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Saturday, April 04, 2020

Bitches Brew: The Verdict

(By Russell)

Released just over fifty years ago on March 30, 1970, Miles Davis' groundbreaking new album seemingly divided the critics. CBS went big on pre-release publicity buying advertising space in numerous jazz magazines including Jazz Journal (see image from the July 1970 issue). In the September issue of Jazz Journal critic Ron Brown reviewed the album.

Alongside the catalogue number details - CBS 66236 2 record set - was the price of the then vinyl-only product...59s 11d. Brown began his review like this: This is a record by one of the greatest hot trumpeters in jazz...Our critic from half a century ago, in agreement with others, noted:...you could listen for years and still not find all there is to find. Brown goes on to say: Bitches Brew is remarkable for his sparing but entirely effective use of the electric trumpet, adding Miles Runs The Vooodoo Down contains the most glorious stretches of trumpet, as Miles demonstrates his now complete mastery over his chosen medium of expression...

In concluding his review did Brown irk some - those we now refer to as 'classic jazz' fans - in drawing a parallel with Louis Armstrong? Brown writes: It's anybody's guess whether or not a record like this will result in acceptance of Miles' music by the kind of audience he's trying to reach by appearing at this year's Isle of Wight Festival; I just hope it's not going to put off those fans to whom anything connected with rock is anathema, because I believe that the stabbing, emotional jazz that Miles is playing in this fiercely contemporary context is an affirmation of the kind of values Satchmo himself would uphold. 

December 1970, Jazz Journal's year-end critics' poll makes interesting reading (see image of the magazine's front cover). Notwithstanding the twenty one critics polled were, as critics tend to be today, 'specialists' - that is reviewing the sort of jazz they like/know - few of them rated Bitches Brew highly enough to figure in their top ten lists. Sixteen writers omitted Miles' new album. Barry McRae's 'best of the year' didn't include Bitches Brew, somewhat of a surprise given that Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Charles Mingus, Sonny Simmons and Anthony Braxton made the cut. Equally surprising is Steve Voce liking the album, so much so it's top of his list! Ronald Atkins (at the time reviewing for The Guardian and Tribune) made it his top pick and the aforementioned Ron Brown places Davis' album at no.4 behind Louis Armstrong, Gary Burton and Tynemouth born Graham Collier. 

Fast forward fifty years to Friday 3 April 2020. Radio 4's weekday evening arts programme Front Row invited Soweto Kinch and Michael Carlson to discuss the now legendary recording. As chance would have it, Kevin Le Gendre was on the line having earlier offered an appreciation of Bill Withers following the news of the great soul man's death, and he too, offered his thoughts. 

Carlson was around at the time Bitches Brew was released and suggested its target audience was someone like him. Did he mean a non-jazz, hippy type? Radio 4's talking heads seemed to agree the album (in 1970) wasn't and (in 2020) isn't an easy listen. Oh, yeah? It shouldn't be seen as 'difficult' - it seems only jazz feels the need to 'explain' itself. Classical, folk, rock - its performed, you listen, you like it or you don't. Jazz? You'd better write an academic paper. Better still, use your ears. If you like Bitches Brew it'll set you off on a lifetime of listening to Miles' back catalogue, make that jazz's back catalogue and, as Miles would no doubt have wanted, the jazz of today and tomorrow.    
Russell

2 comments :

Steve T said...

I first heard Bitches Brew in the early eighties and, having seen Mahavishnu a decade earlier, didn't particularly see what all the fuss was about.
I like it though I probably prefer Live Evil and the funk-jazz of On the Corner is probably my favourite of the fusion albums. Generally I feel his alumni, or at least Tony Williams, McLaughlin, Shorter,Zawinul and Corea did it better.
My preference for Miles are the first and Second Great Quintets, the sextet and the orchestral albums with Gil Evans, which is probably typical for jazz folk but maybe not an old rock and souler like me.

Chris Kilsby said...

Russell - many thanks for your thoughtful reflection on Bitches Brew, and glad you're back from your madcap US trip!

The Bitches Brew anniversary, Birth of the Cool film, and now Marcus Brigstock;s family tree series on Jazz FM, have certainly provoked some discussion - at home, on BSH and wider! Miles, of course, and rightly, permeates the narrative of 20th century jazz, but perspective in time is eveything here.

I'm with Steve T on this as I first heard the electric Miles albums in the late 70s, by which time his alumni were making the weather (Mahavishnu, RTF, Weather Report etc.). I was struck by the unique, magical,"voodoo" mood of BB, but like Steve, preferred Live Evil and more so my favourite, Jack Johnson (mostly for McLaughlin's guitar riff!)

It was only in later years that I came to appreciate the importance of this phase of Miles' works. It's not just the music itself, which many class as "inferior" to his previous canon - there is certainly less instrumental virtuosity or harmonic content. The point is that it provided new listeners with a bridge forward and backward in time (as Russell so elegantly concludes) opening up whole new worlds of music - it certainly has to me!

As an aside, I have always felt there were British bands of that era who made the leap between jazz and rock simultaneously with (or before?) Miles and BB, but without the acclaim and recognition. Newcastle's own Ian Carr for example: his band Nucleus released their first album "Elastic Rock", replete with repetitive bass grooves, electric guitar and trumpet, a few months after BB. Even though Carr was a huge fan of Miles, this must have been "brewing" for some time and was surely not jus a response to BB? Likewise Soft Machine started off their own brand (with some similarities, and many differences!) in 1966. Any thoughts from those who were around at the time very welcome!

Chris K

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