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Listen To This: Miles Davis And Bitches Brew

Ian Patterson By

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Listen To This: Miles Davis and Bitches Brew
Victor Svorinich
202 Pages
ISBN: 978-1-62846-194-7
The University Press of Mississippi
2015

Surprisingly, Victor Svorinich's book is the first dedicated exclusively to a study of Miles Davis's ground-breaking album Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970). Surprising, because just about every facet of the iconic trumpeter's career has already been exhaustively documented. Svorinich, a music faculty member of Kean University in Union, New Jersey, previously put the microscope on Davis with Electric Miles: A Look at the 'In A Silent Way' and 'On the Corner' Sessions (Annual Review of Jazz Studies, Scarecrow Press, 2003), but here his focus is on the most controversial of all Davis' albums.

It's only in the last decade and a half, beginning with Paul Tingen's Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991 (Billboard Books, 2001), that Davis' electric period has received similar critical attention as that given to his earlier acoustic jazz. And it's with his musicologist's eye and his musician's ear that Svorinich refocuses attention on an album that still excites debate over four decades later.

There were, Svorinich reminds us, some who thought that Davis had sold out and betrayed the jazz tradition with Bitches Brew. Svorinich's reasoning refutes that argument and throws light on Davis' fierce artistic drive during the album's creative process. The author's probing analysis of the musical processes involved also dispels the common misconception that Columbia had a major say in the album's development. "They do what I tell them to do, man. They don't own me," Davis told Rolling Stone."I make my own records...I'd die before I let that shit happen to me."

The author, however, doesn't shy away from illuminating money concerns surrounding this "commercially hyped and heavily produced album" but the meatiest part of the book is the insight Svorinich brings to the music. In critically disecting the music on Bitches Brew—and up to 1975 when Davis effectively became a recluse—in some depth, Svorinich also addresses notions of tradition and modernity in jazz and popular music.

Broadly speaking, Listen to This: Miles Davis and Bitches Brew falls into three periods: firstly, Davis' musical evolution leading up to the recording; secondly the studio recording and post production; thirdly, the commercial and cultural impact of the album. Davis' early biographical detail is covered insightfully though succinctly -a wise move given the plethora of such information already in print.

Svorinich shows how Davis' evolution as a musician transpired within the context of the socio-political turmoil of America in the late 1960s. It was an era of heightened Afro-American political consciousness, race riots, disaffection with the war in Vietnam and the tail end of Flower Power. "His previous work," writes Svorinich, "never had to contend with the kind of disillusionment, anger, and fear that dominated the late-sixties social landscape."

But if the dense, heavy, funk and rock-influenced music of Bitches Brew represented on some level an angry manifestation of the sixties zeitgeist, it was also, as Svorinich emphasizes, the beginning of a new musical dawn. Although Bitches Brew wasn't the first jazz-rock album it was arguably the most progressive and did much to usher in the jazz-rock/jazz-fusion whose heyday followed in the 1970s.

The author stresses, however, that Bitches Brew was neither a revolution nor a radical departure for Davis, but was instead "the realization of longstanding developments in Davis' music merged with fresh insight and not a fateful break in his art and career."

Svorinich identifies musical elements of Bitches Brew that were present in Davis' second great quintet (1965-68) and even dating back to the Birth of the Cool sessions of 1950. More than just a look at one ground-breaking album in Davis' discography, Listen to This: Miles Davis and Bitches Brew invites readers to reconsider Bitches Brew as perhaps the culmination of Davis' musical trajectory.

The author highlights the music that influenced Davis' concept on Bitches Brew—Sly Stone, James Brown and Jimi Hendrix in particular—and recognizes Davis' wife Betty Mabry's role in introducing Davis to these happening sounds. Mabry was a significant influence on Davis's new musical direction in the late 1960s, a fact acknowledged by the trumpeter in his autobiography.

Whilst many jazz artists incorporated popular grooves to revive flagging careers at the end of the 1960s, few were able to connect to the mass record buying public as well as Davis, with the double album Bitches Brew eventually topping a million sales.

More significantly, as Svorinich relates, it immediately catapulted Davis to rock star status. Prior to Bitches Brew Davis had been playing clubs, but practically overnight he was opening for Neil Young and Crazy Horse and the Grateful Dead in Bill Graham's Fillmore venues to largely white audiences. The club appearances were replaced by amphitheatres, auditoriums and festivals, notably the Isle of Wight Festival 1970, where Davis played to an audience of over half a million people.

With two bassists, two drummers, two percussionists, up to three electric pianists—and with the lead and rhythm roles essentially reversed—Bitches Brew was praised by many as revolutionary, and won a Grammy for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album. Yet it was, Svorinich recounts, also thoroughly vilified in certain quarters. The backlash was perhaps unsurprising, for if there's one thing that makes the jazz community uncomfortable, particularly the critics, it's the whiff of commercial success.

Bitches Brew caused a schism in jazz that persists to this day, almost as much for Teo Macero's cut-and-paste post-production techniques as for the funk and rock-influenced, chordless music. Macero's production approach made even some of Davis' musicians uncomfortable at the time, though as Svorinich says: "Often, what seems radical at first appears definitive when gazed from a distance."

With access to Macero's archives and the original session reels for the recording Svorinich rightly casts Davis' long-time producer as an important player in the Bitches Brew story and addresses in even-handed manner the question of the credit due the production team. "If you heard those raw tapes of the sessions you'd realize that that all those effects, those echoes, the way the things were pieced together were done by me, not Miles," Macero told The Wire in 1994. A letter from Davis from the time of the Bitches Brew sesions is reprinted, outlining quite detailed instructions to the producer on how to piece together the various segments of music. There are, as Svorinich illustrates, at least two sides to every story.

Inevitably, much of the author's material is drawn from pre-existing published sources that include the major books on Davis. The trumpeter's own voice is ever-present throughout the book via numerous period interviews, as are the thoughts and opinions of the musicians, producers/engineers, label executives and jazz critics involved in the Bitches Brew story.

Svorinich himself interviewed just about everybody he could, from Bitches Brew musicians Billy Cobham and Lenny White to those involved in Davis' ongoing new musical direction thereafter, such as Azar Lawrence, Badal Roy and Sonny Fortune. And from the Columbia engineers on the Bitches Brew sessions, Ray Moore and Frank Laico—the latter who went uncredited on the first issue of the album—to Davis' biographers amongst others, Svorinich's work is nothing if not thoroughly researched.

The final chapter is titled "Miles in 3-D: Images of Bitches Brew"; it's a little misleading as for starters there are no photographs from the three days of Bitches Brew recording sessions in Columbia's 30th Street studio anywhere in the book. Svorinich gathers testimony from four photographers who worked a lot with Davis over the years but their anecdotes add little of concrete to the thread of the author's Bitches Brew narrative and come across as unnecessary padding.

"Great art reflects the times in which it is created," declares Svorinich. The greatest art, however, outlasts its creator and impacts future generations. Bitches Brew is still selling, still influencing rock and jazz musicians alike and still perpetuating the Davis legend.

Svorinich's well written, balanced account of Davis' journey up to and beyond Bitches Brew will appeal not only to Davis converts but to any serious music fan interested in the development of twentieth century popular music.
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