There is so much to hear in this music, Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew album.
Each side comes to an end, but the music never seems to conclude. There’s only so much information that a physical recording medium can hold. But the durational restrictions of a vinyl LP were less important for Bitches Brew than the design and intention of Miles’s music making. The music on the album doesn’t conclude because it doesn’t formally resolve, and Miles didn’t want it to resolve.
That’s how Miles was playing with his quintet at the time, with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea at the electric piano, Dave Holland on bass, and drummer Jack DeJohnette. That band’s live sets were one continuous stream of music. They would start with a recognizable theme—often it was “Directions”—and follow with solos. But instead of returning to the head and reaching a final cadence, Miles would play a musical cue that would turn the band immediately to the next tune. The constant, roiling group interplay was as vital as the soloing, which itself was more a part of the texture than a showcase for one individual. Pace, pulse, and mood were always flowing and always malleable, and the music stopped only when the set came to an end.
Bitches Brew captures that experience. But the music that is closest to the live sets makes up less than half of the album: three of the four tracks on the second disk—“Spanish Key,” “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” and “Sanctuary”—were central to the band’s repertoire. The rest of the music was new, played for the first time at the recording session and made with a concept new to not only jazz but to music across all genres.
The first disk is similar in sound but entirely different in method and teleology. In fact, it is music entirely without teleology. And Miles didn’t make it by himself; it was the product of a unique compositional collaboration between the trumpeter and his longtime, essential producer at Columbia Records, Teo Macero. That disk, with “Pharoah’s Dance” on the A side and “Bitches Brew” on the obverse, was played by Miles and the musicians in the studio, and then composed by Macero in a manner that was unprecedented and still, forty-five years later, has been barely explored by others.
Macero (October 30, 1925 – February 19, 2008) was by background a musician and a composer, but by training he was an audio engineer; at Columbia Records, he was an in-house composer, arranger, and producer. He worked with some of the great musicians of the 20th century, and shaped and directed essential jazz and pop albums by Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus (both of whom he signed to the label), Dave Brubeck (the Time Out album), Johnny Mathis, and Tony Bennett. He also produced an album of music by Alan Hovhaness, as well as the soundtrack to The Graduate and original cast recordings for many Broadway shows. As an independent producer in the 1970s and ’80s he worked with Herbie Hancock, Michel Legrand, Vernon Reid, The Lounge Lizards, Robert Palmer, and many other musicians.
As a musician and composer, he co-founded the Jazz Composer’s Workshop with Mingus and had a friendship with Edgard Varèse—there’s even a rumor that Macero helped Varèse prepare the tape for Poème électronique. While there’s no documentary evidence to confirm that, Macero paid his way through Juilliard by working as an engineer in the school’s recording studio, he had the skill and experience to make that a tantalizing possibility, and he did visit the composer and at least observe some of Varèse’s work on the piece.
Macero’s most important work was with Miles Davis, with whom he worked intimately as a producer from 1959 (beginning perhaps with part of the Kind of Blue session, though that is unclear) through Davis’s retirement in 1975, and then with the first few comeback albums for Columbia. There’s no direct line connecting Macero’s own music and the realization of Bitches Brew and other albums. Macero was a professional but with little lasting distinction as a composer or performer. He played the saxophone in the manner of Warne Marsh, though nowhere near as well, and experimented with composition in the Third Stream style. (Miles called some of those efforts “sad,” and judging by the album Explorations, with Macero, Mingus, and accordionist Wally Cirillo, he was right.) There are also some solid but unremarkable film scores, and the exploratory One-Three Quarters for chamber group and two pianos, recorded on the New Music in Quarter-Tones album, part of David Behrman’s “Music in Our Time” series for Columbia. (And a passing thought for the downside of the end of the big labels: during the 1960s, Columbia issued albums by Davis, Mingus, Monk, Bob Dylan, Glenn Gould, Stravinsky, Simon and Garfunkel, The Byrds, Leonard Bernstein, Behrman’s series, etc., et al. There won’t be anything like that again.)
Even before Macero started work as Miles’s producer, his critical ear and skill with the razor blade, splicing block, and tape were already established in jazz history. He produced Mingus’s Mingus Ah Um album, one of the greatest recordings in the history of the music, by editing the original tapes. The full master take of the opening track, “Better Git It in Your Soul,” has an extra chorus for Booker Ervin’s tenor sax solo. Ervin wanders around for the chorus, warming up, tossing out discontinuous ideas that never amount to anything interesting. Once the second chorus comes around, Ervin is in full swing and launches what is, at least on the LP release, a cooking solo, made hard-hitting by its concision. Macero lopped off the first chorus—and over a minute total—and is responsible for how tight and effective that track is.
At the Bitches Brew session, Miles had music for the band to play. Along with the music the core quintet had been playing, keyboardist Joe Zawinul brought in “Pharaoh’s Dance,” and Miles had some sort of sketch for “Bitches Brew.” That’s how he liked to work when he was experimenting. Beneath the public style, popular superstardom, and communicative playing, Miles was essentially an avant-garde/experimental musician. The musicians on the Kind of Blue album didn’t see what they were going to play until they arrived at the recording studio. By August 1969, the date of the Bitches Brew recordings, Miles was using the minimum of notated materials. He even cut out harmonies from Zawinul’s piece, leaving what he felt were the essentials: there is one chord, which at times is no more than a B pedal tone, and one spare, syncopated, repetitive theme that doesn’t first appear until almost 17 minutes into the 20-minute track.
But there’s no way to know when Miles first played that theme in the studio, in real time. The entire first disk of the album is a non-real time tape composition by Macero, and the material he had to work with was the recording session tapes. Miles and Macero kept the decks rolling while Miles had the band play various short passages, lay down different versions of the groove, and come together for extended stretches of ensemble playing that featured his own soloing, that of Shorter, and numerous conversations between bass clarinet player Bennie Maupin, guitarist John McLaughlin, and the keyboardists Corea, Zawinul, and Larry Young. The same is true for the 27-minute title track on the second side. The piece is even more substantial when you take into account that the track “John McLaughlin” on the first side of the second disk is a straight edit that came out of the recording of “Bitches Brew.” Miles and Macero had gone into the studio thinking that “Bitches Brew” (at the time not the title track, the initial intention was to call the album Listen to This) would be something of a four-part suite—e.g. they were thinking in terms of form. But the form in the studio, as played by the musicians, was nothing like the form that Macero gave the music in the editing process. The results were so far separated from the experience of the sessions that neither Maupin nor Zawinul realized what the record was when they first heard it after its release.
That Bitches Brew is so impressive is a testament not only to Miles’s great playing, his under-appreciated leadership and musical direction, but also to Macero’s compositional thinking. This was a new kind of music, using tools and idioms of musique concrète, aleatory, improvisation, jazz, rock, and funk, and creating new forms and structures around contemporary ideas about tonal harmony. Macero had all this material at hand in the form of feet of recording tape with instrumental passages. But how did those get spliced together into complete wholes?
Macero gave “Bitches Brew” a clear, simple form, guided by the original structural idea: a malevolently atmospheric fanfare leads into a bass vamp that continues for almost the duration of the side, interrupted only by returns of the fanfare. One of those repeats is a direct tape copy of the music heard at the start of the track; the other is a different, real-time stretch of the musicians playing the phrase. The track ends with another copy of the opening fanfare, which dissipates to nothing. The musicians didn’t play anything that created a sense of an ending, that wasn’t in the cards, so Macero’s edit brings the music to a place past which it doesn’t continue. Neither he nor Miles cared about any kind of formal conclusion.
But Macero did more than just put the tapes into some kind of shape. At about ten and a half minutes in, Miles, soloing, spits out a strong, short, rhythmic phrase, and Macero used a series of edits to repeat and extended the phrase, using a fragment of it recursively, making Miles sound like he is obsessively circling a musical idea, turning it in space, before he dismisses it and moves on. It’s quite a moment, musically rich and conceptually mysterious, one musician turning another musician’s improvisation, after the fact, into a composition. With the goal of creating an album that sounds like the band playing live, but which also displays deliberate, ex post facto compositional decisions, what kind of terms exist for this type of music making? Alchemy is the word.
Although “Pharaoh’s Dance” is the most heavily edited track on the entire album, a tour de force of critical listening and tape composition. “Pharaoh’s” opening is a sequence of edits, all short, that build an ABCBCABC structure. This was done entirely with the razor blade—in real time, the band was playing a vamp, punctuated by Holland playing a rising, arpeggiated B chord. The circularity of the playing, after Macero took it apart and reassembled it, produces music that has the unique, uncanny combination of a repetitive drone set inside a linear timeline. The intro leads into the meat of the performance, group interplay and solos, and the bulk of the track maintains the complexity of music made without the conception of linear time—without a structural or formal need to move from one bar or chord to the next—arranged into the linear sequence that tape splicing physically demands.
The track is both free form and concrete, improvised and composed, and there are brilliant edits that anchor musical events and create the unequalled and mysterious force of the record. At about eight minutes in, an edit cuts out a vamp that is losing energy and returns the opening material. Or something like it, but hauntingly different—the band is continuing the phrases from the start of the track, but they are somewhere farther along, in real time, though not in the album/listening time. The close listener remembers the music, yet the sensation of the music is extracted directly from the past and inserted into the present, dislocating the listener from the stream of time. If sonata form returns music transmuted by the experience of intervening time, the changes that time wrings on Bitches Brew do not come from the musicians, they take place entirely inside the listener’s mind. (The editing on the second disk is much lighter and directed towards getting the best out of the performances. “Voodoo” is a straight take. The edit on “Sanctuary” splices together two different takes to make an extended reverie on Wayne Shorter’s harmonically and emotionally ambivalent tune.)
This short stretch of music manages to both extend the duration of the piece while also seeming to go back to a moment in time that has long passed. Macero’s technical skill means the music keeps flowing, and his compositional thinking produces an effect that is unlike anything else in music, recorded or live. It also challenges, again, how we think about and describe the compositional process and its results. Macero wasn’t making a tape piece, any kind of pastiche or collage, he was producing an album by another musician. But Miles wanted to make part of the album in this manner, to play raw material and have his musical partner turn it into something that never existed in the studio. It’s a record of a band playing music that was never heard in real time. It’s a concept that, through praxis, plays with time in deeply mysterious ways. And it’s a complete artistic statement that, through its process, discards form, while managing to sound organic and logical. There is no one answer to what Bitches Brew is, but one truth about the album is that it is Teo Macero’s greatest composition.
George Grella, Jr. is the author of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew for the 33 1/3 Series of books. He is the Music Editor at the Brooklyn Rail, publishes the Big City Blog, and writes for the New York Classical Review, the American Record Guide, and Music & Literature.