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Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew Stands as Pop Music’s Greatest Crossover

on March 12, 2020, 10:00am

The Opus: Bitches Brew premieres March 19th, and you can subscribe now. To prepare for the new season, stream a legacy edition of Mile Davis’ Bitches Brew via all major streaming services. You can also enter to win the massive 43-CD The Genius of Miles Davis box set, which includes the four-disc The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions.

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Even though he’s considered by many to be the genre’s North Star, Miles Davis always had a complicated and fascinating relationship with jazz. Whether he was laying the groundwork for cool jazz or advancing modal jazz on landmark recordings like Milestones and Kind of Blue, Davis’ relentless boundary pushing kept the jazz world on its toes for decades. Most of his innovations were warmly welcomed and celebrated, but others challenged even his most ardent defenders to follow him into new arenas. Almost 30 years after his death, Davis remains both a jazz hero and a wily maverick. He is both the genre’s most famous advocate and its biggest antagonist.

But Davis’ greatest musical innovation shook not just jazz, but popular music as a whole, to its core. By the late 1960s, Davis started tickling the space between jazz and rock. His first official move into fusion, 1969’s In a Silent Way, was a calm, meditative but still stunning breakaway from the more traditional jazz avenues he’d spent his career up to that point exploring. But if In a Silent Way was a soft landing into new musical territory, it was only a prelude to the raucous splash he made on Bitches Brew, the ripple effect from which continues to reverberate outward 50 years later.

An improvisational landmark colored by guitar, bass, drums, horns, keyboards, and wind instruments, Bitches Brew is the sound of the gap closing considerably on two musical universes long thought to be islands to one another. Jazz, after all, was deep, emotive, and sophisticated. Rock and roll was wild and incorrigible, a cheap thrill. Whether Bitches Brew elevated rock or lowered jazz to the former’s level might still be worth debating to some. But what’s less debatable is how it smashed musical barriers, opening up new avenues for generations of bands and musicians of all stripes to explore.

Recorded just weeks after Woodstock in August 1969, the record was the first in jazz history to be truly colored and informed by the burgeoning ’60s counterculture. Davis took particular inspiration from Jimi Hendrix, whose guitar wizardry and fearlessness broke down preconceptions not just of what rock and roll could be, but who could play it. Hendrix had emerged as the strongest black voice in rock music, and Davis sought to bring his music into this new psychedelic realm.

To get the job done, Davis assembled a small army of musicians around his existing touring band of Chick Corea (electric piano), Jack DeJohnette (drums), Wayne Shorter (tenor sax), and Dave Holland (bass). The record utilized multiple keyboard players and bassists and as many as three drummers to deliver what would essentially be a more aggressive, avant extension of In a Silent Way. It also welcomed a young guitarist, John McLaughlin, into the fold, who would prove central to Davis’ transition to rock music.

“He was asking me about Jimi [Hendrix],” McLaughlin told The Guardian in a recent interview about Bitches Brew’s 50th anniversary. “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.”

Davis offered the band little more than a chord or a mood to work off of, leaving the door wide open for musical improvisation. A big part of the thrill in listening to Bitches Brew five decades later comes from hearing the sound of a record unfolding in real time. With Davis at the helm, the band was making the road as it walked it.

“Pharoah’s Dance”, at 20 minutes in length, not only eats up the record’s entire first side, but also lays out its incredible scope and breadth. The band opens softly with DeJohnette’s rat-a-tat snare, eventually unfurling into periods of freelanced chaos before coming softly back down to earth. This pattern repeats itself over the course of the record, with each track ebbing and flowing through phases of tranquility and aggression alike to create the impression of multiple tracks layered into one. Bitches Brew is a true band effort, and Davis generously gives each of his players their moment to take the lead. “Spanish Key” is driven by DeJohnette and bassist Harvey Brooks’ rugged, chug-a-lug rhythm. Corea and McLaughlin each rip wild, free-associative solos on “Miles Runs the Voodoo”. Davis backs out of “John McLaughlin” altogether to let his guitarist dance atop the track. Shorter, meanwhile, penned the smooth, relaxed album closer, “Sanctuary”.

Still, Bitches Brew is first and foremost a Miles Davis record, and the bandleader’s frazzled, high-register trumpet runs largely steal the show. The smooth mastery exhibited with his past ensembles often takes a back seat to blasts of frenzied intensity that make his previous records sound stodgy by comparison. The chances taken on Bitches Brew might be its defining attribute, but they didn’t endear it to Davis’ longtime fans. In much the same way Dylan spurned the expectations of folk audiences by going electric a few years earlier, the jazz community slammed Davis for taking his music so far out of pocket. To them, Bitches Brew soiled scared ground by taking too many liberties in sound and structure.

But whatever loyalty Davis lost in jazz circles, he more than made up for among younger audiences on the rock side of the spectrum. Bitches Brew drifted far off of the charted course of anything that could be called jazz at the time, but it fit hand in glove in a broader musical zeitgeist that was warming up to the idea of soul, funk, and psychedelia sharing space with rock and roll. Released March 30th, 1970, the record rose as high as 35 on the Billboard 200, took home the Grammy for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album the following year, and has gone on to sell over a million copies. And while jazzbos thumbed their noses at the record’s refusal to appease the old guard, Bitches Brew ironically proved to be a commercial and cultural boon for American jazz. The record’s success rejuvenated people’s interest in jazz music, and fusion in particular. Just as he had in the past, Davis saw the future of jazz on Bitches Brew and carried the genre along with him.

Davis never courted controversy as an artist, but he also never shied away from it when it stood in the way of what he sought to accomplish. That attitude in the end is as much worth celebrating as Bitches Brew’s seismic musical innovations. The record was a victory for artistic integrity, and its renegade spirit has lived on through countless records over the years that had the courage to step outside the lines. It’s there in the sample-crazed lunacy of Paul’s Boutique, which Davis professed to loving long before fans and critics did. Thom Yorke has cited the record as an influence behind the development of Radiohead’s own master work, OK Computer. The infiltration of jazz into hip-hop in the ’90s was made possible in part by the proof Bitches Brew offered of jazz’s crossover appeal. And with its indifference to the rules of genre, you could even argue that the record is among the earliest prognosticators of punk, in attitude if not in sound.

In an era that’s become increasingly less interested in labels and narrow categorization, Bitches Brew somehow feels as much of its time now as it likely did 50 years ago. It remains one of those rare records that exists in its own arena. It’s there not just for jazz purists and rock snobs, but for anyone curious enough to listen with full ears and no expectations.

Essential Tracks: “Pharoah’s Dance”, “John McLaughlin”


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