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.

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.