• Aidan McIntosh

Album Analysis | Miles Davis - Bitches Brew

Long lost were the days of cool jazz and hard bop. In the late '60s, the man who was famous for classics like Blue in Green and 'Round Midnight set his sights on something much grander and revolutionary. To this day, Bitches Brew serves as one of, if not the most, comprehensive and enriching jazz fusion records that sounds like little else.



If there had to be only one instance where an album's cover artwork could perfectly illustrate how the album sounds, Bitches Brew would be that album. Its artwork captures two worlds: one appearing in space, with swirls of psychedelia and African voodoo magic, and one on earth, with an African couple looking off into the uneasy horizons, contrasting the light with the dark. It's a provocative album cover, demanding and challenging and open to infinite interpretations, and these two worlds fuse together with the burning array of flowers.


Bitches Brew sounds as provocative as its artwork is; blending in elements of free and completely improvisational jazz with avant-funk, psychedelic rock, and the studio innovation developed in the late '60s, the album is deliberately demanding and challenging. And on the top, the 'Directions in Music by Miles Davis' foreshadows the madness at play; it's music by directions, not by pre-arranged concepts and a general framework. To quote Miles, "I knew that what I wanted would come out of a process and not some prearranged shit".


But like any good album, Bitches Brew's cover won't foreshadow everything. Admittedly, nothing can fully foreshadow this double album, and at its long runtime and extremely dense songs, it's hard to ingest in one sitting, no matter how many times you've listened to it in the past. By 1970, this was by far Davis's most ambitious project. Since 1968's Miles in the Sky, he began focusing more on rock, funk, and psychedelia, blending those elements in within a jazz framework. In July 1969, In a Silent Way broke that framework, masterfully fusing the hectic and improvisational nature of free jazz with John McLaughlin's funky and warm guitar playing to create an atmospheric and innovative album that's oddly hypnotizing. And one month later, Miles decided that it wasn't quite enough. In a session of three days with only a week of rehearsals, Miles and co. created Bitches Brew.


Perhaps the most notable feature of this feisty double-album is how massive it sounds. The rhythm section consisted of two bassists (one bass guitarist and one on double bass) and two to three drummers, depending on the song, all playing simultaneously. The rhythm section lays down deep grooves and makes the music more tasteful, and while they were fairly repetitive, this groovy repetition gave a considerable amount of room for everyone else to shine as soloists. This is the center for the improvisation, which takes drastic and cleverly surprising turns into different territories-some noisy, sounding more like free jazz than fusion, and some more mellow, like the more melodic and slow ending of Sanctuary.


Outside of the rhythm section, McLaughlin's guitar fills dominate the album, reinforcing the Latin funk, Wayne Shorter rocks the saxophone (Miles was the only trumpeter here), and Zawinul and Corea both light things up on electronic pianos. The wide array of players, and the crucial importance of the rhythm section as a driving part of the sessions, opened Bitches Brew up for seemingly-endless possibilities. All Miles had to do was signal a tempo count, play a few chords and open up a slight melody, hint at an atmosphere, and that's where the improvisational and wandering process started. It's largely music without much melody and much direction, but it's also some of the most fascinating and enlightening improvisation out there.


The album also features immaculate and innovative production. Pharaoh's Dance and the title track both feature extensive editing, with tape loops to prolong the intros, building sinister and suspenseful grooves, heavy use of reverb and echo chambers to intensify how Miles's trumpet and Shorter's sax sound, and various edits and delays to make these improvisations' free-flowing structures a bit complex and more concise. Meanwhile, the mixing could not be better; every soloist shines, whether it's Miles, Shorter, McLaughlin, or one of the electric pianists. The rhythm section is mixed in well to create genuine senses of groove and show that they were the driving factor in these sessions. Taking after innovations set by Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), Pet Sounds (1966), and more, Bitches Brew was arguably the only jazz album to use the studio as a musical instrument by 1970, and its results are phenomenal.


Pharaoh's Dance opens the album splendidly, showing how dense, playful, and magical the album will be, and features excellent grooves. The following title track features intense soloing and heavy use of echo, making Miles sound like he's shrieking at times, and for those who have listened to free jazz before, it's not too far off at times. Spanish Key features the best melody on the double album, and it best incorporates Latin funk into its music and makes for a wild ride; it's easily the best song to follow up Bitches Brew too, as well. John McLaughlin, named after the guitarist who helped define Miles's fusion era, is short, chaotic, and the most lacking cut on the record, but still fine. It's the only track here where Miles and Shorter don't play. Miles Run the Voodoo Down is confident, steady, and features excellent electric piano work, as well as one of Miles's best solos in his career in the last few minutes. And lastly, Sanctuary sounds like the title: it's refuge, it's home, and it's warm and inviting. At least, it's as inviting as Miles will allow. Its dynamics range from peaceful and cozy, with chords similar to So What, to chaotic and frenzied, and it's a great way to finish off an insane album.


Whether or not Bitches Brew is Miles's best album is up for intensive debate. With over 50 studio albums, 36 live albums, and plenty of archival albums, it's hard to compare many of his works. However, it's fair to say that Bitches Brew is a fully comprehensive and mesmerizing album that combines the most free and uncontrollable aspects of jazz with the playful rhythms of funk and rock, and it still sounds incredibly charming nearly 50 years after it was released. Influencing artists from Herbie Hancock, an associate of Miles, the German experimental rock band Can, to Radiohead during the creation of OK Computer, its impact has hit plenty of areas outside of jazz, which is fairly uncommon for such a revered jazz album. It's not an album that can be ingested often, or many times even in one sitting, but when it is ingested, it hits the spot that few albums can even begin to reach.

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