Run the Voodoo Down: Miles Davis – Bitches Brew

Released: March 30, 1970

Miles Davis famously said, “do not fear mistakes—there are none.” He’s also the man who reinvented jazz “four or five times.” He played his trumpet for decades, weathering one cultural revolution after another. He was an innovator, originator, and visionary. His audience spans a handful of generations at this point, and most importantly, his music has endured the test of time (there are few artists with sixty and seventy-year-old releases still topping the Amazon vinyl charts). While the list of superlatives and adjectives could go on forever, Miles Davis is perhaps best described as a musical force of nature; a fact demonstrated throughout his 1970 double-album release Bitches Brew.

Davis’s Kind Of Blue (released in 1959) is widely regarded (and rightfully so) as one of Jazz’s hallmark albums, enjoying cross-generational accessibility via Starbucks and department store vinyl racks worldwide. Still, the record does little to pull back the curtain on one of music’s most daring artists. Initially a hotshot jazz trumpeter-turned-bandleader, Davis quickly earned a reputation as a fearless composer, pushing the limits of his audience’s expectations with near-constant line-up changes and a prolific run of records that would grow increasingly indulgent throughout the 60s and ’70s.

By 1969, Davis was in full-on ‘fusion’ mode—he’d made the transition and ‘gone electric’ (with the incomparable 1969 release, In A Silent Way). He was ready to push the limits of his new band, which featured a who’s who of up-and-comers (many of whom would become bandleaders in their own right). Over three days in August of that year, Davis and producer Teo Macero conducted a series of sessions that eventually gave birth to Bitches Brew.

The recording of Bitches Brew is the stuff of legend: Davis calling in musicians with little or no notice, briefly giving them fragments of instruction before guiding his various line-ups into full-blown performances, conducting his musicians through his mental compositions. The band (notably featuring such heavyweights as Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, and Dave Holland) plays with a jaw-dropping cohesion, especially considering the haphazard way in which the recordings took place. The sessions proved so fruitful that material would continue to be mined for future releases until Davis’s 1976 hiatus/retirement.

As for the actual album itself, Bitches Brew is an expansive affair, with each side of the first LP solely dedicated to the first two tracks. The twenty-minute “Pharaoh’s Dance” unravels slowly, almost as an exercise in meditative minimalism, before exploding into a backbeat-driven groove, highlighting Davis’ newfound love of aggressive rhythms and rock-driven textures. The hard-panned, double-drumset work of Lenny White and Jack DeJohnette provides a tangible foundation for the overlapping solos and vamps (the interplay between John McLaughlin’s guitar and Davis’ trumpet is a second-half highlight).

The title track opens with a nearly impenetrable sonic collage before careening into another heavy-handed groove. The band careens back and forth, ebbing and flowing between drum-fill-driven bursts of notes and unsettling periods of silence punctuated by Davis’ chaotic playing. The song eventually settles into a final breakdown before dissipating into a free-form diminuendo. 

For his part, Davis’ typically understated playing is given a complete overhaul on Bitches Brew. Where predictably somber lead lines may have carried the melodic weight in the past, both halves of the record find Davis playing with a newfound aggressiveness, puncturing the music with cascades of notes, errant runs, and tortured long-tones.

The second LP features some of the more focused pieces from the sessions, where the faux-shuffle of the seventeen-minute “Spanish Key” and the cleverly-named (and appropriately guitar-driven) “John McLaughlin” provide a sense of counterpoint and balance to the record. “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” features some of Davis’ most emotive playing, while the understated “Sanctuary” functions almost as a musical exhale. To top it all off, the Mati Klarwein-designed gatefold artwork is easily one of the most iconic album covers of all time.

Bitches Brew was as much a landmark release for its musicianship as it was for its production. Macero heavily edited each track and implemented all sorts of tape manipulation and studio processing. While the reaction (both then and now) from Jazz purists has remained somewhat tepid over the years, it was the record’s ability to crossover with rock audiences (thus exposing Davis’ heady brand of fusion to a new and much larger audience) that set Bitches Brew apart. 

Honestly, half a dozen Miles Davis records could have just as easily been the subject of this article, each existing as an equally impactful substitute for the other. And while Bitches Brew probably wouldn’t make an appropriate starting point for someone looking to ‘check out’ Miles Davis, that certainly doesn’t relegate it to the ‘for completists only’ pile either. The bottom line is that the ‘best place to start’ with any artist as prolific as Miles Davis is always going to be a subjective matter. Still, for anyone looking to really understand the complicated artistic motivations of Miles Davis, there is no better example of the man’s abilities as a player, composer, bandleader, and most importantly, an innovator than Bitches Brew.


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