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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.

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