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Running The Voodoo Down - Bitches Brew At Fifty

27 March 2020

“If anybody wants to keep creating they have to be about change” -Miles Davis

Imagine yourself on a diving board, ten feet above a pool of fire, diving in fearlessly, only to realize it is ice-cold water. That analogy reflects perfectly the feeling that fills the senses when a listener first discovers the Miles Davis album Bitches Brew. What the idea might be of jazz, and what is contained on the recording are actually further apart than you might expect. The late Miles Davis released some of the most radical and influential jazz albums of the 20th century, A Kind Of Blue for one, the biggest selling album in the genre of all time. To this day remaining highly influential on guitarists, and the possibilities along with the direction you can take with loose jams and solos. But here we have jazz, one of the few original music forms that is actually American, and not a hybrid inherited art form. 

Dust had hardly settled on Davis’ first fusion experimentation In A Silent Way, released 30 July 69. Days after that game changing album hit the streets, the recording sessions had already begun for Bitches Brew, in August 1969. A retrospective of the importance and revolutionary impact of Bitches Brew is always validated. The influence from that current rock music scene, Woodstock, and the psychedelic summer of love are soaked within the albums grooves. Key is the advancements made by Jimi Hendrix, his ideas opened a door for Davis to experiment further and continue pushing forward instead of staying within the same perimeters. Expanding that trumpet sound with the aid of guitar distortion pedals, it is no wonder that when this album was released in April 1970, the jazz purists of the day done all but drag Davis into the street and Biblically stone him. 

The rock audience lapped it up, feeding off its energy, it fit nicely into the counterculture sound, and so the album was hailed as not only a monumental musical statement, but what music should actually sound like. In theory, music should be freed from the constraints of chart hits, or indeed the normal forty-five minute, ten track albums. The freshness of this album is retained in every minute almost fifty-years later simply because it stood out then, and still does today. It is a testament to the genius and forward thinking which defines Miles Davis. The usual narrative associated with the fire the trumpeter executed, instead turned into a constant eruption of lava flowing as if his life depended on it.

On Bitches Brew we are given an album where Davis deconstructs all he had accomplished and brings in a rock band, one which he lauded to the press of the day as being “the greatest rock band on the planet”. Over the four sides of the album there is only six tracks, at any one time there are up to twelve musicians playing while Davis is soloing and leading from the front. The players are heavy hitters, luminaries such as English born guitarist John McLaughlin, Chick Corea the leading flame of jazz fusion pianists, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and Bob Dylan bassist Harvey Brooks. They bend the sound with electrifying drone harmonics, aided by the central point of the band, that powerful rhythm section, similar to most rock bands, but galvanized by two bass players, one electric and one upright and two to three drummers, depending on the track.

They form the backdrop to some of Miles Davis most aggressive playing, such as on the track “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down”, which contains one such aggressive solo by Davis. Stretching and hitting the upper register of the trumpet with raw energy, speed, at times the sound can easily mistaken as a guitar screaming. Miles had an approach to recording unlike many others certainly in rock music, the band would have little or no idea what the performance would be, sometimes a simple rhythmic count, maybe hint of a melody or chord was all they could expect. Davis felt it kept the band tight, and made each individual musician pay close attention to one another. 

Most of Bitches Brew was built this way as very few of the sections were rehearsed beforehand. This format spills onto the album but lends to its charm when you can hear Davis give the direction as he whispers “Keep it tight”, and telling a musician when to take a solo. The title track “Bitches Brew” clocks in at a staggering twenty-six minutes, on it you can hear these audible instructions telling McLaughlin when to solo or clicking his fingers for the band to up-tempo, making a rock record from a jazz perspective and creating a legacy in the process.

As an album opener, “Pharaoh’s Dance” is a greasy, slick trumpet driven number which gives scope to what is to come, taking up the first side at twenty minutes, but turning inside out as the band weave in different directions never resolving the melody. The shorter tracks that appear on side three “Spanish Key”, a Latin driven, electrified number which could easily have been lifted from the Sketches Of Spain album it not for the band.

Side four holds the aforementioned “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down” along with the Wayne Shorter composition “Sanctuary” which started life as a themed ballad until Davis re energized it into a driving rhythm. The horns simply playing while the drum and bass sections build with intensity. The heart of Bitches Brew is that driving rhythm section, which is in many ways the revolutionary art the album is famed for. Another key point is the technique of producer Teo Macero which cannot be overlooked. The work of splicing together those sessions from August 1969 and January 1970 to complete the ninety-four minutes we know as “Bitches Brew” is breathtaking. For example, the track “Pharaoh’s Dance”’ contains nineteen edits alone, the studio became as important an instrument as any other connected with the albums’ creation.

Others in the landscape of rock music had already done something similar,  such as the late innovator Frank Zappa had already dragged elements of jazz into a rock framework. The best example is on his second solo outing, 1969’s Hot Rats album. However, Davis was now doing the opposite and pulling rock music into his jazz structure, creating new directions in music along with Bitches Brew. An album which will never go out of fashion as it was never in fashion, it will stand out in any era and still sound fresh, fearlessly executed with an undeniable talent.