I shouldn’t have to tell you that Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, released fifty years ago this month, is a groundbreaking record. The funk-jazz-psych-rock masterpiece has been handed that award in “best of” lists for half a century. “Bitches Brew is NOT LIKE OTHER records of its time, or any other time,” Rick Frystak announced emphatically on the Amoeba Records blog last year, on the 50th anniversary of the album’s 1969 “hatching” onstage and in the studio. How could it be otherwise?
Davis “gave his band very little instruction” about what to do, bassist and Jazz Night in America host Christian McBride tells NPR's Audie Cornish. “Miles might come in with sheet music with, like, four bars. And then you just, do what you do.”
Or as guitarist John McLaughlin remembers it, in the clip above from The Miles Davis Story, “I don’t think even Miles had a clear idea of what he wanted to do. But he was a man of such impeccable intuition that the moment that thing happened, he knew it. He said, ‘that’s it.’”
“What got recorded was the process,” says bassist Dave Holland, of figuring out, for example, how to make three keyboards at once work. Author and Miles Davis scholar Paul Tingen tones down the idea that the band made it all up on the spot. “Three of the pieces had already been broken in during live concerts,” he writes, such as the live clip of “Bitches Brew” in Copenhagen, 1969, above. And many of the musicians did get to rehearse before the studio sessions.
But during much of the album’s making, Miles “brought in these musical sketches that nobody had seen,” Davis himself says, and the band, featuring 13 musicians in total, found their way. Tingen writes:
On the third day the rhythm section consisted of as many as 11 players: three keyboardists, electric guitar, two basses, four drummers/percussionists and a bass clarinet. Miles had pulled out the stops in his search for a heavier bottom end.
The album’s heaviness, Davis' tape echo, and McLaughlin's squealing, distorted guitar turned off many jazzheads. “A lot of people felt that he was an artistic traitor,” McBride explains. “But I think that there were a number of college kids who were listening to progressive rock [and] soul music who absolutely loved this record.” Davis was booked to open for the Grateful Dead, Neil Young, and the Steve Miller Band. A new generation was turned on to jazz almost overnight.
After Bitches Brew, jazz kept fusing with rock instrumentation and overdrive, “from Chick Corea with Return to Forever and Wayne Shorter with Weather Report to Herbie Hancock with The Headhunters”—and, of course, McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. As Coltrane’s experimental 60s records had done, Davis’ bedrock fusion album freed rock from its formulas, giving it space to spread out and explore. Even Radiohead cited it as an influence on their groundbreaking 1997 Ok Computer. “It was building something up and watching it fall apart,” says Thom Yorke, “that’s the beauty of it.”
The album’s initial rejection in jazz circles didn’t last, as anyone familiar with the music’s direction knows. Davis determined its course in the 70s (as cover artist Mati Karwein determined its look). “I’m not sure if jazz ever got unplugged,” says McBride, and influential contemporary jazz fusionists like Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, and The Comet is Coming prove his point. Fifty years ago, the ground was broken for experimental electric jazz, and musicians are still building on Miles’ Bitches Brew intuitions.