Pop: Like nothing you've ever heard before
Phil Johnson celebrates the remastering of Miles Davis's Bitches Brew
Friday 27 November 1998
It's shockingly good for a start, and given the superb quality of the newly remastered recordings, it actually sounds better than it could possibly have done before. But that isn't the half of it. Incredibly, the music still carries its original punch (and punching was what the boxing-mad Miles was into at the time), in a way that makes it seem, if anything, even more uncompromisingly modern. Davis's darkling trumpet feints and parries around the other instruments with a grace and power that is quite transfixing.
Part of the glory of Bitches Brew lies in the fact that it really does come from a golden age of musical invention, where new instruments and technology (the Fender Rhodes piano, the Echoplex) meshed with a new form (incipient jazz-fusion), and new groupings of musicians, and at a time when Miles himself was on a roll. At the end of a decade of continual experimentation, Miles was leaner and fitter than he had been for years, and his ear was increasingly attuned to the sound of rock and R&B.
Although there has always been a controversy about how far Clive Davis (the boss of CBS at the time) was responsible for pushing Miles in a more "commercial", rock-influenced direction, it seems that Miles didn't need much pushing, and the thought that Bitches Brew could ever be considered a primarily "commercial" undertaking now seems quite absurd. The album did sell well and it helped propel Miles to stadium-status as a live act, but even before it was released, he had made the cover of Rolling Stone and was attracting a whole new constituency of fans. According to the drummer, Tony Williams (who left the band just before the sessions were recorded), Miles's aim was both to go further out, and to get more basic, at the same time. Perhaps most importantly, Bitches Brew made him truly hip again, and hipness was what Miles liked best of all. If John Coltrane's parallel journey was mainly an inward one, Miles favoured the flash and filigree of public display.
The far-out elements on the album derive partly from the influence of Joe Zawinul. Although Zawinul also left the group at this time, he played on some of the sessions and five of his compositions were used, while Miles continually quotes from other tunes, such as In a Silent Way. The more "basic", R&B elements derive partly from the unusual line-ups of the ensemble, with two drummers, two keyboards and two bassists, plus guitar and percussion, often used for the same track, creating a thick, funky soup of sound. Adding occasional sitars and tabla drums to the mix, along with Bennie Maupin's burbling bass clarinet (a master-stroke of creative casting), helps provide the mystery factor that makes Bitches Brew quite unlike anything else you've ever heard.
As to the luxurious box-set itself, and the previously unreleased tunes, you can quibble about whether the original double album really justifies such reverent treatment, but if more is being offered, you might as well take it (and the improved sound quality is enough on its own to make the set essential). The additional tracks are sometimes rather meandering grooves, but so are some of the originals. You also get the bonus of hearing Miles's inimitable vocal growl as he talks to producer Teo Macero through the studio intercom.
Bitches Brew is one hell of a record, then and now.
Miles Davis: `Bitches Brew' (Sony, 4CD Box Set)
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