Bitches Brew (album):
RIYL: Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, Return to Forever
Bitches Brew (beer):
RIYL: Dogfish Head Raison D’etre, Rogue Dead Guy Ale, Tröegs Flying Mouflan
Miles Davis’ creative spirit in the late ’60s and ’70s was particularly restless, and his music gave voice and volume to that restlessness, as he found new fans and embittered jazz purists by adding electric instruments to his palate. In a Silent Way (1969), in particular, saw Davis and his sidemen playing with side-long compositions built from extended sessions that were cut and edited by Davis and producer Teo Macero. It was dense, sometimes difficult, often beautiful music, requiring active engagement on the part of the listener, and also an open mind. Rock writer Lester Bangs might have said it best when he described it as “part of a transcendental new music which flushes categories away and, while using musical devices from all styles and cultures, is defined mainly by its deep emotion and unaffected originality.”
For Bitches Brew (1970), Davis expanded his band, as well as his vision. A given track might have featured, in addition to his trumpet, two or three electric pianos, saxophone, bass clarinet, one or two electric basses, two drum kits, one or two additional percussion pieces, and electric guitar. It was a tempest coming out of the speakers, with intricate compositions to match that gave the maelstrom a form and power virtually unheard of in jazz at the time.
The mastery of Davis and band on Bitches Brew has never been clearer than on Sony’s new Legacy Edition, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the record’s original release. Though the bonus tracks are questionable additions (we’re not sure why sub-three-minute “single mixes” of four of these cuts were needed in the first place), the pristine sonics of the remastered discs bring all manner of nuance into full relief.
“Pharaoh’s Dance,” which opens the record, has an insistent yet understated groove, which enables Davis to steer and pianists Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul (who composed the song) to throw sparks at will. Davis himself sounds particularly fierce on “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” foreshadowing some of the dark themes and sounds he would build in later “fusion period” live albums like Agharta and Dark Magus.
Those records would go deep into the funk of the early ’70s; here, Davis’ vision is more in line with the wide open textures of late-’60s rock. You can hear it in the rhythms of “Spanish Key,” which are as simultaneously unfettered and locked-in as were the Grateful Dead’s two-headed percussion hydra at the time. Guitarist John McLaughlin is all blues in “Spanish Key,” but given to shorter lyrical bursts in Bitches Brew‘s title song, in which the instruments bounce around and into one another in a fabulous blanket of echo. In some ways, you can hear elements of ’70s fusion, noise rock, and even prog take root in these fertile moments of brilliance. There was certainly enough here to take as inspiration for a long time to come.
The music of Miles Davis, Bitches Brew in particular, served as inspiration to Sam Calagione, founder and president of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, a Delaware-based creator of fine “off-centered ales” with a seriously devoted following (this writer included). To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Bitches Brew the album, Dogfish has created a limited edition Bitches Brew beer – a marvelous combination of three parts imperial stout and one part honey beer.
May we suggest drinking your 750 ml bottle of Bitches Brew beer while watching the DVD included in the Bitches Brew Legacy Edition set, an hour-plus program taped in Copenhagen in 1969. Open the beer and take a whiff – you’ll notice the deep bouquet, almost like a wine that’s aged in mahogany. Put on the DVD and watch the band – all acoustic, except Chick Corea’s electric piano – launch into the cosmic groove of “Directions.”
Pour some beer into a wineglass or brandy snifter – no pint glasses; this stuff is meant to be savored, slowly, in small portions. Notice the opaque brown in the glass, the tan head; take another sniff as air hits this elixir and the woodiness of its scent comes to life. Take a sip and revel in that malty first hit, that lingering bitterness. Give it a moment to sink in.
Watch the band bounce off one another, particularly Corea and drummer Jack DeJohnette, weaving in and out of one another’s path, pausing only to listen to a note, a snare hit, something to push the conversation into its next phase. Hear saxophonist Wayne Shorter expound at great length on a theme, echoing a phrase from Davis’ own horn, or pulling a fragment from his leader and expanding it. Marvel at how muscular the band sounds, how tight – it’s not as expansive as the massive Bitches Brew ensembles, but just as strong in its own right.
Take another sip, this time leaving the beer in your mouth a few seconds before swallowing. Notice the sweetness of the honey beer gently touching your palate before the bitter wave washes back again as you swallow. Notice the chocolate and coffee tones in that wave as you think to yourself how seeing the music being made onscreen makes it all the more inspiring – a young, cool Shorter in the final stages of his apprenticeship with Davis (soon to launch Weather Report); a young, hippie regalia-bedecked Corea, coaxing just the right notes from his piano; a powerful Dave Holland, fingers flying over his upright bass’ strings, keeping up nicely with the propulsive forces around him.
Note that there is something special about seeing Davis play, watching him at arguably the height of his creative power, making powerful new music, in complete control of his band, while being led by his muse. Take another sip. Drink it all in. (Sony Legacy 2010)