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Miles Davis' 'Bitches Brew' Turns 40 and Gets the Box Set Treatment

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I've gone on record more than once saying I lean more toward John Coltrane than Miles Davis. Yet such is the magnitude of Davis' legacy that it is impossible for either jazz fan or jazz critic to avoid spending considerable time listening to the trumpeter. No jazz musician I can think of was recorded more often. No leader I can think of had more of his sidemen go on to become stars in their own right. No jazz artist moved the music forward so many times, either dictating a change in music and/or simply being present as magic happened among his many talented sidemen. This was the case with the landmark 'Kind of Blue' in 1959. This was the case for 'Bitches Brew' in 1970.

Such is the stature of 'Bitches Brew' that it is generally regarded as Davis' top-selling album, moving a half million units (mostly into college dorms and suburban bedrooms), making the album his most successful crossover effort. It's hard to believe that, considering it's a 94-minute double album with only one track under 10 minutes; but it nonetheless is a perfect mix of jazz musicianship and rock dynamics.

Ostensibly, this album was Davis' reaction to the youth culture and music of the times, particularly the music of Sly and the Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix, but 'BB' is a whole lot more unwieldy than most popular '60s rock, including Hendrix. Much of the album doesn't really have any sort of arc of the beginning-middle-end sort of trajectory. Each part of each song simply exists in time for that moment, seemingly as if the idea comes to light, plays itself out and dies off so another one can replace it.

Contrary to what many think, 'Bitches Brew' is not the first album where Davis went electric. That honor is held by 'In a Silent Way,' which features many of the same personnel—saxophonist Wayne Shorter, guitarist John McLaughlin, keyboardists Chick Corea and Joseph Zawinul, bassist Dave Holland—but the group grows to a dozen musicians at times to include a rhythm section of three drummers, two bassists and three keyboardists. More accurately, the album is the second but much louder shot that announced a jazz fusion revolution that would spawn rock star-like jazz groups like Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever and, of course, Weather Report.

Throughout the past 25 years, I've listened to this album on and off. It continues to mystify me in the best way possible. It's so insanely dense that the music bursts from the speakers. With shifting roles amidst the multiple percussionists, fat bass vamps by two bassists and its intertwining keyboards, it's sometimes hard to tell who is doing what. When you do single out one of the backing instruments, it sometimes doesn't even make sense without the context of what is going on with the rest of the players.

Out front, of course, is Miles Davis. The trumpeter's playing shines with a bright blue intensity that decisively wends its way through the sonic tapestry. Whereas his playing of the past (with a mute or without) leaned more melodic and elliptical, 'Bitches Brew' features his most aggressive playing ever. Sometimes his lines explode into bouquets of notes, but sometimes they'll start strong and quietly descend into a netherworld of silence. Either way beckons the listener onward to hear what happens next.

The other soloists fade in and out, as well, thanks to the heavy editing that producer Teo Macero was doing at this time, literally assembling songs from a variety of grooves and vamps that the group would lay down in the studio. Undoubtedly an anchor for non-jazz listeners was the dazzling work of John McLaughlin, whose slashing guitar riffs cut across this album like a buzz saw. Whereas Davis' playing tended to ride the groove, McLaughlin's solos pick the whole band up and carry it with him on his six-stringed adventures. Less assertive but still inspired, reedists Wayne Shorter and Bennie Maupin (exclusively on bass clarinet here) fill out the front line, coloring the edges and offering spiraling lines that dart and parry like Muhammad Ali doing his rope-a-dope bit.

While the sheer magnitude of the original album makes it something close to overwhelming, in honor of the 40th anniversary we now get sensory overload: Sony Legacy has issued a new 'Bitches Brew' box set that also features three CDs containing outtakes and edits, as well as a live concert from 1970. There is also a DVD of a 1969 concert and the original double-album LP pressed on 180g vinyl. Legacy is known for its packaging as well as its music, and this box also includes a 52-page book of liner notes (including great reproductions or the original artwork by Mati Klarwein) as well as other photos and memorabilia. This is not to be confused with the label's complete sessions box set issued in 1998, which features no live music.

Such is the stature of this album that rock repository Rolling Stone even includes it in its top 500 albums of all time. It's been called the greatest jazz fusion album ever. You'll get no argument from me on that front. I can't think of a better one, nor one more enigmatic.

This story appears courtesy of All About Jazz @ Spinner.
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