Review Summary: Meticulous, meticulous, meticulous, meticulous
“Bitches Brew” has been repeatedly hailed as a brilliant and innovative masterpiece for all the wrong reasons. Critics praise its “chaotic” nature, its “free-form” style. I’ve even heard one particularly clueless person call it “the birth of free jazz”, a statement which doesn’t even make chronological sense. No, I believe the brilliance of the album lies in its ability to sound like a jam session, yet upon further analysis the perfect, brilliant order of it all comes to light, and the album’s true beauty is revealed.
Possibly influenced by the abrasiveness of the emerging free jazz scene, and by the electric power of hard rock, Miles strove to create a chaotic atmosphere, a feeling of decontrol and randomness, but to say that the actual music possesses any of these traits is a falsehood. On repeated listens, the album reveals itself to be not only harmonically coherent, but also rhythmically, an aspect that is usually referred to as the record’s most “off” characteristic. The dynamics are also meticulously thought out: the sudden “drops” that give the album part of its psychedelic and “unpredictable” air are perfectly planned to create and release tension, which is one of the fundamental aspects of jazz composition. The more you listen to the album the more it feels like on coherent piece.
This is not however, to denounce the improvisational aspect of the record, which is of course a huge part of its charm, as with most jazz recordings. Upon repeated listens however you realize just how well Miles knew not only instrumental timbres and their respective uses, but also his individual musicians. For example, Chick Corea’s sparse, trippy style is given comparatively few solo spots, yet they are precisely the right ones for when he shines through and gives the music a required layer or mood, whilst Joe Zawinul’s solos are placed in the more abrasive passages, making brilliant use of his aggressive, off-beat style. It is a cliché to say that a great musician knows when not to play, but this record proves it, as not even Miles himself is on every song, so as to allow individual textures do to their own, uninterrupted thing.
If you still don’t wish to believe that this whole record was in Miles’ head from the very beginning, then you simply have to crank that *** up real loud. You’ll hear then Miles’ unmistakable hoarse whisper saying things such as “keep it tight”, “your turn John” and even snapping his fingers to indicate the tempo. Miles Davis is the quintessential bandleader, and the reason this music feels raw and exciting despite being meticulously thought-out is that Miles is executing his careful ideas on the spot. Perhaps the one adjective thus that I can agree on with the previously mentioned critics is “spontaneous”, but the spontaneity is contained within a frame, a beautiful, wondrous and maddening frame.
After the music was recorded, Miles took to the tapes, splicing, editing and moving them around as a way of further arranging the tunes, influenced by the French “musique concrete” movement of the 30’s and 40’s. This of course only goes to further support the point I’ve been stressing: “Bitches Brew” sounds chaotic, random and confusing, but structurally it is everything from it. This album is not a jam session that simply “turned out” to be brilliant thanks to its stellar array of participants. No, this is a carefully and beautifully constructed work of great musical prowess and emotional charge, in which the creator allowed for the individual expression of each of his musicians, yet always within the frame of his brilliant vision. It is thus that I safely proclaim this as one of the greatest recordings in the canon not only of jazz, but indeed of all popular music.