Bitches Brew 25 years on
July 1995 by Eric Nisenson

It is strange to remember the first release of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew album some 25 years ago just from the standpoint of time. In some ways it feels like it was only yesterday, thanks to the hectic pace of American culture this century. But from another standpoint it seems like it was an eon ago when we first heard the beat of Jack DeJohnette's snare which begins this seminal album. And that, alas, is because of the course of jazz in the last decade or so. Listening to it now, Bitches Brew sounds even more revolutionary than it did in 1969.  

Bitches Brew was a great commercial success, selling over 600,000 copies when it was initially released. The album seemed to mirror a time of great optimism, at least to those of us caught up in the cultural revolution of that era. This was, don't forget, shortly after Woodstock, a time when many believed that America was well on its way toward being "greened," remade by the counterculture. Much of this was indisputably sappy wishful thinking, but there was also good reason to believe that it was a time of a true coming together of formally disparate elements: black and white, East and West, male and female, high and popular culture, and, with Bitches Brew, jazz and rock/funk. Even the cover seemed to reflect this attitude (many credit Michael Halewin's mind-blowing cover art for much of the album's success): an African couple is looking toward a stormy ocean, and quite possibly their eventual fate in the West. On the back, white and black figures seem to merge against a starry sky.  

Ralph Gleason's famous liner notes for the album also reflect this feeling: "[The world] will never be the same again now, after In a Silent Way, and after Bitches Brew. Listen to this. How can it ever be the same?" Gleason would have had quite a shock if he had stepped into a time machine and moved 25 years into the future. Instead of new, fresh music built on Miles' innovations and reflecting the sheer celebration of discovery, he would have heard, at least in the jazz world, a total dearth of "the sound of surprise," to use Whitney Balliet's famous phrase. He would witness a generation of musicians young, obviously talented players trapped in the past (a past that even well preceded Bitches Brew) and apparently allergic to real innovation. I wonder what he might have thought.  

Listening to Bitches Brew a little over a quarter century since its initial release, I feel both depressed and exhilarated. Depressed, because it is a forceful reminder that jazz is no longer the innovative, and consistently progressive and visionary force in our society that it used to be. There were few great hosannas sung when Bitches Brew was released; jazz fans had come to expect innovation from the most prominent jazz musicians. Since jazz, like all great art, has reflected the society in which it was created, I have to wonder how much the music being made today reflects an America that itself is becoming brittle and stale.  

Yet I am also exhilarated, all over again, listening to this album after all these years. Because Miles' ideas work, they make sense, the whole here is indisputably greater than the sum of its parts. Bitches Brew seems more beautiful and full of life than ever; without doubt it is a work of art that will be listened to for centuries to come. And the challenges of its innovations are still there for another generation of musicians to confront, perhaps one that will begin coming of age at the dawn of the next millennium. For at least one of the greatest meanings inherent in Bitches Brew that the world and the universe are full of uncounted possibilities is simply too powerful to be overlooked by posterity.  

What makes Bitches Brew so important? The facile answer is that it augured the age of Fusion, the synthesis of jazz and rock or jazz and funk which dominated the '70s. Simply look at the personnel of Bitches Brew; almost every musician on the album went on to form or be part of one of the most important Fusion bands of that era: Chick Corea and Lenny White (Return to Forever), John McLaughlin and Larry Young (Tony Williams Lifetime and then McLaughlin's own Mahavishnu Orchestra), Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter (Weather Report), Bennie Maupin (Herbie Hancock's Headhunters). However, these days it is more likely that both Miles and Bitches Brew are blamed for spearheading the advent of Fusion rather than honored for it, since no jazz of any decade has been so discredited by most jazz critics and many fans as that of the '70s Fusion movement. And that is for good reason much (though not all) Fusion did pander to a rock audience, substituting fast chops, volume, and electronic razzle-dazzle for the subtlety and depth of the best jazz. Wynton Marsalis and his fellow "neo-classicists" have been especially withering in their criticism of Miles' turn to Fusion, insisting that he was simply selling out, and that Fusion itself was a wrong turn for jazz.  

Did Miles really "sell out"? Listening to Bitches Brew now it is obvious that simply labeling it "jazz-rock" is missing the point. For one thing, anyone buying this album and expecting to hear anything resembling rock and roll would have been undoubtedly confused and disappointed. Yes, there are a number of elements in the album that betray an obvious rock and funk influence. But Bitches Brew is really a jazz work in the true jazz tradition of continuous innovation building on the achievements of the past, while adding enough new elements to create a new, and in retrospect obvious, step forward in the evolution of the music.  

There is a myth about Bitches Brew that needs to be dismissed. The myth is that Miles was told by Columbia Records boss Clive Davis that his records were not selling well enough and that he better make his music more commercial if he wanted to stay on with the company. According to this myth, it was because of this pressure that Miles recorded Bitches Brew. The myth should be dispelled simply by listening to the album. This is scarcely "commercial" music, pandering to a rock audience; it is far too complex and multi-directional.  

But more important, if one follows the development of Miles' music from ESP to Miles in the Sky (in which there is one piece "Paraphernalia" which utilizes both electric bass and electric piano and which has a funk/rock rhythm) to Filles de Kilamanjaro and then, of course, In a Silent Way (where he first utilized the textures of three electric pianists and electric guitarist John McLaughlin, all playing swirling lines, an effect he pushed even further in Bitches Brew), as well as several transitional pieces later collected on Circle in the Round and Directions, it should be clear that Brew was not a sudden development in Miles' career. The elements that finally culminate in Bitches Brew can be traced from album to album: Miles' increasing restlessness with the conventions of post-bop jazz; his interest in the new aural textures offered by rock and soul, experimenting with electric guitar and electric piano, as well as the way certain rock musicians, like the Beatles, used the resources of the studio to create interesting textural effects; and even his grudging interest in certain techniques and musical ploys associated with the "New Thing" avant-garde movement of the '60s (such as group improvisation; the elastic rhythm created by several percussionists and two bass players, one electric, the other acoustic; and Bennie Maupin's bass clarinet, a ghostly presence throughout most of Brew that is so reminiscent of the late Eric Dolphy, one of the fathers of the "New Thing").  

Thus, if viewed from this perspective, instead of being a belated attempt to reach the Woodstock generation, Bitches Brew seems an ineluctable culmination of the musical exploration Miles and the musicians in his bands had been conducting for several years, as well as some of the innovations of the "New Thing" musicians who had dominated the '60s. Bitches Brew and most of the other music Miles made during the '70s in retrospect now seem as inevitable as bop does, or the innovations of Ornette Coleman.  

It should be mentioned here that many of the participating musicians contributed to the innovations heard on Bitches Brew. And Teo Macero's editing had a great deal to do with the album's success, taking a huge morass of music and shaping it into a coherent whole. But I still believe that Miles is the ultimate auteur of this music, no matter how much was contributed by others. Miles' genius (like that of his idol Duke Ellington) was in knowing how to put the concepts of others into a context that worked, making the whole transcend its already impressive elements. There is hardly a moment of this music that does not reflect his particular sensibility at work, even when he is not playing.  

Bitches Brew was also for Miles a solution to the schizoid nature of his career since the '50s, a way for him to meld two separate courses of his career. On the one hand, he had led small groups that were very loosely organized, the whole intention being to give the soloists the maximum amount of improvisational freedom. On the other hand, he had recorded a series of orchestral works in collaboration with his friend the brilliant composer/arranger Gil Evans. Evans' arrangements for these works, Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and Sketches of Spain, were so meticulous and intricate that there was no room for any improvisation except by Miles, who was the only soloist on these albums. However, the gorgeous density of aural colors made up for the lack of improvisational looseness. With the use of electronic instruments, such as those used in Bitches Brew, Miles could have it both ways the sonic "weight" and kaleidoscopic musical colors of a large orchestra as well as improvisational freedom. The two sides of his Gemini nature finally were melded.  

Almost every aspect of Bitches Brew reflects a rethinking of some of the most basic elements of jazz performance. Throughout Bitches Brew, improvisation constantly dovetails with those elements which have been preconceived, creating musical cycles unlike anything previously heard in jazz. The usual procedure that had dominated jazz for decades theme, solos, repeat of theme despite the great freedom it gave to the improvising soloist, nevertheless had come to seem a cul-de-sac. A few musicians, like Charlie Mingus, George Russell, and John Lewis (in his work with the Modern Jazz Quartet) had experimented with alternative arrangements for small group performance. Under the influence of the electronic composer Stockhausen, the pieces on Bitches Brew do not have a beginning, middle, or end. Even after reaching an obvious climax, such as in "Pharoah's Dance," the pieces do not end but continue until, quite arbitrarily, they just stop. Miles was consciously shifting away from the linear direction of Western music, just as Coltrane had, searching for a truly global music, with all the meanings inherent in that phrase.  

And, of course, Miles' use of complex rock/funk and Afro/Latin rhythms instead of the straightahead 4/4 swing which had dominated jazz for decades is profoundly innovative. Playing with such unfamiliar rhythms challenged improvisers and made them eschew the clich‚s they had previously relied on. This was very important to Miles; he always wanted his musicians to create fresh new musical ideas, to play something that had never been heard before.  

e.Bop! - from the publishers of Jazziz