Fifty years ago today, Miles Davis and one hell of a set of musicians—Joe Zawinul, Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland, Bennie Maupin, Chick Corea, Larry Young, Lenny White, John McLaughlin, Don Alias, Harvey Brooks, Juma Santos (née Jim Riley), and producer Teo Macero—gathered in the recording studio and start recording music that would in a short time be assembled into the album Bitches Brew.
The rest, as the cliché goes, is history, although that history didn’t begin until early the following year, when the album was released. Miles, even as he became much more of a rock musician (and then a pop musician), never did anything like it again. No one has done anything like it, in truth. Yes, there has been fusion, even abstract fusion, since, but the combination of recording studio as compositional tool, musique concrète techniques, and the deep base in blues, groove, and funk, has never been duplicated or even, to my ears, approached.
NPR’s Jazz Night in America has a new show (streaming here) on “Electric Miles.” It’s good, with some cookin’ live music from a band put together by Marcus Miller for a Jazz at Lincoln Center concert—check out Vernon Reid’s solo on “Spanish Key”—insightful commentary from Miller, and even a couple interview quotes from yours truly. It’s as close to the spirit and ideals of the original music as I’ve heard outside of the Yo! Miles band, and in contrast to this recent release from Charles Pillow, which buffs off every last bit of edge, darkness, and soul from the original, substitutes hum-drum chord changes for the pedal tones, and leaves Electric Miles safe enough to date your teenager. I’m loathe to put words into the mouths of others, especially the dead, but I’d stake some money on the proposition that Miles would have loathed it.
And as for yours truly, authority on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, my book is still in print, buy a copy if you’re interested in the subject, because it’s an excellent book. And now available in Japanese, Chinese, and (as of this Spring), Italian. The Italian version is the best, the translator gave it another copy-edit pass and I think the facts and words are pretty much perfect now.
I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.