Saturday, 30 March 2019

Bitches Brew - Reflections on Miles Davis' Revolutionary Album

“Bitches Brew” by Mati Klarwein (1970)

March 30th marks the anniversary of the release of Bitches Brew, an album that took Miles Davis’ excursion into Jazz Fusion even further into the experimental mode began with his album In A Silent Way.

The revolutionary album had an cover that was arguably befittingly revolutionary in its own right. Painted by Mati Klarwein, the surrealist imagery juxtaposed “light” with “dark”, “earth” and “space”, “unity” and “disconnection”. The sense of paganism, the continuum of time and space is pervasive as is its resolutely Afrocentric ambiance. The multi-layered evocations of Klarwein’s art mirrored the music Davis had produced in tracks such as “Pharaoh’s Dance”, “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down”, “Spanish Key” and the title track.

The use of electric instruments were as jarring to Jazz purists as it had been to those followers of Blues and Folk genres when the likes of Muddy Waters and Bob Dylan went electric. But Miles’ music went further than mere electrification of instruments. It’s sonic texture: the treatment of harmony, varieties of tempo, as well as post-production effects marked it as a complete departure from previous creative efforts.

Miles loved to claim that he changed Jazz “five or six times”, and this was the development of one such change, albeit one purists of the day could not stomach. Although winning praise from contemporary reviewers in Rolling Stone and Village Voice, for its level of daring and inventiveness, it was derided by others for being unfocused, and too much of a strange concoction.

The album itself is flawed in several respects: its lack of coherence and what the Penguin Guide to Jazz referred to as “a gigantic torso of burstingly noisy music that absolutely refuses to resolve itself under any recognised guise”, but it sold well -over a million units- and was instrumental in paving the way for Jazz-orientated crossover music by the likes of Herbie Hancock and Weather Report.

And while traditionalists such as the writer Stanley Crouch and the musician Wynton Marsalis, remain avowed critics of the deviations of Free Jazz and Jazz fusion, Miles continues to receive praise for his level of creativity and relentless pushing of the boundaries of conventional understanding and appreciation of Jazz music.

It is certainly the case that the criticism directed at Miles by the likes of Marsalis can be turned and used against his accusers. Marsalis, who drew an incalculable well of inspiration from the sound developed under the auspices of Miles’ second great quintet, has himself being criticised for ignoring what many would acknowledge as the historical disposition of Jazz towards innovation, while attempting to turn the genre into a museum piece.

Described by Rolling Stone’s Langdon Winner as being “so rich in its form and substance that it permits and even encourages soaring flights of imagination by anyone who listens”, Bitches Brew serves as a testament to Jazz music’s ineradicable capacity for change. It was the code by which Miles Davis lived. As he once said:

If anybody wants to keep creating they have to be about change. Living is an adventure and a challenge.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2019)

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.


No comments:

Post a comment