Bitches Brew: Miles Davis and His Flavor of Jazz

On October 19th 2015

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When you start listening to jazz, if you’re completely unaware (if you’re like me), then you start with the ubiquitous Kind of Blue. It’s the standard that defined the standard, a master work, a relic of a style that has sadly — ironically — been relegated to the lifeless catacombs of shopping malls and elevators in many cases. It’s the music we listen to in-between things, while we’re waiting, without any real attention. And it’s a shame, because jazz, above all else, demands attention.

Miles Davis spent his whole life trying to make something new. Kind of Blue hums with a collaborative electricity that flows from John Coltrane to Bill Evans to Paul Chambers, and it’s as contained as it is free. It’s dark and it’s sultry and it’s smooth like velvet; it wraps you in this beat that slows your body, like smoke in through your lungs and out through your nostrils. It’s music that sounds familiar because you hear it imitated everywhere, on holding lines with cable companies, in adult films, in the melodies between the bridges of pop music. But Davis gave us something original with Kind of Blue, something that he’d been working towards his entire life. It’s more than electric: it’s the mother spark.

Davis grew up in a musical family and was classically trained. He worked hard from an early age to develop a style that was in direct contrast to the sounds of contemporary trumpet players. You hear this intense vibrato shake out of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet and then, almost defiantly, Davis pours out this smooth sound that’s brand-fucking-new. Because that’s what Davis always wanted to create: something new.

There’s this old story about Miles Davis and this French film and it’s the kind of thing that session musicians tell their kids when they put them to bed. It’s called Ascenseur pour l'échafaud, the story of a woman and her lover and their plot to kill her husband. The idea is that they’re going to make it look like a suicide but then the lover kind-of shits the bed and before you know it, it’s all gone wrong. Davis got a few Jazz players together and brought them into the studio and they all started playing and recording the soundtrackin real time as Ascenseurplayed in the room and—if you can believe it—Davis didn’t tell any of the musicians what was going on.

They just showed up and improvised the damn thing. They didn’t even know it was for a movie. they just knew it was for Miles Davis.

He wanted to make music that no one had heard before. That’s why the soundtrack to Ascenseuris so important. It’s this attempt at creating something out of the ethereal—the real time emotion of a black and white film—capturing something that’s momentary and dissolving, like a spark of lightning between your finger tip and the door knob.  

Davis was never satisfied with what was, always hungry to chase what could be. If Kind of Blue created the Jazz standard, then Bitches Brew made the standard irrelevant.

Bitches Brewis the creation of fusion, Davis putting Jazz and Rock into the same room and forcing them to duke it out. Like anything that pushes the contemporary past its prime, that’s incendiary, Bitches Brewwas ill-received by the puritans of its genre. In retrospect, that was probably the best indicator that it would shape the face of Jazz to come.

Davis pushed the boundary of sound with weirdness and unfamiliarity and created this absurdly unique record that you’ve just got to listen to all at once. I honestly don’t think that you could get it if you listened track-by-track with some amount of space in between. No, more than an album Bitches Brew is  a really weird kind of experience. It’s spooky and it’s unsettling and in more ways than one it feels like witchcraft. It’s dark and earthy and maybe it’s a spell. Davis doesn’t even play for the first two and a half minutes of the album and when he does it’s just a few notes. But he’s there from the beginning, stalking you in the shadows, waiting, watching, trumpet ready to blow.

Close your eyes in a dark room and put on a really nice pair of headphones. Let Bitches Brew seep through you like fog in the forest and when it’s over you’ll be a completely different person.

It’s the musing of a mind that was smoothed out by the fall into and recovery from a fierce heroine addiction. What is it about creatives that makes drugs so appealing? After kicking one drug, almost like some show of bravado, Davis fell into an out of an even worse cocaine addiction. He melted through the cracks, got dirty, got clean, and eventually got back on his feet.

Which brings us to a completely different record. Miles Davis at Fillmoreis a live album recorded in 1970 over four consecutive days. You’ve got Keith Jarrett on the organ, Dave Holland on bass, Jack DeJohnette on drums, and Chick Corea on the electric piano. You’ve probably never heard of any of these guys—at least I hadn’t before looking into it—but they were the best. The absolute best.

And it comes through in Fillmore. It’s Miles Davis and a bunch of musicians with this insane amount of raw, preternatural talent, and they’re all feeding off of each other and following some unseen narrative that only exists between notes.

When it was released as a double LP, Miles Davis at Fillmore was called “unfocused” and less “great” by critic Robert Christgau. The reason Christgau disliked Fillmore is also the reason why it’s so remarkable, because it’s a live recording of Bitches Brew. It’s different and it’s new and it is almost completely unrecognizable. And that’s what I love about Fillmore,even when revisiting his own self, Mile Davis created something new.

Miles Davis pushed Jazz farther than it had ever been and, since his death in the 90s, the genre has suffered from repetition and imitation. If you sit down and listen to Bitches Brew and then you sit down and listen to Miles Davis at Fillmore you’re going to hear two completely different albums. Even when he was recording a record for the second time, Miles Davis was recording something new.

And I think that’s what makes Miles Davis so great, so amazing, so unlike any other musician I’ve ever paid attention to. He loved Jazz so much that he pushed it to it’s inevitable, inconceivable end...It was the birth of cool, it was kind of blue, it was Jazz as we know it.

When you start listening to Jazz you start with Kind of Blue. You’ve heard it before, it’s spark striking the background of pop songs and rock ballads and the opening theme songs to must see TV. You’ve hummed it without knowing it, aimlessly walking to your car or out of a movie theater, it vibrates in your chest like neon.

When you start listening to Jazz you’re invited to watch lightning hop from one note to the next like it’s chasing a grounded current that will never exist, than can never exist. It’s what Miles Davis was chasing his whole life. And that’s the great thing about Jazz, about Miles Davis, because when you start listening to Jazz you’re invited to chase it too.
Special thanks to Erik Simpson for research and direction on the development of this article.

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