Miles Ahead

The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions puts Miles Davis' big leap into proper perspective

In the sessions that followed the actual Bitches Brew dates, changes were already afoot. Many of the tunes from the later sessions--such as "Corrado" and a version of David Crosby's "Guinnevere"--have a more contemplative feeling, lacking the percussive drive of the Bitches Brew album. The tracks that include sitar, tamboura and tabla sound dated because the use of Indian instrumentation is so identified with the '60s, like a Beatles hangover.

Most of this music wasn't as funky as Bitches Brew and maybe that's why Davis, who was heading to funkier ground, didn't mold these sessions into an album.

When you look over the roster of performers on this set, you can see how seminal these sessions were. McLaughlin, Zawinul, Shorter, Corea and Hancock were at the forefront of the "fusion" movement that crystallized here. Of course, there were precursors--including Tony Williams' Lifetime, fronted by Williams, who had been the engine of Davis' terrific, 1960s acoustic quintet--but it was Bitches Brew that made this direction commercially viable and interesting to the record companies and the media, which played the "new jazz" big in cover stories at that time.

On the downside, that means Bitches Brew opened the door for pantywaists like Kenny G, too. Ah. The law of unintended consequences strikes again.

After Bitches Brew, Davis never went back to the old jazz format--stating the theme, having soloists take turns playing changes on the theme, restating the theme and ending the tune. He never went back to acoustic instruments. He never stopped enhancing performances with post-production work in the recording studio. He never played standards, be-bop, cool jazz or "modern jazz" again. (The exception was a 1991 tribute concert to Gil Evans. Davis died just a few months later, leading some to joke darkly that playing the old music is what killed him.)

Instead, he left the jazz clubs for big theaters and rock arenas. He mounted a microphone on his trumpet and walked around the stage when playing.

Part jazz, part rock, part rhythm and blues, part world-beat (before that label was invented) and completely Davis' own invention, the music of Bitches Brew didn't much resemble the rock of its day. An eclectic musical thinker, Davis must have been drawn to rock by its voracious appetite for new influences from across the world--like the sitar. However, the main thing he drew from rock was that there could be an elegance to simplicity. He wasn't the type to go bashing through a three-chord punk number, but he used James Brown's idea of stacking relatively simple rhythms to create complex interplay. It's a concept that underlies most traditional African music. The use of relatively simple figures, like the bass line that's repeated continually on Bitches Brew's title cut, allowed the band maximum leeway to improvise collectively. Although everyone had their roles, they weren't as formularized as they were in Davis' earlier jazz bands.

In retrospect, it's easy to see that Bitches Brew didn't really represent that abrupt a change in Davis' style. He had been building up to it for maybe half a decade. Certainly, he had used electric instruments and studio production before (especially on the In a Silent Way album), and the concept of simplifying the structures to allow maximum improvisational freedom went back at least to the 1959 release Kind of Blue, one of the most influential jazz albums of all time.

He and his critics may have thought of Bitches Brew as rock, but it was actually the first Davis album that stood completely outside any category but his own. Davis had always chafed at the "jazz" category, anyway. He understood that he was working in the same musical tradition as Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and other jazz greats, but he also understood that a label--such as jazz--is a shortcut that many people substitute in place of coming to grips with the music. What does calling his music jazz tell us about it? You don't understand something just by naming it.

There's a great, testy exchange between Davis and producer Teo Macero at the beginning of "Corrado." Macero asks, "Okay, is this going to be part two?"

"It's going to be part nine," Davis snaps. "What difference does it make, motherfucker?"

"All right. All right," Macero gives in. "Here we go. Stand by. This is part something."

Part something, but all Miles.

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