Bitches Brew

Miles Davis

album cover

The Headiest Brew

If there's such a thing as night music, this is it: a beat like a resting pulse, steady and shallow. Lugubrious bass clarinet rattling around in the cellar. Long expanses of no melody whatsoever, where nothing much happens. Appearing now and then is Miles Davis, spearing trumpet lonesomeness into the abyss. The musicians travel from light ethnic jazz to deep rock back-beats, and exchange thoughts as though they're involved in a marathon late-night dorm room conversation, where the pressure's off and any outlandish idea gets serious consideration.

The shadows and ripples of Bitches Brew are not, however, entirely organic—they're the result of an unusual studio sleight-of-hand. Like its brooding predecessor In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew was put together in the editing room. To arrive at the "final" compositions, Davis and producer Teo Macero sifted through hours of jamming, organizing individual solos and transitional lulls into an after-the-fact cosmic order. At times this approach, the reverse of typical jazz record-making, imposes structure where none was evident; at other times, thematic ideas are inserted, to contrast with the interplay.

Bitches Brew retains the feeling of spontaneous exchange between members of an astounding band (whose three keyboardists were Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, and Keith Jarrett), while retrofitting those exchanges with a minimal framework. The 2003 expanded edition, which includes the previously unreleased source jams in their wandering entirety, shows how the editing was integral to the final product: The jams could be endless and drifty, but the tracks of the "finished" Bitches Brew somehow feel like a cogent whole. It became a staple of nighttime programming on free-form FM radio (tales of DJs slapping on Side One, which contains the twenty-minute "Pharoah's Dance," and then sneaking out for a toke are legion), and its deep moods set the tone for much of the jazz-rock fusion that followed.

The editing isn't the only studio sleight-of-hand involved in Bitches Brew: Amazingly, this music of nocturnal emotions was recorded during the day. Keyboardist Corea, whose distorted electric piano is one spark plug among many, recalls that the sessions began every morning, promptly at ten. "I remember several of us grumbling about having to get up so early to make the session. What's amazing to me now is the mood. If I didn't know, I'd say this went down at three in the morning."

Genre: Jazz, Rock
Released: 1969, Columbia (Expanded Edition 2003)
Key Tracks: "Pharoah's Dance," "Spanish Key," "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down"
Catalog Choice: In a Silent Way; Jack Johnson; Tutu
Next Stop: Weather Report: Black Market
Book Pages: 211–212

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