Bitches Brew should come with a recommendation by every mental health professional as a potential way of warding off Alzheimer’s. If for the basic fact that there is so much going on, one can play it repeatedly and still hear something new and unexpected each time. If jazz was like mathematics, then jazz-fusion was akin to quantum theory. Such is the depth and complexity of this double album that it continues to astonish music heads more than forty-five years later.
The players which Miles Davis assembled for these sessions were nothing less than the jazz equivalent of the Special Forces. Wayne Shorter (soprano saxophone), Chick Corea (electric piano), Joe Zawinul (electric piano), a young John McLaughlin (guitar), Dave Holland (bass), Harvey Brooks (from the Super Sessions album fame, on bass), Lenny White (drums), and Jack DeJohnette (drums), plus a host of other notable luminaries.
Terms such as “ground-breaking”, “game changing” and “revolutionary” are nothing new when it comes to describing its contents. So radical was Britches Brew at the time that not only did the album succeed in dividing many of Miles’ considerably loyal devotees, but much of the jazz community as a whole, when it was released in 1970 (the sessions were held in August the previous year, the same month as the Woodstock music festival). Some didn’t think it was jazz at all, regarding it as nothing more than a commercial venture, believing that Miles was merely cashing in on the latest popular trends of the time, i.e. rock and funk. Such reaction was not unlike that directed towards Bob Dylan when he decided to go electric just a few years earlier, thus pissing off (and betraying) an entire generation of folk purists in the process. And perhaps they had a point. Imagine Picasso and Jackson Pollock painting on the one canvass at the same time. In other words nothing but a swirling mass of conflicting asymmetrical forces moving forward and travelling no-where simultaneously. At least that’s what you hear on the first two compositions, “Pharaoh’s Dance” and the title track which follows. And while the former does seem to meander at times like some epic film in desperate need of a plot, the latter has what I’d call a little more form, and, dare I say, what could be said to resemble even a stable, regular rhythm, whatever the hell that might be when describing such abstract excursions of musical nebulosity as these.
But on the second LP (or cd, take your pick) there is a change with the pulsating and hypnotic “Spanish Key”. Although the actual track order does not reflect when each piece was recorded, this one is definitely where things sound as though all those incongruent and amorphous pieces were beginning to fall into place. It still has that ‘where the fuck is this going’ feel to it like everything else on the album, yet in a more orderly way, as if our entire team of disparate superheroes had finally found a way to co-exist with one another.
“John McLaughlin” is, as the title suggests, primarily McLaughlin’s own vehicle to blow, though in contrast to everything else on here, it doesn’t last long, a mere four minutes and twenty-two seconds (the result of serious editing perhaps?). John’s playing also bears little likeness to the muscular and mystical outpourings of his soon to be Mahavishnu Orchestra only a year or so later.
“Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” (an obvious reference to Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child”) was recorded on the second day of these sessions, and is arguably the most casual or laid-back composition of the album (as laid-back as two electric bass’s, two electric pianos, and two drummers can get). Davis and McLaughlin trade solos with one another, while Chick Corea generates so many bleeps and bloops that he sounds like R2-D2 on LSD.
On final song “Sanctuary” we hear a bit of the Miles of yore, except for the multitudinous rhythm section that is, who are as avant-garde as ever (would you be disappointed if they weren’t?). And whether it’s the band who are pushing Miles, or Miles who’s pushing them, you’re taken on a curious ride all the same; sometimes soft, at other times harsh, a little like life itself; unpredictable, indulgent, and occasionally difficult.
My copy contains the previously unreleased “Feio”, a Wayne Shorter composition recorded several months after the album was completed, and is a nice atmospheric way of ending what is undoubtedly a challenging and provocative journey, nothing at all like the previous In a Silent Way, or the much earlier and more accessible Kind of Blue.
Therefore I’m not embarrassed to admit that Bitches Brew can be hard going, and not the easiest of aural landscapes to wander through. But definitely not quite so confronting as say, Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, which can indeed be an indigestible delicacy to all but those with an extremely forgiving ear and a strong stomach. However as is often the case with ‘difficult’ albums such as these, whatever treasure does exist tends to gradually reveal itself over time through repeated listens, to eventually generate in the listener an ever increasing sense of pleasure. And while admittedly not quite on the cerebral scale of Bach or Mozart (how could it be), you can verily bet that your synapses will most certainly be grateful for the experience.