Stuff That Stocking

 

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I’ve been reading through apocalyptic fiction since summer 2015, inspired in no small part by the stream of reissued material from the great experimental collective Fossil Aerosol Mining Project. If the 2016 political year has got you feeling like you need an inoculation against dread, you can’t do better than to read A Canticle for Leibowitz.

As a companion and a link between this remarkable novel and the remarkable sounds from FAMP, read my article “Sounds of Futures’ Past” at NewMusicBox; a contemplation on what our future sonic archeology might be, and exactly what of civilization we might leave behind to be pieced together by a future Order of St. Leibowitz.

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Reading Bitches Brew

Tonight: I’ll be reading from Bitches Brew at WORD Bookstore in Greenpoint—I’m sharing the event with Bryan C. Parker, who is bring his own 33 1/3 book on Beat Happening, and series editor Ally-Jane Grossan will be hosting. We’ll be spinning some music, and there will be some trivia with, I believe, modest prizes available. There will also be time to drink beer down the street afterwords.

Next Wednesday, 11 November: I’ll be at Spectrum for a Bitches Brew listening party. I’ll read from the book, talk about the music and about Miles Davis, and we’ll also listen to the entire record, either off vinyl or the Mobile Fidelit Labs SACD pressing (which is amazing), depening on what Spectrum’s Chief Science Officer, Lawrence de Martin, recommends—the great sound system there is his creation.

I’ll sign books at each event, and at Spectrum will have copies on hand to sell (cash only please). See you there.

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Modern Miles

(The following is an adapted excerpt from Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, published 22 October by Bloomsbury Academic. Buy it from a bookstore near you, or order from Amazon)

Bitches Brew is a great work of abstract music inside the sounds, beats, and riffs of commercial music, and one of the most unique documents of the recorded era. The effect the album had on jazz and rock was shattering, disruptive in ways that make an abject mockery of the contemporary vainglorious use of that word by people who only wish to make money. Bitches Brew is like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Le Sacre du Printemps, works of craft and imagination that slammed the coffin lid on an old way of doing things and opened up an entirely new universe of aesthetic and technical possibilities. Like those works, it is both carefully organized and roughly made, it borrows from materials and methods that came both before and from outside the tradition in which it appears. The album, the picture, and the ballet composition stand alone as masterpieces while also eliding important transitions in cultural history. Each of these works is made with a confident mastery that juxtaposes fixed result with unsettled form: Picasso’s painting is literally unfinished, Stravinsky’s virgin returns with the cycle of the seasons to dance herself to death, Bitches Brew, like a baseball field, never comes to an organic end, it is arbitrarily limited to the physical side of an LP.

In defiance of every prescribed notion of how pop, rock and jazz were (and are) supposed to go, Bitches Brew resolutely rejects musical resolution. There are tracks, but there are no songs, no double-bar lines, nothing to neatly round off the end of a stretch of music. There are only two tracks on the entire first LP of the set, “Pharaoh’s Dance,” at twenty minutes, takes up the whole of side A, and the B side is packed with the twenty- seven minutes’ duration of the title track, twenty-seven minutes of music far darker and more threatening than what’s heard on the obverse.

Aesthetically there had been nothing like it before, and little like it after. One reason is that the record accomplishes something that is supposed to be impossible in the era of late-capitalism, where anything that is not yet monetized and commodified strives to be branded and sold: Bitches Brew is some of the most experimental, avant-garde art music made in the history of Western culture—and the record was a broad commercial success. One of the best selling albums Miles Davis ever made, and thus one of the best selling jazz albums ever made, it sold around a half million copies in 1970, when it was released, and had sold 1,000,000 copies—platinum, baby—as of 2003. Bitches Brew has been a sub rosa presence in rock and jazz ever since, seething, spreading slowly. Forty years after, the ideas and possibilities that it tossed out into the world are still rippling out along the surface. For a work with such an immediate, even physical, effect, that’s an unexpectedly long gestation.

One reason for that, correct though superficial, is the music is rock, not jazz, and therefore, as the more reflexively reactionary critics like Stanley Crouch suggest, it is shallow, vulgar, cheap, a sell-out with no aesthetic value. True enough, the music is rock, and it sold; even mediocre records by mildly popular rock groups sell better than jazz, and did in the 1960s. Even taking into account Davis’s relative superstardom, he wasn’t making money like rockstars were. Davis, like every other highly skilled professional musician wanted to get paid, and he envied the financial rewards that went to the likes of Jimi Hendrix. So he made a rock record. He sold out.

But of course he didn’t sell out, and he didn’t make a rock record. If rock is just a 4/4 beat and an electric guitar, those are all over the album. But music is defined not by instruments, but by how they are played and used, what is made with them. Bitches Brew is resolutely experimental music making, exhilarating and discomfiting, depending on the listener.

By 1969, the jazz world had found some way toward accommodation with “The New Thing,” but much of that music was still based in tunes, though the playing extrapolated freely from them. Structural avant-gardists like Cecil Taylor weren’t laying down the pulse, beat and groove that Miles was. Soulful, funky jazz like Lee Morgan’s records, or the music Cannonball Adderley was putting out were firmly inside song-structure. Hendrix, as soaringly creative as he was, worked within the limits of the blues, soul and rock music. Tony Williams’s contemporaneous Lifetime band was playing rock—they were the first fusion band—along with jazz, but Miles wasn’t making rock, even with Lifetime guitarist McLaughlin, an essential part of the Bitches Brew sessions, second only to the leader himself.

Or, second to the leaders. Bitches Brew would have been impossible without the contributions of producer Teo Macero, Miles’s longtime, essential collaborator in the recording studio from the time the trumpeter signed with Columbia records. Macero made the record with Miles. Miles played and guided the band, while Macero composed the album by fitting together stretches of the tape recordings into—what? Some kind of finished form.

Razor blade, splicing block, tape: basic tools at any recording studio of the time, but normally used to fit the best sections of different takes of a song together into the ideal version to go on a record. Anathema in the jazz recording session, which valued the live take, the band playing together from start to finish. Play a few versions and choose the best one at playback to put in the can.

Bitches Brew was recorded in Columbia’s studios on 30th street in Manhattan. Travel a few miles uptown from there to the West Side, and you reach the Columbia- Princeton Electronic Music Studio. In 1969, you would find razor blade, splicing block and tape there too. They were used to literally shape a piece of finished music out of physical material, pieces of recording tape with the magnetic particles arranged to hold captured sounds of any kind. A solid music, a musique concrète, composed at the very edge of experimental classical music.

Macero made Bitches Brew the same way. There were no real charts for the producer to follow, just a few sketches from Miles, his own reworking of Zawinul’s “Pharaoh’s Dance,” recorded fragments that were sorted by quality and combined to make something that the musicians never heard but that Miles and Macero imagined in their heads. The three-day session was just the band playing while Miles, in his inimitable style, prodded them and intimidated them into giving him something interesting, something new. The reels of tape rolled, the music was captured as raw material, cut and spliced into an album. What came out was the avant-garde with soul and a beat, musique concrète you could dance to, rock that blew away the complacency of jazz, and jazz that mocked the limitations of rock. Hated by those who love it, loved by those who hate it, all of these, none of these, more than these. There is literally no other recording anything like Bitches Brew, and there is little in or outside music like it: an absolute document of a moment in culture that sharply, even brutally, separates what had come before from what might still come after.

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Talking Bitches Brew

Last week, I sat down for an interview with boice-Terrel Allen (he took that snazzy picture of me with Elvis Costello) for his excellent Talk Music with boice podcast, and talked about Bitches Brew, the album and the book, and how I got to the point of putting the words down on paper. I think it’s interesting and informative, and boice is an excellent person who is a pleasure to spend time with.

You can listen to us talking Bithces Brew here, check out his site here, and subscribe (for free) to his podcast through iTunes. His series is excellent and spans a wide-range of styles and personality, I recommend it highly.

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The Big City is supported by readers like you. Please consider a donation or a subscription.

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Miles Davis Week – Day 3: Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Day 3 of Bitches Brew blogging

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TO CELEBRATE THE UPCOMING RELEASE OF OUR 110TH 33/13 ON  BITCHES BREWWE’RE PLEASED TO BRING YOU THE THIRD INSTALLMENT OF MILES DAVIS WEEK BY AUTHOR GEORGE GRELLA JR. !

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Jazz history is the story of musicians and bands and the records they made, and it can be charted as a family tree. Jazz is an oral tradition, and even though it has now been heavily institutionalized (fundamental to the music’s economic survival, but not necessarily an aesthetic benefit), it remains so, and is pretty much the only still-living thing we have in the West that approximates the Homeric tradition.

From the very beginning, musicians led bands and made records, and the sidemen went on to lead their own bands and make their own records, and on and on. Miles is arguably unequalled in his importance as a bandleader in jazz history, going by his sidemen and collaborators: Lee…

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Miles Davis Week – Day 2: The Lost Quintet

Day 2 of Miles Davis blogging

333sound

TO CELEBRATE THE UPCOMING RELEASE OF OUR 110TH 33/13 ON  BITCHES BREWWE’RE PLEASED TO BRING YOU THE SECOND INSTALLMENT OF MILES DAVIS WEEK BY AUTHOR GEORGE GRELLA JR. !

One of the compelling mysteries about Miles Davis’s music in the late 1960s is how got from here to there, from the formally free, but still idiomatic music of Nefertiti, Miles in the Sky, and Filles de Kilimanjaro, to In a Silent Way, then Bitches Brew. Miles in the Sky and Filles de Kilimanjaro are transitional in that they add soul, funk and rock elements to what Miles was doing, and Filles starts exploring extended duration, but the music is within reach of what others like Lee Morgan and Herbie Hancock had been doing contemporaneously.

The key is there on Filles, although the record doesn’t really sound like it—two of the five tracks…

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Miles Davis Week – Day 1: Music To Read Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew By?

Day 1 of my Miles Davis blogging

333sound

TO CELEBRATE THE UPCOMING RELEASE OF OUR 110TH 33/13 ON  BITCHES BREWWE’RE PLEASED TO BRING YOU THE VERY FIRST INSTALLMENT OF MILES DAVIS WEEK BY AUTHOR GEORGE GRELLA JR. !

Music to read Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew by?

Maybe so. 33-1/3 books, who have their own Spotify account, asked me if I wanted to put a playlist together for them as part of Bitches Brew week here at 333SOUND. Of course I said yes, I’m no fool. Then I started to put it together. Countless man hours later …

https://open.spotify.com/user/gtra1n/playlist/0zXQ4QVj8NtnhrwHJFCo31

This is actually the third version, once revised. What began as a mix of music that come before and after Bitches Brew, from Miles and others, turned into (after seemingly endless listening and hemming and hawing) a limited playlist that relates to my book chapter “Directions in Music by Miles Davis.” The purpose of that chapter and…

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