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Miles Ahead

Revisiting Miles Davis' landmark album Bitches Brew

by and

Published June 1, 2011 at 6:18 a.m.

In the beginning, there was jazz. And hepcats saw what they had made, coolly bobbed their heads and asked the world if it could dig it, man. And the world did. That is, until some guy named Miles showed up and turned the whole thing on its ear, repeatedly.

In 1970, Miles Davis released Bitches Brew, an album that changed the course of jazz history — one of several such feats the Prince of Darkness accomplished during his incomparable career. The provocatively titled and packaged (see sidebar) double album was a landmark, often cited as the origin of jazz-rock fusion, later made famous by Herbie Hancock and others. The profoundly controversial record sent shock waves through the jazz world, introduced a new idiom to the genre, and divided critics and fans alike.

In celebration of that album, a new band, dubbed Bitches Brew Revisited, is paying tribute to the iconic trumpeter’s watershed record. The multigenerational ensemble — led by cornetist and trumpeter Graham Haynes and featuring keyboardist Marco Benevento, Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, bassist Melvin Gibbs and turntablist DJ Logic, among others — kicks off the 2011 Burlington Discover Jazz Festival this Friday, June 3, on the Flynn MainStage.

Haynes, 50, is the son of jazz drummer Roy Haynes. He recalls being heavily influenced by Davis’ In a Silent Way, the album that directly preceded Bitches Brew, as well as by On the Corner, which was released two years later. But when he first heard Bitches Brew as a child, Haynes says it didn’t resonate personally.

“To me, it wasn’t really as revolutionary at the time,” he says. “But it is when I listen to it now.”

Because many of the charts for the album no longer exist, Haynes had to go through the entire record and transcribe it by hand for his band. That painstaking work has given him an intimate familiarity with the album and a unique perspective on its creation.

“I’m kind of rediscovering Bitches Brew. And I’m starting to realize certain things I didn’t before,” Haynes says. His latest revelation was that the album was largely built around a single harmonic idea. “It’s a series of major triads, packed in thirds,” Haynes explains. “I don’t think a lot of people know that. But we discovered that in rehearsal, like, on Monday.”

Though Bitches Brew is now viewed as a colossally important album — in 2003, Rolling Stone ranked it 94th among the 500 greatest albums of all time — four decades ago critical reception of the record was mixed at best.

“It was like when Bob Dylan went electric at Newport,” says Reid. “It was very confrontational. But it solidified the idea of music being experiential, that it can afford emotional catharsis and offer intellectual engagement.”

“His whole thing was I’m not trying to do jazz, so don’t call it a jazz record; don’t approach it from that point of view,” says Haynes. “But they did anyway.”

One critic who didn’t was Dan Morgenstern. Now 81, he’s been the director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University since 1976. Morgenstern was also the chief editor at DownBeat magazine from 1967 to 1973, and regularly defended Davis against criticism.

“[Bitches Brew] was certainly a major conversation piece,” says Morgenstern, who will speak on a panel called “Sons of Bitches” that also includes Reid, Haynes, DJ Logic and University of Vermont jazz lecturer Ray Vega at the FlynnSpace prior to the band’s performance this Friday.

“In retrospect, it wasn’t really that great a departure from what had come before,” he says, referring to In a Silent Way, which, at least musically, shares similarities with Bitches Brew. “But it was much more controversial,” Morgenstern continues, citing the album’s length, packaging and title as reasons the record ruffled feathers.

“Miles took that from the menu of a restaurant in New York called Serendipity,” he says of the album’s title. “They had some kind of concoction, very innocent, no alcohol. It was some kind of dessert thing.”

Morgenstern says that, though the record marked a somewhat natural evolution for Davis, it was a significant departure from what was conventionally considered jazz at the time.

“There was a lot of stuff going on in those days about jazz-rock, which was beginning to be a concept, and what was permissible, so to speak, from the viewpoint of critics,” he recalls. He adds that, while the album was “roundly trounced” by critics, it became Davis’ best-selling record to that point, and his first gold one.

“And he was accused, of course, of selling out,” says Morgenstern. “But that wasn’t the case at all.”

Morgenstern’s argument against those who viewed Davis as pandering to unsophisticated audiences was rooted in the trumpeter’s then-revolutionary recording process, which placed as much emphasis on postproduction as it did on performance.

“To use the studio process as a kind of matrix for eventually coming up with a finished product was very different from the conventional way of going into the studio,” Morgenstern explains. “It was a continuous process that was not designed to result in a passable take. It was an innovation, and it was kind of shocking.

“What the critics who attacked Miles didn’t understand was that it was important to him to keep up with the times,” says Morgenstern, who later came to know Davis personally when they lived in the same New York City neighborhood. “He didn’t want to be considered to be a past master. He was always reinventing himself.”

Some critics may look at the lineup of Bitches Brew Revisited and scoff at the inclusion of a turntablist, DJ Logic. From a purely historical perspective, they may have a point. Davis didn’t use a DJ. Turntablism didn’t really emerge until almost a decade after Bitches Brew was recorded.

However, as Morgenstern reiterates, Davis’ record was a landmark for reasons beyond its genre-crossing compositions. It is widely credited as one of the first “jazz” albums to take advantage of the recording studio as an instrument. Its pieces were constructed, deconstructed, then reconstructed in the studio, and owe as much to the compositional talents of Davis and bandmates Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul — the latter also composed songs for the album — as to the editing skills of producer Teo Macero.

“Teo was like a DJ himself,” says Logic. “He’d go in and cut things up, blending almost like he was deejaying.”

Logic explains that Davis’ band would record several takes at a time; then Macero would go through each one, cherry pick various pieces and put the disparate parts back together. The album’s opening cut, “Pharaoh’s Dance,” is emblematic of that Frankenstein’s monster approach. The song’s false-start intro was entirely a studio invention, created by splicing tape from various takes together in post-production. The title track is also notable for its use of tape loops, delays and other sonic tricks, which were then largely unprecedented in jazz — though rock bands, such as the Beatles and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, had been similarly experimenting in the studio for years.

“It was amazing at that time; it was like surgery,” says Logic, who in some ways takes on Macero’s role onstage. He blends cuts from Bitches Brew with a variety of other records and sounds, including some of Davis’ spoken-word material and tapes of old interviews. Haynes adds that he uses Logic in a variety of ways, including as a drummer. He points out that there were often two and sometimes three drummers playing simultaneously on the record.

“Miles was a painter,” says Logic. He is not the first to draw that comparison. Duke Ellington once famously referred to Davis as “the Picasso of jazz.” “He wanted to try different colors,” Logic continues. “And he basically came up with, well, a brew.”

“It was a sea change,” says Morgenstern. “Jazz is sort of an all-inclusive term. And one of the things that happened with Bitches Brew … was that it changed the parameters of what was meant by it.

“The music changes, and the concept is flexible, and that goes for music in general,” Morgenstern continues. “But Miles was the protagonist. It all started with him.”