Miles Davis – Bitches Brew

I believe that Bitches Brew is one of the most mysterious albums in jazz, period.

Alinear, spliced, swampy grooves played in modes or keys somewhere between uncomfortable and unfamiliar. Long sketches that completely collapse notions of verse-solo/chorus in the standard jazz sense. The insinuation of virtuosity but not the harmonic foundation to ground it. Multiple musicians weaving around each other in austere groove and rhythm. Echoes and congas, electric and acoustic instruments (one of my fave combinations), planned and unplanned spontaneity. Obscurity, occlusion and occasionally sharp clarities of melody. Loose cohesion. No major hooks or choruses, but searching stabs of notes (played for echo-decay) cutting through the noodling undergrowth and treacherous quicksands.

Preceded by Nefertiti, Miles in the Sky and In a Silent Way, and antedating Live-Evil and Jack Johnson, we can place the mindset of the album in terms of progression and scope (1969-70 was an amazing period for Miles). And we can look to anecdotal popularity slash impact of the album vis. jazz-rock-fusion and the related after-careers of the players involved. It’s not racially, temporally or ethnically typified; it can’t be offset or contextualised by other jazz works or composers of the time. It’s difficult to read subjectively. We can finger Teo Macero’s constructive mix-methodology, but it’s incredibly difficult to put a finger on the singular essence that defines or centralises the Brew. It is wilfully mysterious, defying easy subjectivities.

I don’t mean to imply that mystery is in and of itself a pure artistic criteria to be called upon when all others fail. It can be a mode of interpretation and respect, and it can gauge depth and resonance where literal approaches look for transparent hits.

The tension of the album veers between accessibility and space. It’s not an easy album to interface with; there’s no strong melodic intent or subjective line to adapt. The songs spread themselves over a large canvas without forming a definite formal structure or theme, yet it still feels organic and compositional. Which got me thinking that the kind of people who’d get off on this stuff are painters. It’s very much as though this is composition by other means, by colours or tones or shades and abstractions (or tape splicing as the case may be). With a variety of brushes and secret processes and effects.

I think there may be an undercurrent reaction to free jazz here, filtered through the tonal (electric) approach of a Hendrix or other acid children. Free jazz would just not’ve been interesting to a trumpeter of Miles’ peculiar calibre; his sense of sound and colour had very little to do with literal, hard chops and more with sound-setting and ambient feel. Reflected of course in his choice of musicians, with the compositional approach and direction, with the fact that Miles’ stamp is all over this Brew.

Sanctuary comes close to a normal jazz theme introduction, but again veers off into high slabs of single notes. And then the album ends; no explicit theme clearly expressed, no definitive statement made, but a very wide and singular canvas is covered. There ain’t many big-picture risk-takers working in the studio like Miles any more. Baffling.

Author: Rino Breebaart

Editor.

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