will learn to quickly recognize tracks from it in the unlikely event of hearing them at a café or elsewhere. But if I told you to hum a tune from any of them, that would pose a challenge. As I said above, there is insufficient structure in those tracks, also in terms of melodic hooks. Again, asking for the “rock jazz” comparison, where are the riffs?
Sure, you can say that in the 1960s, traditional rock bands also had their psychedelic phases, and some of their songs were chaotic improvisation. “Astronomy Domine” and “Interstellar Overdrive” come to mind. However, it bears noting that Pink Floyd ceased to play those songs live in 1971 and only returned to them in 1994, in altered forms that clean up much of the original psychedelic clutter. As Gilmour put it: “it needed a bit of dusting off”. In other words, the freeform closed-eyed sprint forward didn’t age very well.
And sure, then there’s Jimi Hendrix, who could solo live like a madman. But songs on his records are carefully structured, to the point where some gems like “Little Wing” are barely over 2 minutes long.
On “Bitches Brew”, you’ve got a large band with many duplicate roles (two bassists, two drum kits, two or three electric pianos) and seemingly little forward planning. The result, while entirely competent (as you’d expect from musicians of this level of mastery), is predictably chaotic. When I hear the fragmentary nature of the phrases performed by the musicians, I feel like they decided on the spot to be somewhat conservative lyrically not to risk ruining the jam with an obviously incompatible harmony. When I hear the same incomplete phrases repeated, I get bored. Those aren’t catchy riffs, those are placeholders for thoughtful arrangement.
Similarly, the solos over those pieces can’t seem to find much ground to sing. So they use similarly short-lived phrases, often repeated, to the point of repeating single notes. Interestingly, after the recording sessions, even Joe Zawinul complained to Miles Davis that he didn’t like what they recorded as it was “too much noodling”. And even awesome noodling is still clearly noodling, as not even Miles himself manages to build convincing melodies on this record. I’m saying that in comparison to his other albums, where he proves time and time again how unreal his mastery of a piece of brass with three valves is.
But the guitar!
Okay, if there’s one musician that stands out here among the other stars, it’s John McLaughlin, who is both good technically and creates the most memorable phrases. And while the guy clearly has real rock-and-roll hall-of-fame creds, having jammed with Jimi Hendrix himself as well as having given Jimmy Page guitar lessons, to my ears on “Bitches Brew” he is a jazz guitarist. Closer to Larry Carlton than to Hendrix. That’s not a bad thing, mind you! But I simply can’t accept the “rock jazz” label.
In 2022, this is one of the best-selling jazz albums that nobody seems to know about. For such a popular record, it’s got pretty poor footing in pop culture. It’s not being quoted; it hasn’t been repurposed in other art forms; it’s not talked about much save for the “jazz-rock” foundation cliché. Sure, it might have been influential in 1970. But in 2022, it’s fading into obscurity due to being impenetrable.
And impenetrable it is. Don’t get me wrong: I had my prog-rock phase and I accept tracks that are 20 minutes long. Take “The Dark Tree” by Horace Tapscott, to stay in the jazz neighborhood. Here you’ve got two pieces of roughly 20 minutes in length, also very impressionistic, also loud and with pulsing rhythm sections, also utilizing non-typical scales. I find that result much more captivating than the title track from “Bitches Brew”. It makes more sense to me. It’s more - forgive the sacrilege here - musical.
On “Bitches Brew”, “Spanish Key” is my highlight, despite Chick Corea’s somewhat obvious cues to the rest of the band for section changes, which remind me of his own “Spain” and “500 Miles High” compositions. But thanks to those cues, there is a hint of a melodic structural center. There is something to hold onto. And John McLaughlin is excellent here, as are the bass players. Miles’ soloing is also arguably the most well-rounded here. And apparently, this is a track that didn’t need Macero’s splicing later because it’s been played live. It shows. (But I’d cut it anyway around 13:20 to make a stronger overall song.)
George Grella’s Take
The 33 1/3 book on “Bitches Brew” is quite a ride. It reads itself with its smart narrative, contemporary language, and in-depth subject matter. Very good book! I read quite a few books in the series, and this one is easily the most captivating.
Unsurprisingly, George is a huge fan of the record, and his book is singing praises of it, with descriptions like “carries astonishing force and weight of expression” or “Bitches Brew was unprecedented”. Really, unprecedented? Sun Ra and Carla Bley would like a word. Steve Reich would object as well, I believe.
Grella also calls “Bitches Brew” the first fusion album, to which I can only ask: what about Larry Coryell and his records with Gary Burton as well as with the Free Spirits? What of David Axelrod’s “Song of Innocence”, which inspired the term “jazz fusion” in the first place? In fact, in his footnotes, Grella contradicts himself by pointing at “Emergency!” as the generally accepted first fusion album.
While I don’t share his enthusiasm, I liked Grella’s other upbeat words of praise like:
[Miles’ music] centered around one organizing idea that is open to a myriad valid interpretations.
Music should be high art with pop appeal.
“Bitches Brew” is deep thinking without high concept, high art with the low appeal of abstract funk, and it seals the artificial division between jazz as popular entertainment and jazz as art music, and makes an abstract art music with the sounds of the streets.
He also seems to agree with me on the entire “jazz-rock” misnomer:
There is so little rock beat on the album that when it appears, it’s accidental.
There’s a convincing argument in the book that part of the listener’s confusion with the album is that it isn’t structured in the Western sense of having sheet music that prescribes linearly what the musicians should be playing.
Instead, it resembles the non-Western perception of time as a circular vehicle, i.e. things coming and going, leaving and returning. This can be observed in nature and is apparently a common organizing principle of Eastern music where a form of repetition creates a “drone” on top of which thematic work is put.
I almost bought this idea, but when I returned to the source material, I had to reject the notion. To me, it feels like it’s an ex post facto rationalization of the album’s chaos. I mean, plenty of music, especially in the electronic space, can be considered centered around repetitions and cyclicity. Some, like Aphex Twin’s “Selected Ambient Works Volume II", mastered this central idea, becoming truly timeless and influential.
Grella rightfully notes that there wasn’t much music made in the style of “Bitches Brew” after it got released. This includes music by Miles Davis himself.
Yet, he somehow also claims the album’s widespread influence on musicians and the music that came later. I’m not entirely sure. I mean, of course, members of the band which Miles Davis formed at the time went on to create massively successful and lasting art. Their experience with “Bitches Brew” must have played a role in their future success. But I have trouble seeing a lasting impression of “Bitches Brew” as a work of art in modern culture.
The album’s puzzling high sales Grella admits “confound both supporters and detractors of Bitches Brew”. I agree, it surprises me as well. Sure, by 1970, people had established that Miles Davis was a trustworthy artist, a proven musician. But the record sold much better than his previous albums from the 1960s!
Maybe to an extent, what sold people on the double album was its stellar cover art? You buy with your eyes, after all. In any case, he argues that those positive economic ramifications single-handedly steered Columbia into investing in more jazz in the 1970s, through which we can enjoy Wynton Marsalis, among others.
Now that I think about it, the fact that the record sold so well, but hasn’t been imitated later, points to its troublesome nature.
“Bitches Brew” is not a bad record, it doesn’t cause any visceral reactions in me, and fragments of it are truly delightful. But, in its entirety, is it worth the hype? Well, it is a valuable cultural artifact for sure. A piece of jazz history, a top-notch jam by über-talented musicians. With that being said, it’s sadly not my cup of tea when it comes to either jazz or rock. I have to agree with the Penguin Guide to Jazz when they say that “Bitches Brew” is
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.
There are many Miles Davis records that I prefer to this one. For instance, apart from the obvious “Kind of Blue”, I like the one he recorded just months before “Bitches Brew” - “In A Silent Way”. But that’s a topic for a different note.