A master at dangerous play

'Bitches Brew' changed jazz history -- and proved again that Miles Davis was the Proteus of 20th century music.

Published December 16, 1998 4:31PM (EST)

I first heard "Bitches Brew" the year it came out, in 1969. It was shocking. The opening sidelong notes of Miles Davis' trumpet in "Pharaoh's Dance," insinuating themselves into a restless polyrhythmic jungle of percussion, oddly knowing keyboards, a seething electric guitar and an uncanny bass line that seemed to go everywhere and nowhere at once, announced an alien world, shot through by darkness, whose beauties were indistinguishable from its terrors.

Listening today to "Bitches Brew," the complete sessions of which Columbia has just released in a four-CD box set, is still shocking. With its maniacal loose-jointed precision, its self-attuned formlessness, its refusal to answer any of the questions it asks, its sense of tendrils rising up out of an unknowable earth, it is a chaotic symphony of the modern -- an electric version of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring."

"Bitches Brew" may be the strangest landmark in jazz history. It wasn't the first fusion album -- that honor is shared by Gary Burton, Tony Williams' Lifetime and the Fourth Way, among others. But it stands alone. The double album with the frightening extraterrestrial Nubians on the cover marked the first time a first-generation bop master, a giant whose pedigree went back to Bird, Diz and Max Roach, had ventured into the mysterious electric forest. And Miles didn't just add a few rock elements to his music -- he invented a whole new form. And it was bolder and just plain weirder than any fusion before -- and probably since. "Bitches Brew" should carry a label: "Warning: Master at Dangerous Play."

Miles had changed history. But for the greatest creator of improvisational music in the 20th century, changing history was par for the course.

In 1968, Miles was evolving so fast even he couldn't catch up to himself. At age 43, he stood at the top of the mountain. For four years, he had led what was probably the most formidable quintet in the history of jazz. This astonishing unit, featuring Tony Williams, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, completely changed the landscape of jazz. Miles' so-called second great quintet moved beyond the bebop formula to explore radically new territory. On classic albums like "ESP," "Nefertiti" and "Miles Smiles," the quintet made music that had the intensity and risk-taking quality of avant-garde free jazz, while still remaining in touch with tonality. The result was the jazz version of high modernism -- music that neither collapsed into the chaotic, anti-formal gestures of wild men like Cecil Taylor or Ornette Coleman, nor retold the technically dazzling but familiar stories of bebop. The group took group improvisation further than it had ever been taken.

But Miles wasn't content to rest there. In 1968, he released "Filles de Kilimanjaro," an album so perfect in its out-there idiosyncrasy that no one has even tried to make anything like it since. In this album -- on which "Bitches Brew" stalwarts Chick Corea and Dave Holland made their Miles debuts -- jazz seemed to have been boiled down into the most intimate, elusive and enigmatic of essential parts. At once lyrical and off-kilter, it had the weight of a classical composition -- and was as airy and insubstantial as a soap bubble. Miles said two of his big influences at this time were Jimi Hendrix and James Brown, and after the fact you just might be able to tell -- but it was a strange and convoluted line of transmission. You can feel the same open spaces behind this music that you can in his classic "Kind of Blue," but it's a less comforting space now, uncannier, more pop, more machinelike, more electric. It's the first hint of the chill of those heights Miles was about to explore.

A few months later, Miles jumped into the unknown, breaking completely with tradition with the revolutionary "In a Silent Way." He'd taken these astonishing leaps at least twice before -- with "Birth of the Cool" and with the Ravel-like tonalities and modal improvising on "Kind of Blue." But it is still breathtaking to reflect that Miles went from "Nefertiti" to "Bitches Brew" in only two years. It's as if James Joyce had evolved from the 19th century mastery of "Dubliners" to the modernism of "Ulysses" to the avant-garde explorations of "Finnegans Wake" in 24 months.

A trance lullaby of velvet sound, inspired by the ethereal, open-ended compositions and playing of Joe Zawinul (who was also the single most important catalyst in "Bitches Brew"), "In a Silent Way" drifted down endlessly upon the listener like a comforting cloud. It was the first jazz album that didn't really sound like "jazz" at all. (Miles always hated the word "jazz," regarding it as limiting, and placed the words "Directions in Music by Miles Davis" on the album's cover, as he would on "Bitches Brew.") But it didn't sound like rock either, although the rock revolution, with its heavy bass lines and simple harmonies, clearly influenced it. Miles was going even deeper into the note than before, slowing everything down even more. He had always been jazz's great stopper of time, his deceptive, muscular simplicity working against the form's innate tendency to spin out into technique. Now, having laid the ground over the last two years of experimentation, he had completely changed the form. There was no going back.

And then, in the summer of 1969, he struck, with a savagery and audacity that still makes the hairs on the back of your neck stick up when you hear it. "Bitches Brew" was like "In a Silent Way's" evil outer-space brother. It seemed to blast in from some particularly frozen and unspeakable part of the cosmos, burn up everything in its vicinity and then roar off in an angry red and black glow. It is a terrifying and majestic piece of work. Even its imperfections -- and it may be the most intentionally imperfect masterpiece ever recorded -- are an essential part of its vision. Miles' guiding spirit of freedom turned accident into a new kind of beauty.

The most remarkable thing about "Bitches Brew" is the infinite variety it derives from such simple, almost amorphous musical structures. There are only six "tunes" -- the word is laughable here -- on the double album, but those six contain multitudes. "Pharaoh's Dance," the ungraspable Zawinul composition that opens the album, is the most complex and multifaceted, literally stitched together out of dozens of component sound-parts. Miles had been using editing as a compositional technique for several years, but now he took the technique to new levels. In Bob Belden's informative essay on the sessions that accompanies the box set, he describes how "Pharaoh's Dance" was pieced together out of no less than 19 edits -- a post-recording technique that may have been unprecedented in its time. Miles experiments with staccato phrasing in a single mode here, restricting himself to jabbing at the edges of the rhythm. Strange pleasures, like the demented hip-hop-like atonal bass line that enters at 9:00, rise up and vanish. John McLaughlin's incisive guitar, here as throughout the album, simultaneously adds edgy melodic color with jagged, lightning-fast runs and holds the loose and baggy monster together. And the explosive flexibility of drummers Jack DeJohnette and Lenny White, the eccentric, noodling intelligence of keyboardists Corea and Zawinul and the odd insinuation of bass clarinetist Bennie Maupin (whose eerie sound is one of the album's signatures) push the wild parade on.

"Bitches Brew," the gloriously terrifying title track, is also a virtual orchestral suite, from the monstrous echo-and-reverb-laden trumpet line that comes riding in out of some electronic purgatory to its peculiar shift into a finger-snapping rubato section. "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down" is a straighter tune, driven by a wonderfully funky New Orleans rhythm laid down by percussionist/drummer Don Alias, with propulsive offbeat support from the twin bass team of Dave Holland and Harvey Brooks. Miles attacks his solo in a more coherent, extended way before yielding to a maniacally inspired Corea solo. "Sanctuary," the lovely Shorter composition, is the most conventional tune on the album, building to a powerful climax.

The album's masterpiece, however, is "Spanish Key." For all of their demented beauties, the three other long tunes lack melodic unity; they don't hit a single target. Somehow, on this tune, everything came together -- dynamics, harmony and melody, all kicked along by a propulsive beat. A series of long modal teases that builds to a truly exultant head, "Spanish Key" combines Miles' earlier melodicism with the ferocious rhythmic power of his new team. You can hear "Sketches of Spain" in here, and "Kind of Blue," that haunting Miles sound someone once described as sounding like a little boy who's locked out and trying to get in -- but the sound is blown up to the passionate grandeur of rock. Shorter felt it: His solo here is a logical, passionate triumph. If there was one direction one could wish Miles had followed out of this album, it would be that of "Spanish Key."

But Miles was too restless to go back inside, back to tunes and sounds, however stirring, that had a beginning, middle and end. He wanted to experiment with coloration, simple figures and rhythm, and that's what he did. Most of those experiments, however, lacked either the majestic coherence of "Spanish Key" or the weird, sui generis brilliance of "Pharaoh's Key" or "Bitches Brew."

Which is the weakness of this box set. Once you get past the "Bitches Brew" cuts, the musical quality declines, sometimes precipitously. There were eight "Bitches Brew" sessions recorded over several months, and all of the music from them is found here, but the spirit only really spoke on the three August sessions that ended up on the album. The next-best tunes are "Great Expectations" and "Orange Lady," simple and haunting experiments in color and repetition (with sitar and tabla added) that appeared on Miles' 1974 album "Big Fun." But even these tunes are below the "Bitches Brew" standard, and by the time you get down to previously unreleased tunes like "Corrado" and "Feio" -- well, everything Miles did is worth listening to, but there's a reason why some things make it out of the can first. It's interesting to hear Miles' version of David Crosby's pretty "Guinevere" (a shorter edit of which is available on the 1979 compilation "Circle in the Round"), but it ain't worth 50 bucks.

Columbia is planning to release No. 5 in its wonderful series of boxed Miles soon, featuring the "In a Silent Way" period, the bridge between "Filles de Kilimanjaro" and "Bitches Brew." It wouldn't have been as comprehensive for Miles collectors, but it would have offered more value to have combined those selections with the six "Bitches Brew" cuts and the two from "Big Fun" and released the rest separately. Compared with the extraordinary richness of the second Quintet box (No. 4 in the series), "The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions" doesn't quite measure up.

But if the sessions don't all show Miles at his best, they still show a master at work -- and a master whose legacy was more than just his art. Davis was that rarest of creators: an artist who combined mastery with ceaseless exploration.
What he left us with was not just magnificent art, but something stranger and harder to define -- the gift of creativity itself. His career affirms limitlessness, the irrepressibility of invention, the infinite ways that humans can express their lives.

With "Bitches Brew," Miles changed the future of jazz. Not everyone liked the future he ushered in: "Bitches Brew" not only was Miles' bestselling album ever, converting thousands of rock fans, it was also the most denounced. Miles' traditionalist critics were outraged -- it was Dylan at Newport again. Miles, as usual, ignored the critics. And his fellow musicians followed him: Out of these sessions came musicians who would form the leading fusion groups that would take the music in new directions in the '70s. Zawinul and Shorter's Weather Report, McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, Hancock's Headhunters, Corea's Return to Forever -- all were Miles' children.

But Miles himself had gone as far as he was going to. Who would have thought, in 1969, that "Bitches Brew" would be Miles' last great achievement -- that he would never again turn himself, and the music of his time, inside out? For many reasons, he was to lose that precarious balance, fall into the dead-end of funk aggression and mere street hipness -- the free fall started with "On the Corner" and, with some interesting exceptions, never stopped. It didn't matter: He had given us enough, more than enough. And during those three August days, he did it again. He ran the voodoo down. And as he did, he waved high the banner of freedom -- his own, and now, forever, ours.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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