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Listen to This: Miles Davis and "Bitches Brew"

Victor Svorinich By

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The following is an excerpt from the "MUSIC" chapter of Listen to This: Miles Davis and "Bitches Brew" by Victor Svorinich (University Press of Mississippi, 2015).

Call It Anything

"I'd like to say one thing about Miles Davis. One time he said to me, 'Hey Wayne, do you get tired of playing music that sounds like music?'" —Wayne Shorter

"Call It Anything" was one of the working titles used for Bitches Brew. It was never really a serious contender, just something Miles mouthed off probably when preoccupied or aggravated. In some way, though, it speaks volumes. What was recorded during those three days in August is difficult to identify or categorize. It's a study in improvisation by a group of jazz artists but doesn't have the trademark swing. There are electric instruments and rock beats, but it lacks the comfort commonly heard in rock—it wasn't "I Want to Hold Your Hand." It's soulful but not exactly polished like the great Motown singles. It's funky like Sly Stone or James Brown but way too abstract to be closely linked to those players.

Davis never really put much care into any of his album or song titles. Even Birth of the Cool—a title so associated with his persona and genre-defining playing—was penned by someone else. "As for that Birth of the Cool shit, I don't understand how they came to call it that. Someone just dropped that label on me." Aside from Brew, the only time he had any interest in album covers was when he wanted to show off one of his ladies. Otherwise, titles and labels were a complete waste of time. Part of his disinterest was the old "let the music speak for itself," but the reason was more that Davis's fixation with his work superseded the time and effort to come up with such trivial things. He despised distractions. He had patience for nothing, not his musicians or even his producer. "I had told Teo to just let the tapes run and get everything we played and not to be coming in interrupting, asking questions," said Davis when describing the Bitches Brew sessions. "Just stay in the booth and worry about getting down the sound." A technical glitch or a break in concentration for something like a title suggestion was intolerable.

Just like how the band felt after the sessions, it is difficult not only to identify or categorize, but to figure out just what happened over those three days. As his crew eventually discovered, it takes time to sink in. It's simply a matter of listening. When all was said and done, Davis accomplished a rare feat: he distilled all of his musical and personal attributes and changed the course of music once again.

A Living Composition

Miles's obsession with James Brown and the rhythm section were now in full swing. In Brown's bands, there are a lot of inter-connecting rhythmic parts or "Africanisms," such as the complex layering in 1969's "The Funky Drummer," where each musician is playing a separate rhythmic line. Miles figured that he could outdo Mr. Dynamite and create an even denser sound if he kept enlarging his bands, hence the double rhythm section.

Davis's new direction during Bitches Brew and for what followed was that everything was part of a whole. Similar to Brown's bands, there were no huge solos. It did not matter when anyone started or stopped. There was no build up to something or finding the perfect three minute solo. It was about being in on the action. "Sometimes Miles said, 'This is not working. That's not it. Let's try something else.' But it was never because somebody had made a mistake or something. Miles was hearing the collective," Jack DeJohnette explained. It was about finding the essence of things and not reworking tiny imperfections. Repeated takes would only spoil the spontaneity—the spirit would be lost.

Finding something usually requires looking in the most obvious spots. In order to get everything to work on such a large scale project, Davis knew that he needed simplicity from each player and not a display of everyone's technical chops. If not, everything would easily fall apart. Davis ran into this problem during "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down." He became frustrated with Lenny White's over-stylized playing and hastily cut him from the piece:

I'll give you a true story. Of all the guys that were on that session, I probably played more funk music than anybody else. "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down" was the only track I didn't play drums on. The reason why I didn't play drums on it was because Miles asked for a beat and Jack [DeJohnette] couldn't come up with one. I was trying to play some real slick stuff and Don Alias said 'I got this beat Miles,' this is a real simple beat. I out thought myself. I thought that Miles wanted to hear some real slick stuff or whatever. So I didn't do what I was supposed to do. I learned a great lesson from that.

By being too slick, White alienated himself from the rest of the band and as a result, nothing could get going. Each musician was just as important as the other and had the freedom to explore many possibilities that could contribute to the composition itself. In a sense, everyone was a co-composer.

Bitches Brew and Improvising: A "How To"

There was a team spirit not only in the creation of the Bitches Brew pieces, but in the soloing as well. Davis had a desire to reengage with the improvising styles that he grew up with such as New Orleans style jazz, and especially the blues. Just as in early Louis Armstrong records, there is an overall band sense and kinship that pours out. Miles was there to galvanize the sound and give it validity. As powerful a player Davis was, he wasn't there to outplay his musicians, but to direct and shape the flow of sound.

Miles was still big on modes and minimalism. With the exception of "Sanctuary," every piece on the record had very little harmonic movement, allowing all the instruments to breathe. The following list is a breakdown of the keys used on Bitches Brew:

  • "Pharaoh's Dance": E
  • "Bitches Brew": C
  • "Spanish Key": D, E, and G
  • "John McLaughlin": C
  • "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down": F
One criticism that always followed Bitches Brew is the lack of linear development within the solos. Certain critics felt that with its straight rock rhythms and sparse number of chords, the music becomes dull, too open-ended, and loses structure. Jazz enthusiasts admire the complexity in sound that dense chord progressions offer, where a soloist would have to constantly weave through changing harmonies. John Litweiler, in his lukewarm appraisal of Bitches Brew argued that rock beats and modes that emphasize color and texture over harmonic structure diminish the depth of improvisation."The gravitational pull of the modern rock beat upon soloists' accenting discourages anything but the simplest kinds of linear development." In other words, without chord changes and highly stylized jazz rhythms, the decorative elements such as mood and color become the highest common denominator.The scrutiny was something Miles could never shake throughout the rest of his career. In his scathing review of Davis's Avery Fisher performance in 1988, Jon Pareles of the New York Times wrote, "Mr. Davis plays trumpet phrases that jab, interrupt, punctuate or, very rarely, sketch a narrative; he'll also engage his band members in dialogues...song forms and linear development have submerged in roiling, open-ended funk."

Much as with a symphony, atmosphere provides another texture to the composition. In order to get this, Davis's (and for that matter, the entire band's) approach to improvisation changed in order to expand the development. Using various scales over a centralized tone creates thick harmonic layers when all the instrumentalists are playing simultaneously. Davis ran with this idea all throughout the 70s. "Everybody's got a tonal center and all kinds of things were happening. Major, pentatonic, all kinds of things were happening," explained Azar Lawrence, while playing in Miles's band in 1974. "You were changing different soundscapes, different textures. An augmented or whole tone scale provides a certain texture, a diminished a certain texture, so everybody is working in different textures."

Walking on Thin Ice

Using rock beats raised some eye brows not only because of its association with pop music but also because it changed the group's interaction with one another. Davis's ultra dense rhythm section had a colossal effect on what each soloist would attempt. A large number of percussionists, bassists, keyboards, and guitars weaving all sorts of complex polyrhythms forces the soloist out of his box. Therefore, the solos project an interesting rhythmic development. Within the group, a constant interaction between the soloist and rhythm section creates a multifaceted tapestry of rhythms. "I believe that Miles drew energy and ideas from the rhythm section and the other instrumentalists in the band," remarked Billy Cobham while working in a post-Brew session in January, 1970. "He knew how to listen, digest, and react to what he heard from others in performance." Lawrence also picked up on this during his tenure:

Well, it was real responsive and a lot of suggestions were going on in terms of the keyboard and what the guitars were doing. There was Reggie Lucas and Pete Cosey, and Miles was playing the organ. Therefore, between the two guitars the different textures that were suggested, they would be jumped upon, you would act on it as a lead instrument one way or another because we were all working with a tonal center. That's the pivot point. Then all the colors are pivoting around it. Which one becomes embellished upon depends upon which one the lead instruments decide to define. So all kinds of textures where going on underneath. If the lead instrument picks one course of action of the suggested ones, then that's the one that you're gonna hear. So they're suggesting and pronouncing various different colors at all times.

This is not to say that Davis's solos were only influenced by the rhythm section. As Cobham mentioned, he knew how to feed off the rhythm section. It was a constant give and take, so getting cohesiveness was like walking on thin ice. Playing something out of character (much like White's botching) could spell disaster. A musician had to contribute, expect the unexpected, and roll with the punches if necessary.

And it wasn't always that Davis gave out the musical cues. He encouraged his players to step up to the plate and set a course for the group. Again, he wasn't looking to do everything for everybody. "The piano or guitar while I'm soloing might suggest a direction that we decided to go on and it may not stick. So I might decide a direction and it will go that way," noted Lawrence. "I might decide a direction and we stay where we were. It's real sensitive and it's real responsive. Lead/follow is all happening at once." Michael Henderson shared the same experience shortly after Brew:

A lot of things he didn't cue. We just went our own with it. I just took the liberties and went on and jumped into stuff, and then he'd always manage to work with it. Having that band and having everyone play off of each other, a lot of the times he'd cue, play off the drums, off of Mtume, off of Reggie [Lucas]. Sometimes, we'd get a cue from one another that had nothing to do with the head that Miles was playing. And then he'd say, 'Ah shit!'—you'd take him to another place. Oh yeah, he loved that.

Miles liked what he created. When he wasn't distracted by petty things such as a player's lack of self-confidence, things would run smoothly and he could coast with his crew. When things went off the handle, he had to take charge too. Of course, he had his own way of doing things—sometimes domesticated, sometimes inscrutable, other times tyrannical. After all, he was the Prince of Darkness.

Day One -"Bitches Brew"

"Ok, we're rolling..." —Teo Macero, August, 19, 1969

Throughout the sessions, Miles was in great spirits. Especially on the first day, he is often heard laughing and speaking in a very relaxed, friendly tone with his crew. "He was making everybody comfortable, which I thought was really incredible," said Bennie Maupin. "I thought 'Here's this guy who is supposed to be so mean and so hard to get along with and he's funnier than anybody in the studio.'" Even his usual barking at Macero was at a minimum. With the exception of a few technical glitches that ruffled his feathers, the trumpeter was mostly lighthearted with his producer. Frequently, Miles is overheard saying, "Hey Teo! Can we hear that?" in an enthusiastic voice. When setting up his headphones, he appears to be a bit flustered by what he's hearing (or not hearing). "Hey Teo! How can I hear this man [plays trumpet]? Will I be able to hear that outta here?" A smart alecky Macero responds, "You should be." Reflecting the almost condescending tone, Miles shouts back, "Put it way up." In the background, Miles is heard laughing and joking with his musicians about the exchange. "Teo tries to be free..."

While rehearsing the title track, which only summed up to a bunch of tiny pieces and false starts, Miles asks, "Hey Teo, keep all this. We'll tie it together somehow." Noticing the absurdity of the request, Macero's chuckles are heard in the control room. Even at his most playful, Miles could still be irrational. Some takes later, Miles struggles with the band on a section that would later become "John McLaughlin." "Sounds weird as weird" is mumbled by Davis along with a giggle or two from the band. Yet, he wanted to make the best of what they had and toss the scraps to Macero to gnaw on. "Teo, part of that's nice. Part of it isn't" is thrown at the fumbling producer.

With his players Davis showed his human side, but that's not to say he was holding everyone's hands. Although courteous, his instructions were vague, bare bones, and at times snippy. When rehearsals of "Bitches Brew" got underway, Miles is overheard instructing White about what he wants from him. "Lenny, I want you to play some rolls that sound like raaaaaaah." He also tries to explain to Chick Corea what the keyboard should be doing. Much as in his first gig with Miles, Corea was left to fend for himself. "Hey Chick, listen to him [Zawinul]. See how he plays it." Later he explains, "The chorus line is long notes. You know what I mean? Then you do your thing. Come on," as Miles immediately counts the band back in. When introducing what would become "John McLaughlin," the instructions to Harvey Brooks were to the barren tone of "Harvey, just come in." Then a false start from John McLaughlin seemed to rattle Miles. "Come on John" was irritably mouthed by the leader. This was day one, track one. It was going to be a long day.

Miles on "Bitches Brew"

Every piece on Bitches Brew has various mood changes. There are times when the music is mystic, ambient, and esoteric. Other times, it's shadowy, hostile, and blood-thirsty, making it quite the bi-polar performance. Nothing stands in one place for very long, making these lengthy pieces feel rather brisk. This holds true for the title track, where Miles and his band explored a variety scales, rhythms, dynamics, and temperaments, ultimately creating a sullen atmosphere. The opening free time vamp shows the Prince of Darkness at his darkest. In the introduction, he takes advantage of the lack of beat and harmony with his echoplex-infused, twisted statement. It makes "Taps" sound cheery. After the intro, the bass line awakens followed by Miles's echo-laden finger snaps. Bubbling to the surface is Maupin, whose bass clarinet paints the accents and sets up Miles's first solo before drifting out. "It covers such a broad spectrum in terms of sound and I think that's why Miles wanted me to play so that we could have that perfect contrast that we have on so many of those things," noted Maupin when describing his newly reacquainted instrument. "Because a lot of what I play is like mirror images of things that he played and some just, you know, totally directly away from anything remotely that he played." Without bass clarinet charts or any other formal instructions, Maupin had free roam on the project and starting feeling pretty comfortable. "It was so experimental I just figured I don't have to concentrate on anything other than creating some sounds and listen to what's going on around me and bounce off of that. And then I understood that was what he wanted—he wanted that color."

Davis approached "Bitches Brew" in two distinct ways. His first solo and the beginning chunk of his second are focused on a series of prowling, downward patterns, chromatic passages (he's primarily using a twelve tone scale), and long tones against an upbeat, well-oiled rhythm section. Even as the music intensifies, his lines remain defiant. Miles sticks with a motif that feeds from the despairing opening section. It's another layer to what the rhythm section is playing and a perfect counterpart to McLaughlin's punchy, jagged solo. After he brings the band to the edge with his climactic finish, the groove simmers back. McLaughlin is still jabbing along as he and the keyboards take center stage in a kind of collective, triple solo. Things come to a halt around seven and a half minutes in as Miles is heard saying, "Keep it like that, keep it tight" (probably to the chagrin of a wincing Macero, for having this caught on the master). Miles calls, "John" (another whoops) as McLaughlin resumes play. Perhaps taken off guard, McLaughlin's solo is brief, featuring a few underwhelming licks before returning to his comfort zone in the rhythm section as Miles steps up again.

Davis's second solo breaks into a whole new direction. This time, Miles storms in with pounding blows which coincide with the dense, stabbing comping of the keyboards. It's hard to say who initiated this mood change because it all happened simultaneously (the keyboard riff happens about one second before Davis). This is more of a collective experience, where the whole band kinetically feels the shift in direction. Everything reaches the boiling point until Miles cools it down and the band kicks back to a groove. Wayne Shorter delivers a brief, but menacing solo reminiscent of Davis's first, working longer phrases and getting the most murk you can get out of a soprano sax. Corea's solo is filled with quick flurries of notes and a lot of empty space—a solo patented for the group sound. Corea too uses a lot of chromaticism, but also relies on a three triad grouping that Davis suggested (which can also be heard in the piece's introduction). "I don't remember what tune it was, but Miles came up in back of me, he put his arms around me on the piano, and showed me three triads. He played an E major triad, an Ab major triad, and a C major triad," recalled Corea. 'That was about the closest it ever came to him saying specific notes." A reprise of part one occurs, followed by a jazzy, funky solo by Dave Holland. Miles starts wrapping things up around the twenty minute mark with an overcast, surreal solo that creates a trance-like quality on the rhythm section. Part one rears its head one last time, capping the twenty-seven minute opus.

"John McLaughlin"

Like most of the other tracks on the album, "Bitches Brew" was recorded in sections that would later be assembled to form the finished work. It was initially slated as five parts, but only two were used: the introduction, or what Bob Belden described as the "rubato" section using the C pedal point, and the "groove" section that makes up the remainder of the piece. Part five was never recorded, and parts three and four were put together to form "John McLaughlin."

Needless to say, McLaughlin was ecstatic once he found out the piece was named after him. Similar to Holland, McLaughlin was a British import called in by Tony Williams to join his new group, the Tony Williams Lifetime, in early 1969. Little did he know that upon arriving in New York, he would be recording In a Silent Way with Miles two days later.

Williams was wrapping up his tenure with Miles at Harlem's Club Baron and invited McLaughlin to the gig the night he arrived in town. Miles already knew that Williams brought McLaughlin into his new group and scoped out the guitarist that night at the club. "For some reason, he recognized me when he came in the door of the club. He looked amazing—as always—wearing a long black cloak, and he walked right up to me and brushed my shoulder with his saying, 'John' in that whispery voice of his... That was it," recalled McLaughlin. The next day McLaughlin found himself hanging out at Miles's house and was told to bring his guitar down to the studio the following day. It wasn't all that easy for the young guitarist being that this was Miles Davis, an idol of his. "He told me he had been listening to me for a long time and that he might be nervous going into the studio with one of his idols," explained Davis. "So I told him, 'just relax and play like you did up at Count Basie's and everything will be all right."

Things had been rough for McLaughlin on his first day of work during In a Silent Way. Between the nervousness of being thrown into Miles's band and not knowing what to play (of course, he wasn't given any guitar charts), McLaughlin was a mess. His early bumbling made a first impression on Miles he wished he never made. "After running through the title track from Zawinul's 'In a Silent Way,' Miles wasn't happy with the result and turned to me and said 'Play it alone on the guitar,'" remembered McLaughlin. As he scrambled to figure out what to do, he managed to anger Miles. "Since I had only a piano score I asked him if he wanted the left and right hand together. He said yes, and I said it'll take me a minute to put it together on guitar. He said 'Is that a fact!...' Sweat was already running down my back and got worse after that." Miles decided to take it easy on McLaughlin and gave him some friendly, but vague advice instead of a scolding. He told him, "Play it like you don't know how to play the guitar." So McLaughlin tossed the piano music aside and started playing a simple E chord—the very same chord that opens the title track on the record. "On the playback Miles was delighted. I was dumbfounded," said McLaughlin. "It sounded so beautiful, and that was one of Miles talents—to be able to pull music out of his musicians that they didn't even know was inside them."

Along with In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, the two did quite a bit of road work and studio dabbling over the next year. By 1970, at the peak of their professional relationship, Miles gave McLaughlin one last piece of advice. "I remember being on a gig with Miles at Lennie's on the Turnpike outside of Boston in 1970," recalled McLaughlin. "It was just me and Miles in the band room and all of a sudden he turns around and says to me, 'John, it's time you form your own band.' Right out of the blue!" Miles had a fatherly love that deeply resonated with these youngsters. "It was wonderful because this guy had more faith in me than I had in myself," explained McLaughlin. "I didn't think I was ready at the time. But I tell you, when somebody like Miles says something like that to you, it really hits you. And it hit me really deep."

"John McLaughlin" is based on a short, funky, old school R&B type riff that is played spontaneously throughout by the bass and keyboard. It was best to leave it as a separate track since the mood is not nearly as sinister as "Bitches Brew." The barren harmonic and melodic set up allows the soloist carte blanche to express different ideas. During the rehearsals, Holland explained some of the improvising possibilities to McLaughlin and the keyboardists. It was pretty much a free for all. "There's like a Gb in there as well, you can put an E triad on top of the C minor chord...you can put Ab's and B's...shit like that." When he lays down the solo, McLaughlin sticks with the C minor blues scale along with some off-color tones to spice it up. The Ab's (G#) and B's indicate an incomplete E triad being used, giving the solo an almost Indian feel when coincided with the C minor blues scale.

With the exception of McLaughlin's "traditional" solo, all other improvising is done collectively. The ever-present Maupin is heard lurking in the corners along with great riffing-off-the-theme interplay from the bass and keyboards. The real star is the "Nefertiti"-like playing from the percussion section. The drums are more in the forefront on the mix, making it a tour-de-force for the beat keepers.

"John McLaughlin" is the only track without Davis and Shorter playing. The two did record solos but they were left on the cutting room floor. Davis approached the piece much more melodically than McLaughlin, sticking with the C minor and chromatic scales more exclusively, giving the piece a moody, bluesy sound until Davis delivers a series of long fatal blows at the conclusion. As the piece fades out, Miles starts complaining about the headphones again. "Hey Teo, I can't hear nothing over here, man." Without being able to hear himself, it is likely that he was not satisfied with what he played and cut his performance out for the final take.

"Sanctuary"

Shorter's "Sanctuary," named after a novella by Edith Wharton (Shorter was an avid reader and fan of the author) was an odd choice for the session being that it had already been recorded by Davis's band a year and a half before. Its first incarnation came at a session featuring the classic quintet plus a young George Benson on guitar on February 15, 1968. Miles liked the tune so much that he kept it as part of his road arsenal with the "Lost Quintet," and even tried to steal writing credit on it. "During the session, Miles asked me about sharing [credit for] his part of 'Sanctuary,'" claimed Shorter. "Miles wanted to get in on it. He said 'You know how it is, Charlie Parker did that too.' I said no."

Miles had always been impressed by Shorter's chops and creativity as a writer. In the late-50s/early-60s, Shorter was the primary composer in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. Miles took notice of the young saxophonist while the band was doing a stint at New York's Birdland jazz club and cherry picked him from the Messengers, forming a professional relationship that would last over five years.

There is no question that the enigmatic Shorter's writing really captures just how complex he is. Along with literary inspiration, Wayne reached back to the simple innocence of his youth when it came to writing. "When I write compositions, I think about those times in my youth and try to recount those moments in music, but adding to that a real purpose for the composition, based on my childhood desires, dreams." There is an essence of metaphysical soul-searching in everything he touches. Shorter is a seeker, constantly looking for meaning in life and ways to express this yearning in his pieces. "I want the sound of noble causes to penetrate the music, and the frivolity of delusions and illusions."

Bitches Brew was the very last project Davis and Shorter worked on together, but the relationship ended on good terms. In fact, Miles encouraged Shorter to lead his own group much as he did with McLaughlin. "Miles was saying, [imitating Miles's patented whisper] 'Don't you think it's time for you to get your own band?' And I had so many ideas, and the music was coming out like water and everything, and I said, 'Yeah. I think it's time.'" The advice might have come back to haunt Miles since he never found anyone who could fill Shorter's shoes once he left (he went through five different saxophonists in the next five years). But Shorter was out the door anyway. Like Miles, he couldn't stay still. He didn't like staying in a band for more than five years, so he was past due to part ways with Miles.

Perhaps touchy about what had happened the year before, Miles decided that "Sanctuary" was due for an overhaul in the studio. Miles never played somebody else's tune the way it was written, and "Sanctuary" was no exception. On both studio versions of "Sanctuary," Davis actually stays close to the original chord sequence as illustrated on Shorter's handwritten lead sheet. The chords on the later recording are supplied by Joe Zawinul and Corea who stretch out the bass line and harmony a bit. The bass parts are pedal point, but this is what Shorter wanted. There are no specific voicings for the chords, only markings that call for pedal point ("Gb Triad," "Ab Triad," etc.), making it a very free piece. It was originally recorded as a straight tune in ¾ with a definite tempo and specific chord changes, but it ended up being much more open on Brew. Shorter's lead sheet has no tempo marking, nor does it have bar lines that would clearly illustrate a ¾ time signature. While the original recording has the waltzy feel, it lacks a steady pulse from Williams much like most of the Bitches Brew version. Without a defined rhythm and constricting chord changes, the rhythm section could go wild, leaving plenty of room for Miles to explore the melody more freely and get more interplay within the band.

The bulk of the revisions are in the structure and mood. The '68 version was a quiet, almost reserved version compared to the unyielding version on Brew. The big difference between the two is in the new climactic ending that is heard twice, (it was only played once—Macero duplicated it during post-production) once about four minutes in and at the end. After a gradual build that begins as a desolate duet between Miles and Chick, the trumpeter launches a hollowing three note phrase, bringing the both the piece and the album to a dramatic climax and haunting close. This grand finale was also a trademark of the ever-changing road renditions that year, where Davis and Corea would set up a calm period before launching into ""Sanctuary" which would mark the climax of the performance.

Another revision is the new free time introduction featuring a solo by Davis. Shorter's melody appears in free time around a minute in followed by a steady beat once the melody is restated. During the middle of the second chorus is where the climax melody begins which is actually a vamp from the melody. As things cool off, Miles restates Shorter's introduction followed by another trumpet solo in free time. At app. 6:45, Davis restates Shorter's introduction and goes through the melody once again. Davis creates a coda by vamping on the last four notes of the piece. After this closing section, the melody and blow out climax along with its little aftermath are pasted to the end, closing the piece out.

Finishing up the Day

The last chunk of the day was devoted to "Pharaoh's Dance" but the effort didn't turn out so well. It was initially slated as just a rehearsal to try to organize Zawinul's complex piece, but the band appeared to bite off more than they could chew and were only able to get through a couple of part one's melodies. They noodle with the melodies, underlying rhythms, and harmony as Miles tells Macero to make sure everything is being recorded. As one o'clock approached, Macero grew impatient. "Why don't we do this tomorrow?" Macero calls through the intercom. Miles curtly rings back, "We are gonna do this tomorrow," but the piece was eventually put on hiatus until the third day.

All the "Pharaoh's Dance" recordings from that day were eventually scrapped. At the very end of the session, the band squeezed in a very brief rehearsal of Zawinul's "Orange Lady," (a track that would be formally recorded that fall on November 19) before Miles decided to call it quits until the next day.

Day Two -"Miles Runs the Voodoo Down"

Even though it's one of the least complex tunes the band tried and it had gotten some road wear prior to the session, Miles's ode to Jimi Hendrix was an uphill battle, taking up the entire August 20th session. Once finished (take nine was the master), the piece really showed Davis's loose, yet highly structured, approach to the entire session. It was originally slated to be performed as it had been on the road that summer, with Miles stating the melody (just a short phrase), a brief keyboard riff from Corea, and then the beat falling into place, but after a handful of false starts, rehearsals, and headaches, it just wasn't working.

It all started with White's "too slick" drum part counteracting another gluttonous part from DeJohnette. Enter Don Alias. Alias was brought in to play congas for the sessions, but decided to lend a hand with the "Voodoo Down" dilemma. After listening to the two drummers struggle, Alias "couldn't take it any longer." He recalled hearing some funky beats while attending Mardi Gras that year, blended that with something Buddy Miles might play, and sat down on Lenny's kit to give it a whirl. The beat is extremely sparse, syncopated, tumbly, and somewhat deadpan, leaving room for anything to counteract with it. Miles was thrilled. White was off the project, and now it was time to bring DeJohnette up to speed. This wasn't easy. Miles, the man of few words, told Alias to play the new beat and have DeJohnette come up with a counter rhythm for it. His first attempt was a bit too much like the over-the-top playing that started this fiasco. Frustration began to mount. During the session, DeJohnette is heard repeatedly saying "I don't understand." Miles continues to have Alias play the beat again for him, and DeJohnette continues to overdo it. Davis is now reaching his limit. "Jack, when you do that, you fucked that up." Finally Miles vocalizes a faster beat to coincide with Alias. After a handful more attempts, everything gets set in stone and they get their take. The end result is a cool, funky number, catchy enough for Columbia to release an excerpt of it as a single.

Jamming over "Voodoo Down"

With the new sparse backdrop in place along with its stripped down harmonic framework, the band could begin building up. The tune is jam packed with group interplay, complex counter rhythms, textures, and good spirits. Despite the difficulties getting this piece going, it really shows the band at its coziest, with all the soloing and comping feeling in the zone. The slow funk vibe worked especially well for McLaughlin, who is at his feistiest here. For all the chomping, sometimes a bit too reserved, pocket playing he did throughout day one, he finally bust outs with barrages of virtuosic lines interspersed with good ol' gut play.

Miles, too, is in great form. Once the hard funk groove kicks things off, Miles is on top of it, forming an immediate alliance with the rhythm section. Reaching back to his St. Louis honky-tonks, he's all blues here. He takes his time before McLaughlin is called in followed by more virtuosic play by a level headed Shorter. Corea decides to mix things up a little bit when it's his turn by disrupting the hypnotic groove with a frantic chord sequence turning "Voodoo Down" into a frenzy. The percussionists get rattled and respond with a dramatic outburst. Even the bass line gets miffed and joins the cacophony. After enough was enough, the rhythm section brings the groove all the way back down to zero as Davis starts his second solo with a new temperament. He begins with a quiet, creeping, twisted version of the theme, awakening the rhythm section, who bring the groove up a few more decibels. Miles decides to test the waters and commands the final climax of the piece, by launching a shrilling trill, summoning the intensity to rise. His phrasing remains bluesy and slurred, but now he orders the band with his screeching dynamics, similar to Corea's keyboard solo earlier. The eruption is brief as Davis draws back with a long fade away, pulling the rhythm section with. Some seconds later, Davis has another mood swing and initiates a new groove with a series of detached, choppy notes, which inspires a playful syncopated exchange with the rhythm section. Miles briefly reintroduces the main theme as the rhythm section fades out to end the piece.

Day Three -"Spanish Key"

By the last day, things were running smoothly. The band had finished master takes of "Sanctuary," "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down," and "John McLaughlin" along with some alternative takes that Macero and Miles could chew on later. They had also finished all the parts for the title track, which was now ready for post-production. All that was left was "Spanish Key" and "Pharaoh's Dance." "Spanish Key" was the first attempt that morning and was more or less a slam dunk. The piece was already road tested with the "Lost Quintet" and did not see a great amount of revision when Davis entered the studio with it. The band appeared to have some morning stiffness when the early attempts were made. On take one, Miles seems uncomfortable with the rhythm section and flubs a note on the melody. He brings the group to a halt and asks, "Can we break that up more?" They work through some sound tests and a few false starts before they nail two good takes including the master.

"Spanish Key" feels like a road piece. Showing his James Brown swag, Miles loved to use musical cues to incorporate various changes during sets. This carried over to the studio that day, where at least five musical cues are used to signal key changes in "Spanish Key." This was not an easy task for the crew since none of them were identical:

  • There is a long scalar passage followed by a keyboard passage which signals the key change to G.
  • Miles plays a shorter phrase, heard at 1:37 and on one of the rehearsals during Shorter's solo on August 21 at 6:23.
  • There's a cue of Davis playing a higher register fragment of the melody which brings the key to D.
  • When Davis performs the opening measure of the melody, the band jumps to the home key of E.
  • Finally, there's a jagged run Davis performs at 2:43 that shifts the piece to E, flaring up a Spanish tinge (E Phrygian scale is precedent here).
Everything is made to order here. No section has a specific length, meaning that a musical cue of any kind could come at any time, making "Spanish Key" a tight-rope act.

The piece is a driving, jet black funk. Davis's opening lines aren't anything screeching; he stays quite melodic, and somewhat lurking throughout. The band is content with the groove that's percolating and pretty much leaves Miles to his own business. Things get shaken up in a jiffy when the band modulates to D, Davis begins to react more strongly to the rhythm section, unleashing a halo of shrieking lines, which intensifies the groove further. Maupin's ominous bass clarinet rears its head, initiating a call and response to Miles's spiraling, out-of-control lines. Once Miles has had enough, he announces a musical cue bringing the piece to G, and everything gets back to business as usual as the groove motors on. Corea and McLaughlin are heard trading riffs at one another until the keyboard cue chimes in the next key change bringing Shorter up. Shorter takes his time with this one, blowing through a few key changes, seemingly happy and exploratory with the underlying groove and harmony. His solo unveils a lot of personality throughout—from bluesy, to playful, to somber, to downright esoteric. Davis beckons the next cue, a little more sternly, resulting in another amped up exchange between Corea and McLaughlin followed by the trumpeter's next solo.

During his second go around, the interplay between the leader and the rhythm section continues, but now Miles becomes more tyrannical. He tries to muscle out the drowning 4/4 funk beat in the rhythm section with a barrage of triplets, before mellowing out the band with a series of smooth, quiet tones. The rhythm section wants the groove back and starts gaining intensity, but Miles won't let go. He decides to answer back with some heavier jabs and some snarling trills, but this doesn't last long. At around 12:50, Davis begins playing long, lush, tones, followed by a series of more cooling trills, which casts a calming spell on the band. About a minute later, he tosses out another cue, moving the key to G and breathing life into the groove as things begin to draw to a close. Maupin gets last dibs and makes a solo appearance that's surprisingly funky (he's been mostly heard in stalker-mode throughout the record) until Miles makes last call and closes things out.

"Pharaoh's Dance"

Now that things were wrapping up, it was time to finally tackle "Pharaoh's Dance." The frustration that mounted on the first day over it seemed to carry over to the last. The rehearsal begins on a bit of a sour note with Harvey Brooks M.I.A., thus angering Miles. "Where the fuck is Harvey?" he bellows through the studio. But Miles shakes it off and gets the band right to work. After a few false starts, the band gets part one down.

The lore of "Pharaoh's Dance" is in its construction. The piece was recorded in so many small portions (nineteen to be exact) that it had Macero scrambling to label what was happening so he could connect everything together later. Based on his abstract sense of the whole project, Davis has to constantly inform his producer about what's going on. "Hey Teo, we just did one section. Make a note of it 'cause you know Saturday when you look at it, it's gonna look funny...when the bass clarinet makes an entrance Teo. Put that down." Macero wise cracks back, "I know because I won't be here." With a wit that only Miles can deliver, he shoots back, "You're not here today."

The band continues to work exhaustively on a melody that never makes the final cut. Once the idea is dropped, they chew on part one's second exposition. Although a lead sheet from Zawinul exists, much of the rehearsals were done by ear. Holland is overheard teaching the melody line via vocals and bass to McLaughlin and Corea as they try to make sense of Zawinul's challenging piece.

"'Pharaoh's Dance' is about the many slaves, the Egyptian slaves, running around like ants. So I let all the other instruments be teeming around the bass clarinet," explained Zawinul. "Not loud, that's free music to me. Not notes, arpeggios and chords, but an expression of life." Both Miles and Zawinul had the same mindset on how compositions were supposed to be formed—the sum was greater than its parts. Zawinul compared it to painting, where there's a foreground, middle ground, and background. He wasn't looking for everything to be loud and pulsing all at once, but spread out so you can feel the piece rather than hear it. Zawinul, however, thought that Miles overdid it, and was not crazy about the end results. "I liked 'Pharaoh's Dance.' Miles played it very well, but for me it was a little chaotic." Zawinul felt that Miles took over too much and spoiled some of the collective spirit that he conceptualized for the piece. "Everyone contributed a little bit, but he [Miles] knew what he wanted."

Despite the great success the two had together and the friendship they built, Zawinul was turned off by the entire experience. Miles's controlling, bullying ways of working never set right with the keyboardist, and the two drifted apart. Hitching a ride in Miles's Ferrari after Brew, Zawinul was quiet the whole trip. When Miles asked why he was getting the silent treatment, Zawinul was blunt. "I didn't like what we did and what is being done." Along with dismantling his work and its essence, Zawinul thought that Miles took more credit than he deserved. "It was a lot of studio time then. I wrote much of that material, all the bass lines...well, it doesn't matter how it ended up, but basically it was Miles who got most of the credit for the writing, but many of those things came from me." Zawinul wasted no time telling Davis that he was still the sole writer of the music, regardless of Miles's revisions. On August 20, the day before it was officially recorded, Zawinul sent Miles's manager Jack Whittemore a legal document explaining the terms and conditions of "Pharaoh's Dance," which Davis accepted. Unlike with Shorter, the pair's relationship ended on a bitter note when Zawinul passed on Miles's road invitation and quit working with him for good. "Miles said, 'You want to come on the road with me?' and I said, 'I'm not gonna do that man. I want to do my own thing, see what's happening.'" After Brew, both he and Shorter formed Weather Report.

It's easy to understand Zawinul's antipathy. Davis treated "Pharaoh's Dance" similarly to the way he treated "Sanctuary" and "In a Silent Way"—it was a stomping ground for Miles to do whatever he wanted with it. "Pharaoh's Dance" was originally comprised of two parts. Part one contains a five measure exposition, an eight measure section with a B pedal, a transition measure into a four bar section using a D pedal, and a twelve measure exposition with a B pedal. Part two has two very loosely organized statements, with directions such as "keep developing," "play whenever," "turn statement one in and out with your own free will," and "phrase your own way." It was certainly interpreted loosely by Miles. When all was said and done, many of the sections were omitted and looped in all kinds of ways.

On the track, Davis takes the first solo. His opening phrasing is long and smooth with the rhythm section rolling out a soft red carpet for the leader. The soothing, majestic phrasing is a trademark of Davis's for taming his band. After a studio edit, the rhythm section is heard rumbling things back up. Miles's playing becomes sparse and bitey—a perfect contrast to the straight underlying rock beat. It's almost as if Miles is fighting the beat with his jabbing, syncopated stylings, yet it's just another layer in the thick density of this jam.

After Miles, Maupin takes center stage, wrestling with the deepest reaches of the bass clarinet. His phrasing is confident, as if the solid three days of work added an extra coat of tarnish to his sound. The solo gets stabs from the rhythm section, resulting in some interesting interplay until Zawinul interjects some of part one's first statement, fading Maupin out. Around the 8:30 mark, a rhythmic break occurs and statement one of part two begins. Davis only toys with the first three notes along with a couple of flourishes drowned in echoplex. Thirty seconds later, Davis's next solo is abruptly edited in. The trumpeter is heard weaving through a swarming backdrop of aggressive rhythms. Miles overtakes the backdrop with long, menacing lines with Maupin tagging along. Miles lets Maupin loose about thirty seconds later and he blows out a hail of shrapnel that summons frantic, spirally lines from Corea. Shorter, who seems somewhat inspired by Maupin, checks in with his own caustic solo, followed by a space-laden, amped up solo from McLaughlin, who appears to be channeling Hendrix. Zawinul chimes in with some of part one's theme, bringing down the pulse once again.

About fifteen minutes in, the band comes to a grinding halt and begins a hard, steady vamp in B reminiscent of the titles track's pounding bass along with cacophonous improvising from all angles. Somehow Miles wedges himself up top, delivering the fatal blows of statement two. With his fierce approach and complete disregard of the entire top section, Miles certainly takes liberty with Zawinul's "phrase your own way" instructions.

In "Pharaoh's Dance," as with most of the album, Davis's sound is one with a lot of mileage behind it. His articulation and pronunciation is carved, giving particular detail to all its syllables and nuances, similar to James Brown's characteristic vowel and consonant pronunciations. There is also the sense of a boxer weaving and jabbing that carried over to his band mates. "He would talk about that, 'Ok, now you've got to set this way ....' If you play a phrase, you have to know how to set a guy up," explained DeJohnette. "The same thing with boxing. You set a guy up, you feint with a left hook and then catch him with an overhand or uppercut right. It's in the rhythm." "It's the speed, the in and out, the reaction time, the feinting, the move, the combinations," recalled Dave Liebman while working with Miles shortly after Brew. "We trained to be fast, fast technically, fast thinking, fast hearing, fast reactions, the ability to perceive what was coming." By the end of "Pharaoh's Dance," Miles finds a way to deliver the knock-out blow. Throughout Davis's playing on the track, there is incessant jabbing, a constant touch and dodge. He begins to get the upper hand somewhere in the middle and delivers the onslaught at the very end with the pummeling delivery of the final melody.

Reprinted from Listen to This: Miles Davis and "Bitches Brew" © 2015 S. Victor Svorinich by permission of University Press of Mississippi.
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