TIDAL Impact: Miles Davis’ ‘Bitches Brew’ @ 50

TIDAL Impact: Miles Davis’ ‘Bitches Brew’ @ 50

I first heard Bitches Brew in late high school. When I was 16, I moved back to London [where I was born] from Barbados [where I’d spent my childhood] and started to pick up CDs each week at a local library that had a load of different records. I remember Bitches Brew being one of them.

One of the things I’ve found in records I later think are classics is that when I first hear them, I don’t really get it. That was the case with Bitches Brew. I was so used to listening to music in terms of genre, with jazz and rock being separate idioms. I knew Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys and Electric Ladyland on the one hand, and I was into a lot of Joshua Redman and Joe Lovano and earlier Miles records, like Milestones and Kind of Blue, on the other. Listening to Bitches Brew, I just couldn’t pinpoint what it was.

But it also felt like there was something for me to get into. Something kept drawing me back, and every time I listened I heard something new.

Finally, there came this huge, amazing revelation from listening to and thinking about Bitches Brew: the communal nature of the music. It’s not a lot of individuals playing written parts, the sum of which is one man’s musical vision. [Instead] it’s a very organic mix of people doing a lot of different things, exploring different areas together like a real society within the music.

That influenced me on a profound level. I remember reading Miles Davis’ autobiography when I was about 17 — I won it as a prize in high school — and he was describing his role as a bandleader [as] planting the seeds of what he wants others to achieve with their own potential. He’s not a dictator, he’s a catalyst — trying to get people to do their thing, not his.

That kind of mental freedom is no small thing, even in the world of jazz. I worked for years as a session man, and there’s a lot of pressure in the studio to get it right, to execute the music to its most perfected form. There’s a tension of trying to achieve someone else’s concept as it’s put down on paper, and that tension can actually remove a musician from the music and put them into a head space of, for lack of a better word, automation. On Bitches Brew, that tension is just not there. Everyone has space not just to contribute their own ideas, but to develop them for as long as it takes to realize them.

I try to channel that spirit in my own bands: The Comet Is Coming, Sons of Kemet and Shabaka and the Ancestors. When I was working with the Ancestors to make our new album, We Are Sent Here by History, for example, I could just give them a basic groove and then say, “You know what to do with this.” That meant, “Do whatever you think is appropriate.” I trusted the basic musicality of each musician to create more structure for the music than I provided them. My job is to give them just enough material, within my own vision, to allow them to use their own visions to enhance it.

Also, what you would normally hear as the finished, structured compositions on the albums I make — especially on We Are Sent Here by History — isn’t what goes down in the studio. What goes on in the studio is a lot of longer-form improvisations, which are intermingled with the compositions I write. Here there is a lot more direction from me — not about musical content, but about who I want to be emphasized at this moment or that, and whether I want them to be more intense or less. Or, if I’m enjoying it, I’ll just be bobbing my head. It’s about setting the scene.

This is something that comes directly from the approach Miles Davis and his producer, Teo Macero, took with Bitches Brew. There would be these long, very open jams in the studio, and then massaging it into tracks afterward with edits and splices and things like that.

An album is a refined, constructed artifact, and we achieve that by editing the music down and shaping it into smaller, more self-contained tunes. But the performance leading to that is a lot denser. The ability to do that, and to know we can do that, comes from Bitches Brew as well. It’s the idea that the music is a living organism, and that it can be captured as such in the studio.

Miles operated with a certain attitude: My opinions and ideas matter because I’m an artist. You get that a lot in reading his autobiography, but once I became hip to it I associated it instantly with Bitches Brew. [The album deeply reflects] that attitude. That might be the most important takeaway: It’s completely unafraid to express its ideas and completely confident that what it has to say is important.

[As told to Michael J. West]

Shabaka Hutchings is a saxophonist, bass clarinetist and composer, and among the most important artists to emerge from London’s inspired jazz and improvised-music scene in the past decade. His most recent album is We Are Sent Here by History (Impulse!), about which the New Yorker wrote: “Shabaka and the Ancestors … give voice to the urgency of chaos, calling on each of us to raise from the ashes a better future for all.”

Image: Miles Davis in 1970. Credit: Mark Patiky/Condé Nast via Getty.

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