The Hits Just Keep on Hittin’

Some late year miscellany


Some late year miscellany before I post more on the year in music:

  • Already Dead Tapes was one of our recommended labels in the October issue of the Rail, and starting today they have a “Any 3 Tapes for $10” sale going on at the Bandcamp page. That’s three tapes for the price of two, and the label has 235 releases so far in its catalogue. Recent picks are the latest from Lost Trail, and a set of remixes of Public Speaking, who’s on our roster of recommended gigs for December.
  • The wildly quirky label Hausu Mountain is putting out an intriguing recording this Friday (digitally, vinyl comes in January). Mortal, from Quicksails, is some kind of combination of modular synthesis and free jazz, and I am dying to hear the whole thing after I got through the track below.
  • You can now read an article I wrote for New Music Box, “When Jazz Was Cool,” a look at the cool we lost, and how jazz was once the mass media soundtrack of the hippest of the hip. Of course, there’s Miles …

Where It’s At

My transfer back to is fundamentally complete, though cleaning up graphics and taxonomy on the back end is an ongoing project. As great as my previous host, WPEngine, was, I just can’t afford it; freelance writing produces a below poverty level income, and this blog has never produced any income.

As for the lack of writing here—it was summer! My life is, after thirty years, once again organized around the school calendar, and I had a slow summer, concentrating on my little girl’s fun and on writing music—like Mahler except happier (I hope) and far less competent. I did cover a few concerts at the New York Classical Review, though.

Labor Day is past, and I’m back at it. This new article at New Music Box was written into the summer, and it was difficult to think about music after it was done. The subject is what sounds might be left behind after civilization falls apart, or is inundated, and how future peoples’ idea of what our music was will be nothing we expect:

“This haunting, wrenching, agonizingly complex concept of a post-apocalyptic cultural legacy has certainly existed in music for thousands of years. Fragments of Medieval music concerned with the End of Days have come down to us, and apocalyptic thought began neither in Europe nor with Christianity. But the context of that music is the Second Coming, a redemptive and transformative event. And with no means to preserve the sounds of what was the present in the 10th century, nor that advantage of a post-Cageian concept of what constitutes music, there was no thought toward what the past might sound like to those who might come after.”

Read the rest here

My book Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew is currently available, and you can order it directly from the publisher at a currently discounted price. The New York Review of Books reviewed it in the latest issue (article is behind a paywall), and critic Adam Schatz took it authoritative:

“… a perceptive new monograph by George Grella Jr. in the 33 1/3 series…”

Lastly, for this post, the September installment of the Rail Tracks podcast is up, check it out for some selected 2016 releases, and read out whole excellent issue here.

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

Day 3 of Bitches Brew blogging




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



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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