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On its 50th anniversary, 15 things to know about Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew”

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On its 50th anniversary, 15 things to know about Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew”

15.02.2021

Text: Cem Kayıran

One of the milestone albums of both Miles Davis’ discography and history of jazz, Bitches Brew turned 50 in 2020. Bitches Brew, indicating a breaking point in Miles Davis’ career, has shaped the jazz culture of its era and beyond permanently. Here’s 15 things to know about this legendary album.

*The musicians who have contributed to Bitches Brew include Miles Davis’ orchestra that he toured with in the summer of 1969, namely Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette, as well as Joe Zawinul, John McLaughlin, Larry Young, Lenny White, Don Alias, Juma Santos and Bennie Maupin.

*Miles Davis, in search of a jazz rock-funk fusion sound, gave the musicians simple sketches  and some chord progressions and asked them to play as they wish on them. Lenny White remembers the recording sessions as follows: “It was like an orchestra, and Miles was our conductor. We wore headphones. We had to be able to hear each other. There were no guests at that session. No photos allowed. All live recording, no overdubs. 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., for three days.”

*The producer of the album was Teo Macero, who had worked with Miles Davis on various occasions both as a musician and a producer. Macero’s discography includes cornerstone albums such as Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um’ and Thelonious Monk’s Monk’s Dream.

*Macero and Davis’ approach in the recordings is one of the first and on-point examples of how a recording room can come into play as an instrument. The opening song “Pharoah’s Dance” uses techniques such as tape loop and reverb chamber. Hence Macero’s interest in musique concrète tradition, which was founded in 1950’s in France comes through in Bitches Brew.

*Bitches Brew is also distinctive in terms of the wide sonic and rhythmic palette it offers. The songs are based on rhythm sections composing of two bass players and two or at times three drums and percussion players.

*Jack DeJohnette says that the 12 piece orchestra is a combination of Miles Davis’ favorite players. DeJohnette describes the recording sessions as “different” and “fun”, and draws attention to how Davis avoided long conversations on music and shared his ideas with short and directive sentences. He thinks that this attitude created a healthy platform where they could move collectively and freely.

*The name of the song “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” is a reference to Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile”. It is the one song that the drummers struggled most during Bitches Brew’s recording sessions. As a matter of fact, not getting the groove he wanted, Miles Davis finally took percussionist Don Alias’ advice and used Lenny White and Jack DeJohnette’s parts in the final recordings.

*After the sessions, the musicians got together in Miles Davis’ apartment and listened to the recordings of the past three days altogether. It took nearly six months for Davis and Macero to finalize the production. When Lenny White heard the end result, he realized that the arrangements were very different from the recordings. Some intros being moved to the ends of the songs, the album sounded like something else to him. “I suspect that Miles said to Teo: ‘Go ahead and do what you think best’” says White.

*The writer of the book Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967–1991, Paul Tingen, says that the influence of Teo Macero on Miles Davis’ music resembles the relationship between George Martin and The Beatles. He believes that Macero is a mastermind in production. Although Tingen emphasizes on how the two strengthened each other during the years 1958-1983 when they worked together, he believes Miles Davis did not give Macero the necessary credit where it is due. He says there was sort of a love and hate dilemma between them and they frequently experienced communication gap. It is very surprising for him that in his 1989 autobiography, Miles Davis mentioned Macero’s name only a few times.

*Miles Davis brought Bitches Brew to life following the musical path he set as a goal and reminding himself that there was no turning back from it. A hypnotic album extraordinary and provocative in many aspects, Bitches Brew takes its inspiration from African and rock music traditions and is an embodiment of a liberating musical dream.

*With bold and notable moves, Davis aimed to show the transformation that began in Circle in the Round, released at the end of 1967, had reached its target. There have been numerous theories produced around the name of the album. It is the first time in history that the word “bitch”, which for Black culture, especially in street language, often means someone who is very good at what they do, is officially used in an album. Carlos Santana believes that this word references to the “cosmic ladies” that surrounded him and introduced him to the 60’s music, fashion and aesthetics. Producer Teo Macero thinks that the name of the album is in perfect harmony with the music.

*Davis won Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album Grammy in 1971 with Bitches Brew. After 5 years, it became Davis' first gold album to be certified by the Recording Industry Association of America. In 2003, the album was certified platinum, reflecting shipments of 1 million copies.

*Bitches Brew is a recording that has changed the world of jazz deeply and led to new tendencies. Many musical authorities remember it as the album that reminded the industry about jazz, which was “commercially dead” in the 1960’s.

*Columbia Records released the compilation The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions in 1998. The album compiles almost all the recordings done with the exact staff between August 6, 1969 and February 6, 1970. However it does not really meet the expectation its name offers, because most of the recordings on it are not from the Bitches Brew sessions. The producer of the compilation, Bob Belden, draws attention to how during this time, the musical tendencies of Davis and his crew were similar to the album and how the other recordings also consist of three keyboard players just like the Bitches Brew songs. In fact, Miles Davis had gravitated towards a more guitar driven sound in February 1970.

*“It was building something up and watching it fall apart, that’s the beauty of it. It was at the core of what we were trying to do.” Radiohead singer Thom Yorke describes Bitches Brew, the album they show as the main inspiration for band’s classic OK Computer, with these words. It is such a powerful depiction of this timeless piece of music.

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