It Is In The Brewing Luminous: "Bitches Brew" Buying Guide

UPDATE: Now that I’m writing a book on this album, it’s an ideal time to revisit and revise this previous post from way back when, four years ago, at the 40th anniversary of the release of Bitches Brew. The most important new information is that the burning set in the video, which had previously only been available through the expensive and extravagant Collector’s Edition, can now be had digitally and reasonably over at Concert Vault, for the price of membership plus $5.00. It’s a must-hear, must-have concert.

Soundcheck had a smackdown over which classic recording from Miles Davis was more influential, Kind of Blue or Bitches Brew? There’s really only one possible answer. Kind of Blue is a great, beautiful record, but it’s influence has been relatively slight. Miles’ introduction of modal playing didn’t even shift Coltrane and Cannonball, on the same record, away from their intense and joyous running of changes, and while pretty much every jazz musician who goes through any kind of organized pedagogy works with modal practice and playing (I did in the High School program at Eastman), it never really became a school or style, rather just another tool in the kit.

Fifty years later, Kind of Blue has become an object of popular worship, and that’s problematic. Yes, the music is great and gorgeous, but it seems that what has become more important is the style, the stance, the atmosphere. The record has become a symbol of a certain kind of hipness, a badge of the listener’s qualities, especially the ones (s)he imagines for her/himself. The actual music tends to get lost in the fog of echt-cool. No one seems to actually hear how Coltrane eschews the scales to produce his marvelous vertical solo on “Blue In Green,” perhaps the finest moment in the saxophonist’s career. It’s less an album today than an icon, and icons are made to be broken.

Bitches Brew is the iconoclastic answer, a recording that has had a profound influence on musical culture, from jazz to pop styles and, I believe on the broad range of improvised music that has been practiced across the world over the last forty years. It has none of the seductive style of the previous album, but it doesn’t confront the listener. It presents its powerful, uncompromising stance with an invigorating indifference, with such powerful yet lightly worn confidence in its own qualities that it feels itself beyond criticism, beyond hip, beyond cool. It doesn’t need you to like it, but it knows you need it to like you. It’s also, in its own way, a beautiful record. The question with the recording is not its influence but which package to buy?

There is the 2 CD standard set (and comparable download) that is the original recording along with the bonus track “Feio.” There is also the Complete Bitches Brew Sessions box set, which augments the original with separate tracks, comprising a total of 4 CDs, but those can also be found on Big Fun, although with the box you get a dense, detailed booklet. Unlike the Complete In A Silent Way Sessions, though, there is no material that gives any idea of how the tracks on the original release were actually put together, and the studio process, especially Teo Macero’s tape editing, was integral to the music, which is a combination of tremendous playing and tremendous after-the-fact musical construction.

This basic decision is now complicated by Sony’s production of two new and different editions, the Legacy one and the Collector’s Edition . The latter, an extravaganza priced in the three figures, is packed with a CD edition of the record plus a vinyl pressing of the record plus audio and DVD of the same material in concert plus a book, a “memorabilia envelope” and a poster! Okay! If you have the money to spend, you’re welcome to it, but I think the best choice is the Legacy edition. It’s a 2 CD/1 DVD collection, with the original recording plus material that has long been unavailable (and is on neither the standard edition or the Complete one), single-length edits of “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down,” “Spanish Key,” “Great Expectations” and “Little Blue Frog.” I wonder how often those were heard on jukeboxes? And although there’s no live audio, the DVD is a concert from Copenhagen in 1969, in excellent sound and vintage videotape, the band comprised of Miles, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette burning darkly through some of the best of his late ’60s material. The only thing missing is a reprint of the original liner notes from Ralph J. Gleason in an otherwise fine booklet from Greg Tate. Overall, it’s fantastic.

That alone was worth the cost for me in duplicating my standard set and is certainly the one to get for anyone who doesn’t yet have this music (the iTunes download appears to include the video portion as well) and is highly recommended even for those who do, especially considering the price, at least at J&R last weekend, was $16.99. And for those who don’t yet have this music, why the hell not?

Bitches Brew is one of the great archives of recorded music, a work that has one foot in popular styles, rock and funk, and the other in some of the most intellectually and aesthetically experimental music of the 20th century. It does the impossible, it brings together the strains of American popular musical culture – blues, rock, jazz, funk – parsed through the sieve of musique concrète into the ultimate Platonic emulsification. It’s enthralling and even a bit disturbing, it seems to spring from some ancient collective consciousness that Miles has directed all the musicians to tap into. There’s some secret language that they understand intuitively, they don’t translate it but let us listen in on their conversation. The sound, especially on the title track, can be shattering, Miles trumpet crying out from some far off, mysterious, even frightening land. The “B” disc of the old LP set is slightly more straightforward, with the rave-ups of “Spanish Key” and “John McLaughlin,” the slow burn of “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down” and the repose of “Sanctuary,” with its hints of “Stella By Starlight.” That’s as close as the album gets to song form, though, and that’s why it still sounds as fresh and daring as always. Musicians working in popular forms, even at the creative end of jazz, still have problems breaking loose of song form while maintaining some kind of clear organization. Bitches Brew manages that feat for its duration and that’s because of Miles as bandleader, filling the chairs with cats who can follow his principles. Holland and Harvey Brooks lay down geological bass lines, DeJohnette and Lenny White define the spaces in time, Chick and Joe Zawinul play some of the darkest electric piano on record, McLaughlin, Shorter and Bennie Maupin add smears of color and pithy solos to support the leader. There’s space, density, motion, the music never resolves, but instead of leaving us frustrated and unsatisfied, we just want to come back for more. Dig it.

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3 comments

  1. Thoughtful, challenging, controversial…and that’s just your review! I may not agree about Coltrane’s greatest solo but you’re right no about the impact of Bitches Brew. I think Miles developed his ideas in later albums. Bobby Previtte says some interesting things on the reissue of ‘Jack Johnson.’

    1. Bob, I feel like I’ve just been blurbed . . . and it feels good, thanks.

      I’m love electric Miles prior to his retirement period, I think that music is just great and does so many things. It’s also where those boxed sets really shine; the “Jack Johnson” one is an amazing document, including that booklet and essay, and so are the “Cellar Door” and “On The Corner Sessions.” For me, the “On The Corner” record is mediocre, but the context that the box gives it is great.

  2. Re “…and the repose of ‘Sanctuary,’ with its hints of ‘Stella By Starlight.’”

    In fact, what you’re hearing there is Miles playing “I Fall in Love Too Easily”. It was his custom to play this and “Sanctuary” as a medley on gigs in 1969-70. Hear several other versions of this on BLACK BEAUTY and MILES DAVIS AT FILLMORE EAST. On the CD reissues of these albums, both tunes are credited.

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