Today's Paper Search Latest Coronavirus Families Core values App Listen Story ideas iPad Weather Newsletters Obits Puzzles Archive
story.lead_photo.caption (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/John Deering)

My first copy of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew came from the Columbia Record Club, the precursor to the Columbia House mail-order music club. I remember how its miniature album cover stood out among the colored stamps representing the possible choices you could have for just one penny (provided you agreed to buy a minimum number of albums at the regular price over the next year).

I was intrigued by the cover — the beads of water or sweat on the left-looking, somewhat androgynous black profile, the presumably tribal African couple standing on the shore, the burning flowers seeming to morph into threatening storm clouds. ...

It was worth the risk. It had that cool transgressive title.

Once I held it, I realized the cover painting continued onto the back cover, with a left-facing white face mirroring the one on the front, making a Janus image, and a robed shaman framed by what looked like the back-lit silhouette of a Sly Stone Afro. There was another figure, a short-haired solemn-faced black woman with hoop earrings draped in a purple robe. I puzzled over the gatefold cover for long minutes. It felt ominous.

Years later that I found out the cover was by Mati Klarwein, a Jewish German-born painter who grew up in Palestine after his father, Brick Expressionist architect Ossip Klarwein, moved the family there in 1934, in anticipation of the rise of Nazism. (Ossip — who adopted "Yosep" as his first name in Israel and is also known as Joseph — designed Israel's Knesset building.)

Klarwein is well-known, with his work being used on more than 50 album covers, but his reputation in the art world isn't exactly unassailable. No major museum or institution acquired any of his works. While his style will be familiar to anyone who flipped through record store bins in the '60s, '70s and '80s — he also painted the cover of Gregg Allman's Laid Back and Santana's Abraxas — I hadn't heard of him before researching this piece. He was a friend and disciple of Salvador Dali who claimed to avoid psychedelic drugs even as he delved into his imagination to create what he called "inscapes."

"I like to paint images that are forever receding from so-called objective discourse," he claimed in an '80s interview posted without attribution on his website (Klarwein died in 2002). "During the abstract expressionist epidemic of the 1950s, I was dismissed as a latent surrealist illustrator. In the '60s, when the pop art revolution swept the globe with its tidal waves of whimsical garbage, I was scorned as a psychedelic artist ... too close to LSD for the straight culture-vultures of Madison Avenue. In the '70s, when conceptualism was the magic word (what else is there, anyway?) and a work of art was called a 'piece,' I was haughtily snubbed as an old-fashioned easel painter from Montmartre.

Jazz trumpeter and composer Miles Davis sits with his instrument during a studio recording session in October 1959.
Jazz trumpeter and composer Miles Davis sits with his instrument during a studio recording session in October 1959. (TNS)

"It's only in the 1980s, now that conservative senility has entrenched itself in the marrow of Western culture and good old-fashioned easel painting is being resuscitated as high-funk nostalgia, that the art-mart world is beginning to treat me with a little respect for the first time. I have a very nice, and respectable, European art dealer who peddles my images according to the rules of the game."

Davis commissioned Klarwein to paint the cover and played him tapes of the album for inspiration. It feels like the music, dense and solid and unknowable, forbidding and serious.

. . .

I didn't dig the album. What 11-year-old American kid who'd just been genuinely awakened to the possibilities of pop music by Creedence Clearwater Revival's Willy and the Poor Boys and the Beatles' "Get Back" could have? I liked The Monkees. I liked Dolly Parton on Porter Wagoner's TV show. Though I had that copy of Bitches Brew for about 20 years, I probably played it only two or three times.

It wasn't until the '90s when I really explored Davis, and through him and Dave Brubeck and Chet Baker and a couple of other gateway musical drugs, began to appreciate jazz. But I still thought Bitches Brew was an inelegant record, almost clumsy. I liked its predecessor, In a Silent Way, and adored its follow-up, A Tribute to Jack Johnson, but never thought of the records as a real trilogy, the way people who wrote about jazz regularly seemed to.

Bitches Brew, which was released 50 years ago, seemed an overt gesture, an attempt to make Davis more commercially relevant to the kids that were going to see Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead. Reading Davis' 1990 autobiography seems to confirm that:

"Rock and funk were selling like hotcakes and all this was put on display at Woodstock," Davis wrote. "There were 400,000 people at the concert. That many people at a concert makes everybody go crazy, and especially people who make records. The only thing on their minds is: How can we sell records to that many people all the time?"

At the end of the '60s, jazz seemed exhausted again, a cold and obscure science practiced by old weird junkies in suits. Even Davis, arguably jazz's only superstar, seemed on the verge of being irrelevant. He was playing to half-empty clubs.

While Columbia Records seemed satisfied with the 60,000 or so albums Davis sold every time he put out a record, it also understood that there was a lot more money to be made with pop and rock acts who could sell a million records. The label was willing to keep Davis on as a prestige artist, but no longer willing to indulge his request for advances.

"What [the label] didn't understand was that I wasn't prepared to be a memory yet, wasn't prepared to be listed only on Columbia's so-called classical list," Davis wrote. "I had seen the way to the future with my music, and I was going for it like I had always done. Not for Columbia and their record sales, and not for trying to get to some young white record buyers. I was going for it for myself, for what I wanted and needed in my own music. I wanted to change course, had to change course for me to continue to believe in and love what I was playing."

So Davis, who had already re-invigorated if not re-invented the genre twice with the relaxed "cool jazz" he explored with his nonet in 1949 and 1950 and the Ravel-like tonalities and modal improvising on 1959's Kind of Blue, decided he needed a Fender Rhodes piano and an electric guitar in his sound.

After Davis heard Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone and James Brown, it was hard for him to get the stinging harmonics of the electric guitar out of his head. After a man walked on the moon, the smoky modal modernism Davis had been exploring seemed antique and earthbound. There was a riot goin' on. It was time to get extra-freakin'-terrestrial.

. . .

That's not to suggest Davis had slowed downed musically by 1969; if anything he was speeding up. Beginning in 1964, he headed what might have been the most dynamic quintet in jazz history.

On albums like Miles Smiles (1966) and Nefertiti (1968) Davis, along with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, keyboardist Herbie Hancock, drummer Tony Williams and bassist Ron Carter (the "second great quintet") combined the intellectual rigor and improvisational intensity of "freebop" with a sense of tonality and warmth.

So in some respects, Bitches Brew is analogous to the great schism that occurred in folk music after Bob Dylan strapped on a Stratocaster at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Davis retired his Italian suits in favor of a dashiki, gathered a group of musicians together and went into the studio to commit what some would still characterize as heresy.

But it wasn't out of the blue.

If we want to mark the moment Davis went electric, you'd have to go back to 1968, to the Miles in the Sky album, where Hancock played electric piano on one track and George Benson played electric guitar on another. Chick Corea took over for Hancock in mid-1968. Corea shows up on electric piano on a couple of cuts on the 1968 album Filles de Kilimanjaro, which the critic Stanley Crouch famously described as Davis' "last important jazz record."

If you're looking to find Davis' first fusion album, you'd have to at least consider 1969's In a Silent Way, which incorporated elements of electrified pop and rock into Davis' sound. Still, IASW was, as the title implies, a quiet record with gentle grooves and calming atmospherics. It doesn't exactly rock, though you can hear a rock influence in its heavy bass lines and simple harmonies.

While the jazz world received it as one of Davis' minor experiments, IASW was embraced by a counter-culture that recognized it as a great album to get stoned to. (You might argue that it is early — if not the first — ambient music.) More importantly, it was the first Davis album that was not primarily a documentation of how the maestro's current group sounded live. The tracks were largely shaped by producer Teo Macero, who cut and spliced some performances into existence. It was a technique he'd refine on Bitches Brew.

(In his autobiography, Davis tends to downplay Macero's contribution to both IASW and Bitches Brew. "I had told Teo ... to just let the tapes run and get everything we played, told him to get everything and not to be coming in interrupting, asking questions. 'Just stay in the booth and worry about getting down the sound,' is what I told him. And he did, didn't [mess] with us once and ... got it down real good.")

If IASW was a whisper, Bitches Brew was a full-throated banshee howl, an assault on the cool territories of traditional jazz. It is as different from Kind of Blue — at once one of the most accessible jazz albums ever recorded and revolutionary as James Joyce's Ulysses — as the Sex Pistols were from, say, the Steve Miller Band (with whom Davis occasionally shared concert bills).

Kind of Blue was a warmly received revelation announcing a new way of hearing, and thinking about what one was hearing, that invited the listener in to hear the gospel. But 50 years on, Bitches Brew remains a polarizing, genuinely shocking record that questions the very notion of what it means to perform. Some critics claimed Davis had abandoned jazz. It was pop. It was a sellout.

It went on to sell more than 1.5 million copies. It was Davis' first gold record.

. . .

Bitches Brew was not the first attempt at a so-called fusion between rock, funk and jazz. But those experiments had been undertaken by younger artists, Davis was a venerated magus who had played bop with Charlie Parker. With Bitches Brew, he gave his imprimatur to electric space sounds.

If pop is all surge and superficial planes, music that resists consideration, Bitches Brew is anything but. You enter the album like you're walking into a dark, sultry place, a blue jungle (a Pandora?) of shaky polyrhythms and keyboards squonking in the night. John McLaughlin's electric guitar flashes like lightning in a velvet sky. Davis' trumpet snipes at us from the shadows.

This is "Pharaoh's Dance," and if it sounds like jazz to the modern ear, it's only because jazz has re-cohered around Davis' work during the past 50 years, because Macero's razor-and-tape edits (there are 19 cut-and-pasted sections in the opening track) no longer sound abrupt and experimental, as the recording studio has evolved from preserving agent to the principal instrument of making music.

Otherwise, the organized formlessness of Bitches Brew has acquired an archetypal familiarity. Fifty years on, we recognize its abstraction and use of space even if the specific tracks are new to us. There are only six "tunes" on the original recording, stitched together from dozens of performances captured in full by Macero.

This photo of Miles Davis taken in 1964 at the Monterey Jazz Festival is from the book Monterey Jazz Festival:40 Legendary Years.
(AP Photo/Monterey Jazz Festival, Jerry Stoll)
This photo of Miles Davis taken in 1964 at the Monterey Jazz Festival is from the book Monterey Jazz Festival:40 Legendary Years. (AP Photo/Monterey Jazz Festival, Jerry Stoll)

But it's not just a producer's record. The performances are formidable, especially the keyboard parts by Joe Zawinul and Corea and Bennie Maupin's eerie bass clarinet runs. Drummers Jack DeJohnette and Lenny White pitter and pound and draw the fabric of space/time tighter.

"Bitches Brew," the second track, is the most out there, driven by Davis' electronically enhanced trumpet line. But "Spanish Key" sounds like a synthesis of all Davis had done up to this point. You can hear Kind of Blue in here, Sketches of Spain and, most of all, that holy tone — Davis' lonely, deep indigo longing cutting through the rockish ambience.

"John McLaughlin" is, as the title implies, a showcase for the British guitarist, who had previously played on IASW. "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down" is a wonderfully funky number that sounds at times like the Meters have invaded the studio. The album closer, "Sanctuary," is a Shorter composition that, in context, sounds charmingly conventional.

. . .

No one hears the same album twice. Listening to Bitches Brew today, I am more appreciative of its dark mystery and less bothered by what I perceive as its sketchiness and lack of resolution. It's ambitious and excessive, overstuffed with guest stars, with dozens of instruments competing for space in the mix (three electric pianos on most of the tracks, at least two drummers on every track). It still feels inchoate; I prefer its masterful follow-up, 1971's A Tribute to Jack Johnson.

But it's also the quintessential jazz-rock fusion album, as much for the ebb and flow of its tension as for its virtuosic, improvisational performances that unfold in real time. It's disconcerting and divisive, maybe the most genuinely shocking piece of avant-garde music since Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring caused "riots" in 1913. (No one really rioted at the premiere of the ballet; some people laughed, some critics were confused — Stravinsky's work was received as strange, not dangerous or blasphemous.)

Davis moved on. To Jack Johnson and On the Corner. He never looked back.

Except maybe he did. They say in the '80s he tried to find and buy the painting Mati Klarwein had made for the cover. He never found it. Fifty years on, it has never resurfaced.


Style on 04/26/2020

Print Headline: Electric space sounds


Sponsor Content

COMMENTS - It looks like you're using Internet Explorer, which isn't compatible with the Democrat-Gazette commenting system. You can join the discussion by using another browser, like Firefox or Google Chrome.
It looks like you're using Microsoft Edge. The Democrat-Gazette commenting system is more compatible with Firefox and Google Chrome.