Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew”

Album cover for Bitches Brew

This week, I’ve been listening to Miles Davis’s double-album “Bitches Brew” from 1970. I spent time with Davis’s album “Kind of Blue” last year, which I enjoyed even if I wasn’t sure how to understand it. He once again challenges me in a different way, with this album. Here the band creates more of an other world through sound and rhythm. When I was in college studying fine art, I would often play this album in the painting studio. “Bitches Brew” providing an interesting, but unobtrusive, atmosphere that encouraged my own focus and creativity.

These are musical pieces without vocals that eschews techniques commonly used in music to make songs immediately digestible. There’s no hooks, clear melodies, or obviously repeated motifs for the listener to grab unto. That’s not to say that there’s no melody or motifs, or even hooks. They don’t come forward at once, but require time and repeated listening to reveal themselves. Just as these long (the title track is just over 26 minutes) pieces evolve within themselves, a feeling for them also evolves within the listener through repeated exposure.

Bitches Brew

This double LP opens with two very long tracks that took up a full side of a vinyl record. The 20 minutes track “Pharoah’s Dance” opens the album, while “Bitches Brew” fills the second side with a lengthy 26 minutes. Engineers like to keep the side of a record to 22 minutes or less, due to physical limitations of a 12 inch record. Above 22 minutes, the grooves have to get tighter, resulting in a gradual loss of sound quality. It’s also a long time to listen to a single piece of music.

Most of my listening to these albums happens in the car while driving, which means that I often did not hear these all in one sitting, but rather broken up into pieces. I do listen to these some at work in headphones, but that is less focused listening. That’s a shame, because this album really opens up in headphones.

On this album, we often hear two drummers and two bassists simultaneously playing. These pairs are panned hard left and hard right; With headphones, we can clearly hear the rhythms interweaving back and forth, supporting each other in creating complex textures. Two keyboardists at electric pianos also interact in the same way across the stereo field. I was overwhelmed at first by how much was going on where there’s typically a much more straight-forward simple foundation being laid out. Here that foundation is constantly evolving, undulating, and folding in on itself.

It allows for the players to come in and out of the basic down-beat and up-beat to perform complex rhythms knowing that their counterpart can support the beat until they come back. At times, the drums feel chaotic and then meld into a complex fabric bed, or an alien landscape, over which travels the electric guitar, trumpet and saxophone.

At the start of this the track “Bitches Brew,” the trumpet plays into a tempo-synced delay echo effect bouncing from right to left.Staccato blasts of trumpet echoed, creating an opening rhythm and atmosphere. Drums, electric piano and bass tumble out of these blasts, rolling and collapsing. This builds into the song that then takes us on a journey into the brew.

Spanish Key

The second LP opens with “Spanish Key,” which is a little more rocking than atmospheric, at least at first. The basses throb at a persistent galloping rhythm from the start. A brushed snare, shakers, and tambourine build up the rhythm, followed by loosed rolls across the toms. Sparse, mellow, short melodic motifs on the trumpet begin to evolve, growing into extended melodies. The electric piano quietly adds harmony. Saxophone grows, like a drone fading in and out. Three minutes into the track, rock-influenced lightly-overdriven electric guitar shuffles, scratches rhythms and scuttles. Occasionally that guitar hints at melody, bending notes and short blasts of solo riffs.

Just as these excursions flirt with flying into outer-space chaos, the instruments join into a simultaneous rhythmic cadence, then pause. A trumpet or bass may then continue on while the other instruments rest. The piece returns to Earth, momentarily. This cadence becomes motif of the song, repeated at the end of these phrases as a reminder where we are.

The tracks on this album make use of this technique often. There’s a motif: rhythmic, melodic, or both, that the band joins in to ground the piece before it loses the listener in chaos. This is followed by the band calming down for a moment, the drums and bass relax, but then the melodies and harmonies get folded, interpreted, transformed used as a basis for apparent improvisation. Then things evolve, rising in intensity, which often involves, pitch, tempo, texture, and rhythm. With multiple instruments doing this, they journey beyond and away from each other, while retaining some sense of interplay.

I don’t know if, or how, any influence from this album might show up in my own music, but I’ve definitely enjoyed getting an introductory experience with it. Miles Davis expands my feelings on what music can do, even when I don’t understand what he’s doing from a critical or technical standpoint.

Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life”

album cover for "Songs in the Key of Life"

I’ve been listening to Stevie Wonder’s 1976 double-LP “Songs in the Key of Life” this week. After spending a time with his 1973 album “Innervisions” back in August, I was looking forward to this one. Overall, this proved to be another great album by Wonder, serving up more of his unique blend of funk, soul, pop, and jazz. That said, I liked “Innervisions” more. My main complaint is that there’s too many songs and many of them are too long. This could’ve been two fantastic albums, but instead it is one overly long album. Many of the tracks have unnecessarily long codas. Still, I had difficulty picking just three tracks to dive into here, because there’s so much good stuff to choose from.

Sir Duke

I’ve known the song “Sir Duke” for a long time now. Several years ago, I got curious about the source material for the song “Let’s Get Busy Baby” by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Of course, I also first heard “Pastime Paradise,” because of Coolio’sGangsta’s Paradise.” “Sir Duke” begins with a dry kick drum hitting on every beat, with horns on the the first, second and third beat.. and just before the fourth. Then the next few bars mix horns on beat and syncopation. This mixture of percussive hops on the beat and then grooves on the upbeat is on the main ingredients of funk. Wonder users it expertly throughout the album.

Very dry bass and drums in the center channel emphasis the downbeat, while providing additional rhythm interest at the end of each measure. A clean electric guitar bounces in the right channel. An electric piano plays chords and syncopated arpeggios through a slowly rotating speaker on the left half of the stereo field. The chorus and break feature horns playing rhythmic melodic blasts in unison.

I especially like the rhythm of the pre-chorus, with instruments stacked in staccato eight notes, with a little hop during the 4th beat of each measure. This section, perhaps, pays the most musical tribute to the song’s name sake, jazz legend Duke Ellington. In a broader sense, Wonder sings in praise of swing. He mentions Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald in the second pre-chorus:

For there’s Basie, Miller, Satchmo
And the king of all, Sir Duke
And with a voice like Ella’s ringing out
There’s no way the band can lose

Summer Soft

“Summer Soft” follows the winter and summer out-of-touch with each other. Summer is represented by a female character that leaves in October, while the male October leaves in April. I’m not sure I understand what he’s trying to do with the lyrics with the two characts/seasons always leaving. It reminds me of 14th century poetry with its combination of simplicity and metaphor. The music is relatively upbeat, but the focus seems to be on confusion and loss.

The track combines pop-soul with jazz. The generous use of seventh chords contribute to the jazz-feel. Except for the intro, a swirling mixture of instruments play throughout. They contribute to a general sense of atmosphere, mostly padding out the background during the verses. However, during the chorus and the outro, these instruments all come alive. They pick up in energy, brightening and moving forward in the mix. I particularly enjoy the parts where subtle synths play smooth pulses like Morse-code echoing across the left and right channels.

I Wish

The side two opener “I Wish” quickly became my favorite song on the album. I found the song lends itself well for walking on the sidewalk. It has a forward-driving bounce and a city heartbeat that feels good. On the show “Classic Albums,” Stevie Wonder gave an informative demonstration on how he wrote and recorded the song. He played the majority of the instruments, including drums, keyboards and vocals. The bass in the song is also keyboard, played by Wonder.

Wonder is a very capable drummer, and he demonstrates that in this song with its amazing percussive groove. There’s no flash, he’s not showing off on the drums. The kick drum mostly hits on the down beats, with occasional hops on the upbeat. The 2nd and 4th beat of each measure usually has a snare drum, sometimes accompanied or replaced by handclaps. The hi-hat taps along keeping the tempo, a cymbal crash introduces the start of each section of the song. During the chorus he opens the hat giving some funk the drum groove. Then for the post-chorus, the hat opens giving a forward-pull to the upbeats.

Plucky bass synths dance in the left and right channels. This is fairly unusual, because producers, especially in the 70s, would keep the bass in the center. This is because having bass panned off-center could didn’t always work well with the needle of record players. But here, he has two basses, that will balance each other out. There’s also a bass guitar that usually mimics the bass synths, but draws attention to itself by adding some funky slides up and down the neck. During the chorus, the 2nd and 4th beats are strongly emphasized by the horns shouting out between Wonder’s single-syllable vocals on the downbeat. Man, this song really makes you want to dance. It’s impossible to sit still.

Radiohead’s “Kid A”

This week, I’ve been listening to Radiohead’s album “Kid A” from 2000. When this album was released, I had just moved to Asheville a few months prior. “Pablo Honey” was one of my favorite albums and I really enjoyed “OK Computer.” I also liked the singles from “The Bends”. With each album, they were obviously evolving as an experimental band expanding the possibilities of the alt-rock genre. My first reaction to “Kid A” was one of disapproval. From my perspective, they’d gone off into the stratosphere, losing touch with rock music and the audience. It also got dangerously close to ambient music at times. In short, I did not like it.

About fifteen years later, I’m running into people who love this album. Some even consider it Radiohead’s best. So, I give it another chance.   I now heard a band casting aside the confines of rock to focus on what had made them unique before. It seems they were rebelling against what people said and expected from them. Perhaps, they finally completely rebelled against the brit-pop Nirvana labelled they’d inexplicably acquired in the early 90s. I never understood that description, but there’s definitely no way anybody could say that about “Kid A.” I still didn’t like it.

Three more years pass and here I’m spending a full week listening to “Kid A” because it’s considered by many to be one of the greatest albums of all time. After devoting all this time to it, I still don’t really like it much. However, some parts of it grew on my a little. Some parts wore on me a lot. Overall, I think the album suffers from too much repetition without enough variation. Each song has some cool stuff going on. However, even the cool stuff becomes boring when it goes on for too long.

BBC recording of “Everything In It’s Right Place” since the  album version is not available.

The “Everything In It’s Right Place” is one of the best tracks on the album. The few lyrics are oblique and opaque, which is true for most of the album. The lines capture a feeling of being overwhelmed and in a generally foul mood. Thom repeats lines several times, which makes them memorable and catchy. I almost don’t notice how little description the words give.

The chords follow an unusual pattern of I-II♭7-III♭6 for the intro, and then IV-I-II♭7-III♭6 for the verses. These strange series comes from playing a constant tonic note (C in this case) while playing triadic chords below it. I assume that the use of a constant C puts the song in the key of C, however, it feels like it may actually be in the key of F. The moments of the song that return to that IV chord FEEL like they are returning home to the tonic. This is not a conventionally way to work with chords in rock music and really sounds much more like jazz.

A fan-made video for “The National Anthem” by Radiohead.

“The National Anthem” grabs my interest with its cool driving bassline. Unfortunately, that bass continues without deviation until it is mind-numbingly monotonous. I think of Mancini’s bassline in “Peter Gunn” which holds up to repetition because so much musically interesting happens over top of it that the bassline becomes a groovy background texture. In “The National Anthem” the unchanging bass line stays to prominent; furthermore, the other instrumentation fails to pull the focus away.  I don’t like the chaotic brass free-for-all section. With its lack of musical substance, it’s just chaos. It sounds too much like an imitation of the sound of more avant-garde jazz without any direction or purpose. Rather than building on the bassline, they make stylistic noise in spite of it.  And again, that pulls my ear to the bass.

The vocals provide the most interesting element of the song. Or, more specifically, the processing of the vocals.  There seems to be a combination of doubling-up with a resonant synth, perhaps some ring-modulation, and altered reverb/delay. I’m not sure, but it does wonderful things to my ears.  Too bad the lyrics fail to provide much to the song.  All they gives us is “Everyone around here, everyone is so near. It’s holding on. Everyone is so near, Everyone has got the fear. It’s holding on.” That’s it. With this bassline and those horns, I feel that more story-telling is in order.

Live performance of “Optimistic” by Radiohead.

Probably my favorite track on “Kid A” was “Optimistic.” Again, the vocals repeat the same lyrics multiple times. The chorus has six lines, which are three lines repeated, the first two of which are the same: “You can try the best you can. You can try the best you can. The best you can is good enough.” It certainly helps the lyrics to be memorable.

I probably prefer this song because it’s a little more rocking than the others. The song features guitar. The clean guitar strums rhythmic chords like the Velvet Underground or Stereolab. Drums trip loosely across the toms, creating a somewhat exotic texture. Unfortunately, the song shares the quality of flatness with the rest of the tracks. From start to finish, there’s a feeling of samess due to the dreamy drift between sections and the lack of solid dynamics.

Overall, I didn’t think this was that great of an album. I appreciate it as serious shift transition from the old Radiohead to the new Radiohead, but I don’t know if I consider that a good thing. My tastes are more for the earlier Radiohead than what came after.

John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”

John Coltrane's A Love Supreme album cover

This week, I’ve been listening to John Coltrane’s 1965 album “A Love Supreme.” I first discovered this album about eight years ago. At the time, I was studying painting at college. Some of my favorite artists, like Willem de Kooning, were fans of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. While I painted, I’d listen to jazz CDs I’d borrowed from the school library. I found that I enjoyed much of it. I can’t say I always understood it. Regardless, jazz became part of my art-making routine.

John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” immediately became one of my favorites. It caught me off-guard as it went into musical territory I’d not yet imagined. The music confused me, yet somehow FELT like it made perfect sense. I even bought a brand new vinyl record of the album when I only had plans to buy a record player. Three years passed before I even had anything to play it on.  That’s how much I liked this one. 

Here’s the thing though, even after these years of hearing it off and on. Even after spending a full week with the album.. I feel ill-equipped to really write about it. I can tell you that I like it; I can talk about how it’s neat that he plays the 4-note “a love supreme” motif in several keys on the saxophone before chanting the words vocally. And I think that’s neat.

I appreciate that they repeat a melody line several times to establish for the listener what the basis for the next section is. And then they use that as a starting point to go off into other realms; cutting up the melody, flipping it around, filling it with seemingly random flourish and excitement. But then, they fold instruments in and around each other playing variation on themes (especially the love supreme motif) until they come back around. They weren’t just going crazy, but rather intelligently and methodically dissected the song, examined it, displayed it’s variations, and put it back together.

This is what I hear in this album. I’m not confident in saying that’s what it really is, but that’s what it is to me.  What I can note with confidence is that the album, with its four tracks, feels like a whole. There are (at least) three similarities that tie them together: the use of motifs, the methods by which motifs are used, and the instruments.  I appreciate that it sounds like a single performance. The same instruments are used from start to finish, recorded and mixed in the same way with the same sound to the room.  I like that.

So, in breaking with my usual way of writing about these albums, I’m mostly saying that I can’t write about this one as a musician. I’m in awe by what happens. I cannot explain what I’ve heard, nor understand how it was done. All I can say is that it is amazing.

Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue”

For the past week, I’ve been listening to Miles Davis’s 1959 album “Kind of Blue” for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician. Though not my first time hearing the album, this week definitely served as an introduction. As the songs are all instrumentals, I have no lyrics to discuss. Yet, the music itself speaks in a different language than I’m accustomed.

This is instrumental jazz instead of the rock and pop that I usually listen to. Furthermore, it presents to me the unfamiliar concept of modal jazz. I avoid giving an explanation here for fear that I get it wrong. The article on Wikipedia gives a basic description. Modal jazz is challenging to me, because I’m accustomed to tonal music. In tonal music, the foundation of a song consists of chord progressions that travel from and return to the tonic chord. As I understand it, modal jazz utilizes modal changes instead of chord progressions. Hack Music Theory has a short video explaining Modes. With modal jazz, Miles Davis gave freedom to the melody by releasing it from constraints of chord progressions. I hope I’m getting this right.

Still, my familiarity with tonal music contributes to “All Blues” being the song I most enjoy. While the songs goes through mode changes, within each the song follows a 12 bar blues chord progression. “All Blue” probably fails to be a true example of modal jazz for this reason. The track is in 6/8 time with the emphasis on the first and fourth eight note. Secondary emphasis on the third and sixth give the rhythm a little hop. A gentle rumbling piano opens the track to be joined by horns. This gives an atmosphere of the train yard in twilight or early morning. The rhythmic hi-hat tapping emphasizes this feeling.

That brings me to how fascinating I find the percussion on this album. It’s almost completely based on the hi-hat. The cymbals are played with great expression to convey rhythm. In rock and pop, the hats are most often used to keep time while the kick and snare convey rhythm. The percussion on “Kind of Blue” gives the hats great importance. The drummer plays the other drums much less often than I’m used to. The snare provides occasional emphasis, to add some flavor or to occasionally signify a change. A brush slides across the surface, the rim is tapped, or light trills provide texture. This greater variety of sounds from the snare really gets my interest.

The opening track “So What” also grabbed my interest. The piano plays “buh-boop” followed by the bass “duh doodoo doodoo doodoo doo doo” introducing the foundation of the song. There’s 16 bars in one mode, then 8 in another, returning to 8 of the first mode. Once this is introduces, a splash of cymbal tells kicks off the real journey. Horns take turns soloing improvisational melodic lines over the rhythm section. As mentioned earlier, the cymbals provide the sense of rhythm. The bass gives a foundation for that rhythm. On the piano, chords are played but they are not the drive of the song. They more provide interesting emphasis and offsets to the rhythm. Sometimes, to my ear, the chords sound strangely wrong, but oddly appropriate. This cool music sounds alien to me. I don’t understand the language, but I can feel it.

I definitely need more than a week with this album to full appreciate it. Its cool smoky night-time feel really gets me. I’m looking forward to more from Miles Davis as well as some of the other musicians on this album. John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley played the saxophones and Bill Evans played the piano. I already know some of Coltrane’s work. I understand that Bill Evans was a major part of this album’s compositions.  Also Jimmy Cobb played the drums here. I feel that I can learn a lot from his use of drums for my own programming of drum machines. I can learn a lot from this album, especially in the way instruments are being used and interact with each other.  The concept of modal jazz presents a challenge to me which gives me a desire to further understand it.

Joni Mitchell’s “Blue”

I have been listening to Joni Mitchell’s 1971 album “Blue” for past seven days. This album was all new to me, but I have not looked forward to this week. What little experience I’ve had with Joni Mitchell proved to be unpleasant. This time allowed me to develop an appreciate for the songs. Joni Mitchel is a noteworthy songwriter and a great pianist and guitarist. Many people love her singing, but I’m not one of them. I like her voice in the lower alto range, but too often her singing often dances up to a soprano. Thankfully, everything else on the album is good, so there’s plenty else for me to appreciate.

In contrast to Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited“, the instruments play in conversation with each other. The voice provides the primary source of melody, but also takes part in the conversation. Sometimes an instrument will continue a melodic phrase at the end of a verse or chorus. I see this album categorized as Folk or Folk-Country, but I hear a lot of jazz influence. Some of her melodies and the way the piano and voice work together make me think more of vocal jazz than folk. I see now how later musicians that I’m more familiar with like Alanis Morissette, Counting Crows, Tracy Chapman, and Tori Amos drew much of their influence. I enjoy her oft-clever use of phrasing, story-telling and descriptive language.

Carey” immediately caught my attention and quickly became my favorite song on the album. The breezy strummed dulcimer of this jaunty song appropriately suggests both dancing at a cafe and travel. “Carey” is one of the few songs on the album with percussion and even this is an unobtrusive hand percussion. The lyrics are a farewell letter from one who’s decided living the beach commune life isn’t their thing. They did not always get along, but they were still friends (“Oh you’re a mean old Daddy, but I like you”). I love the opening verse that perfectly introduces the setting, topic and tone of the song.

The wind is in from Africa;
Last night I couldn’t sleep.
Oh, you know it sure is hard to leave here, Carey,
But it’s really not my home.
My fingernails are filthy,
I’ve got beach tar on my feet,
And I miss my clean white linen and my fancy French cologne.

The other song that I liked was the album closing “The Last Time I Saw Richard“. The melody flits seemingly aimlessly like bumblebees across flowers, while on the piano she plays arpeggios as if searching for a song. The thing is that this sense of searching without getting there suits the song perfectly. I can imagine the piano player in the dark corner of the cafe at closing time. Maybe there’s a few customers left, but the singer ignores them. She remembers the cynical Richard in the first verse as criticizing her “You like roses and kisses and pretty men to tell you all those pretty lies, pretty lies”. However, when he plays a song on the jukebox, she points out his own hypocrisy and contradiction in one of the best verses on the album:

He put a quarter in the Wurlitzer, and he pushed
Three buttons and the thing began to whirr.
And a bar maid came by, in fishnet stockings and a bow tie,
And she said, ‘drink up now it’s getting on time to close.’
‘Richard, you haven’t really changed’, I said.
‘It’s just that now you’re romanticizing
some pain that’s in your head.
You got tombs in your eyes, but the songs
You punched are dreaming;
Listen, they sing of love so sweet, love so sweet.’
When you gonna get yourself back on your feet?
Oh and love can be so sweet, love so sweet

I love that line “You got tombs in your eyes, but the songs you punched are dreaming.”

As these verses from “Carey” and “Last Time I Saw Richard” demonstrate that Joni Mitchell incorporates rhyme in her songs, though not she’s not as strictly formal as Bob Dylan on “Highway 61 Revisited.” She doesn’t mind breaking a rhyme scheme, or even having many lines that don’t rhyme. Her use of rhyme is also more subtle and natural. For example, in “Carey”, when she rhymes “not my home” with “French cologne.” The lyrics and melodies maintain natural flow much more than stick to a traditional rhythmic pattern.

I have learned to appreciate Mitchell’s songwriting. Unfortunately, my dislike of most of her singing will keep me from returning to this album after this week. IT’s a shame, because some of the songs are very good.