Miles Davis: Bitches Brew Legacy Edition & Dogfish Head: Bitches Brew

Bitches Brew (album):

RIYL: Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, Return to Forever

Bitches Brew (beer):

RIYL: Dogfish Head Raison D’etre, Rogue Dead Guy Ale, Tröegs Flying Mouflan

Miles Davis’ creative spirit in the late ’60s and ’70s was particularly restless, and his music gave voice and volume to that restlessness, as he found new fans and embittered jazz purists by adding electric instruments to his palate. In a Silent Way (1969), in particular, saw Davis and his sidemen playing with side-long compositions built from extended sessions that were cut and edited by Davis and producer Teo Macero. It was dense, sometimes difficult, often beautiful music, requiring active engagement on the part of the listener, and also an open mind. Rock writer Lester Bangs might have said it best when he described it as “part of a transcendental new music which flushes categories away and, while using musical devices from all styles and cultures, is defined mainly by its deep emotion and unaffected originality.”

For Bitches Brew (1970), Davis expanded his band, as well as his vision. A given track might have featured, in addition to his trumpet, two or three electric pianos, saxophone, bass clarinet, one or two electric basses, two drum kits, one or two additional percussion pieces, and electric guitar. It was a tempest coming out of the speakers, with intricate compositions to match that gave the maelstrom a form and power virtually unheard of in jazz at the time.

The mastery of Davis and band on Bitches Brew has never been clearer than on  Sony’s new Legacy Edition, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the record’s original release. Though the bonus tracks are questionable additions (we’re not sure why sub-three-minute “single mixes” of four of these cuts were needed in the first place), the pristine sonics of the remastered discs bring all manner of nuance into full relief.

“Pharaoh’s Dance,” which opens the record, has an insistent yet understated groove, which enables Davis to steer and pianists Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul (who composed the song) to throw sparks at will. Davis himself sounds particularly fierce on “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” foreshadowing some of the dark themes and sounds he would build in later “fusion period” live albums like Agharta and Dark Magus.

Those records would go deep into the funk of the early ’70s; here, Davis’ vision is more in line with the wide open textures of late-’60s rock. You can hear it in the rhythms of “Spanish Key,” which are as simultaneously unfettered and locked-in as were the Grateful Dead’s two-headed percussion hydra at the time. Guitarist John McLaughlin is all blues in “Spanish Key,” but given to shorter lyrical bursts in Bitches Brew‘s title song, in which the instruments bounce around and into one another in a fabulous blanket of echo. In some ways, you can hear elements of ’70s fusion, noise rock, and even prog take root in these fertile moments of brilliance. There was certainly enough here to take as inspiration for a long time to come.

The music of Miles Davis, Bitches Brew in particular, served as inspiration to Sam Calagione, founder and president of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, a Delaware-based creator of fine “off-centered ales” with a seriously devoted following (this writer included). To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Bitches Brew the album, Dogfish has created a limited edition Bitches Brew beer – a marvelous combination of three parts imperial stout and one part honey beer.

May we suggest drinking your 750 ml bottle of Bitches Brew beer while watching the DVD included in the Bitches Brew Legacy Edition set, an hour-plus program taped in Copenhagen in 1969. Open the beer and take a whiff – you’ll notice the deep bouquet, almost like a wine that’s aged in mahogany. Put on the DVD and watch the band – all acoustic, except Chick Corea’s electric piano – launch into the cosmic groove of “Directions.”

Pour some beer into a wineglass or brandy snifter – no pint glasses; this stuff is meant to be savored, slowly, in small portions. Notice the opaque brown in the glass, the tan head; take another sniff as air hits this elixir and the woodiness of its scent comes to life. Take a sip and revel in that malty first hit, that lingering bitterness. Give it a moment to sink in.

Watch the band bounce off one another, particularly Corea and drummer Jack DeJohnette, weaving in and out of one another’s path, pausing only to listen to a note, a snare hit, something to push the conversation into its next phase. Hear saxophonist Wayne Shorter expound at great length on a theme, echoing a phrase from Davis’ own horn, or pulling a fragment from his leader and expanding it. Marvel at how muscular the band sounds, how tight – it’s not as expansive as the massive Bitches Brew ensembles, but just as strong in its own right.

Take another sip, this time leaving the beer in your mouth a few seconds before swallowing. Notice the sweetness of the honey beer gently touching your palate before the bitter wave washes back again as you swallow. Notice the chocolate and coffee tones in that wave as you think to yourself how seeing the music being made onscreen makes it all the more inspiring – a young, cool Shorter in the final stages of his apprenticeship with Davis (soon to launch Weather Report); a young, hippie regalia-bedecked Corea, coaxing just the right notes from his piano; a powerful Dave Holland, fingers flying over his upright bass’ strings, keeping up nicely with the propulsive forces around him.

Note that there is something special about seeing Davis play, watching him at arguably the height of his creative power, making powerful new music, in complete control of his band, while being led by his muse. Take another sip. Drink it all in. (Sony Legacy 2010)

Miles Davis’ MySpace page
Dogfish Head Craft Brewery’s Web Site

Click to purchase Bitches Brew at Amazon.


John Coltrane: Side Steps

RIYL: Red Garland, Sonny Rollins, Gene Ammons

If you’re looking for the soul-stirring genius of John Coltrane’s peak years, you’re not going to find it anywhere on Prestige’s five-disc box set, Side Steps. As an insight into Trane’s early development, however, this is exactly the place to start – and end – your search. The set chronicles the tenor legend’s brief period as a hired gun for established players like pianists Red Garland, Mal Waldron and Tad Dameron, fellow tenor player Gene Ammons (for whom Coltrane provided his services on alto instead), and even Sonny Rollins. No, none of those brilliant 1950s Miles Davis sessions for Prestige are here (Trane was a regular member of Miles’ band, as opposed to a freelancer), and as Miles had him under his regular employ, those recordings don’t fit the theme. But there’s plenty of prime hard bop to be enjoyed here, all recorded during the years 1956 and 1957, packaged with illuminating essays, detailed discographical information and plenty of photos. Newbies to Trane will want to start with his Atlantic Recordings, but working backwards from that point, Side Steps goes one further to complete his recorded history with class and style. (Prestige 2009)

John Coltrane MySpace


The Flaming Lips: Embryonic

RIYL: Beck, early ’70s Miles Davis, pre-Dark Side Pink Floyd

It would be far too easy to call the Flaming Lips’ new album Embryonic “trippy.” Any of the albums they’ve released over the past decade could fit that description. But as it stands, the 18-track double disc affair is in fact pretty far out, even for the Lips. Drawing from the sound palettes of early ‘70s Miles Davis (the instrumental “Scorpio Sword” is particularly reminiscent of the edge-of-insanity performances that marked the days when Chick Corea and Tony Williams pushed Miles into serious avant garde territory) and pre-Dark Side Pink Floyd (think of Floyd’s soundtrack work on More), Wayne Coyne and crew have woven a heavy, dynamic soundscape that works best as a piece.


Indeed, few songs stand out from the whole, one of the exceptions being the typically novel “I Can Be a Frog,” which is impossible to hear without thinking of its accompanying video. And while Wayne’s voice has taken a beating over the years, he sings to his strengths and lets the fuzzed-out guitars and vintage electric piano sounds take center stage throughout the disc. In fact, in most cases vocals are mixed about equally with the rest of the instruments, avoiding pop melodies and song structure altogether.

This very well could be the greatest album the Flaming Lips have concocted to date, though there’s so much happening here that it might take a few years to sink in. The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots can retain popular favor in the meantime, but Embryonic is bound to fascinate and confound for years to come. (Warner Bros. 2009)

The Flaming Lips MySpace
Click to buy Embryonic from Amazon


Miles Davis recorded a lot of records

Apparently, the “Prince of Darkness” recorded 52 albums, and that was just for Columbia Records! Dude also made other albums for Prestige, Blue Note, and Warner Bros. Records. Nevertheless, the Columbia years were his creative peak. During that time, Davis released Kind of Blues and Bitches Brew, which not only classics of the jazz genre, but American music as a whole. On November 10th, Columbia and Legacy will release a ridiculous 71-disc box set entitled The Complete Columbia Album Collection. This Sisyphian task is guaranteed to consume at least a year of your life. To buy this, you must really love jazz — that goes without saying. Unfortunately, if you buy this set, with the innocent intention of listening to the entire thing, you must admit to yourself that you find Miles Davis more enticing than, say, earning a living.

The box will include (seriously) 70 CDs and one DVD, and somehow it’s that one DVD that makes the whole thing look like overkill.

The DVD is Live in Europe ’67, which will be on DVD for the first time ever with this set. The set will also include a previously unreleased live recording of Davis’s performance at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival.

According to Legacy, the CDs will all come in “Japanese-styled mini LP jackets”, which sounds cool. The CDs will include bonus tracks that have been tacked on to Davis reissues over the years. There will also be a 250-page book.

Have at it if you must.


Chick Corea & Hiromi: Duet

Recorded live at Tokyo’s Blue Note Jazz Club, Duet continues Chick Corea’s streak of exceptional albums with unimaginative titles. Chick hasn’t released a piano duet album since his 1978 live double album with fellow Miles Davis alumnus Herbie Hancock, and while that record was a meeting of two peers, Chick’s partner on Duet, Japanese pianist Hiromi, was a year away from birth when Chick dueled with Herbie in ’78. As one might expect, Hiromi’s youthful exuberance matches – and sometimes surpasses – what was going down 30 years ago. Just one listen to the pair’s wildly playful take on Chick’s “Humpty Dumpty” and Monk’s “Bolivar Blues” may be enough to make it feel like this is the first and best time the dual piano format has been explored, not to mention the tension that Chick cleverly builds with his trademark percussive smacking of the keys during a neat take on the Beatles’ “The Fool on the Hill.” (Concord 2009)

Chick Corea MySpace page