Miles Davis: Harmonic Convergence

Pioneer was central to the jazz rock renaissance

Miles Davis: Harmonic convergence
David Redfern/Redferns

Forty years ago, Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” — recorded over three days in August 1969 and released in April 1970 — hit the record racks. With mind-blowing cover art by Mati Klarwein (who also designed the cover of Santana’s “Abraxas”), “Bitches Brew” signaled a dramatic departure for the restlessly creative trumpeter. Davis’ first double LP arrived at a time when similar, sprawling peak statements by the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix represented the height of artistic ambition.

Despite its avant-garde, highly experimental nature, it was also Davis’ first gold record, selling in the hundreds of thousands when his bestselling previous works, already among the most popular in jazz, sold in the 10,000-unit range. The recording, largely shaped in the studio by producer Teo Macero, also acted as a Molotov cocktail to the notion that jazz and rock could be categorized in tidy, definable camps.

At the time, a kind of harmonic convergence was occurring between the pop and jazz worlds. Top 40 groups like Blood, Sweat and Tears and Chicago were using instrumentation and improvisational techniques associated with jazz; on the flip side, jazz artists like Davis and his rotating stock company of sidemen were incorporating elements of funk, R&B and hard rock into their playlists. But “Bitches Brew,” still modern and mysterious after all these years, represented ground zero of the “jazz rock” movement that would ultimately become known as “fusion.”

“Music is simply a reflection of what’s going on in the world,” says composer-producer Marcus Miller, who played bass on several Davis albums beginning in the early 1980s. “And we’re talking about the ’60s, one of the most revolutionary periods in American history. Everything was questioned: notions of authority, race and those big walls that separated genres of music. The old rules no longer applied. Miles was taking a big risk going in this direction, and he was doing it for his own artistic satisfaction. He wasn’t trying to be commercial; he was trying to be relevant.”

Sony is tentatively planning on releasing a deluxe 40th anniversary edition of “Bitches Brew,” timed for the spring, coin­ciding with what would have been Davis’ 84th birthday (the trumpeter died in 1991 at age 65). Not to be confused with “The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions” box set that was released in 1998, the upcoming package will feature additional material not included in previous editions.

Just as Bob Dylan’s first foray into rock terrain, “Bringing It All Back Home,” predated the singer-songwriter’s “Highway 61 Revisited” and Dylan’s infamous plugged-in set at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, “Bitches Brew” was not the first instance of Davis going electric, and shocking much of his fan base in the process. “In a Silent Way” — using many of the same players featured on “Bitches Brew” — was released the previous summer. But where “In a Silent Way” was understated and spare, “Bitches Brew” was assaultive and dense, with multiple bass players, drummers and keyboardists adding layer upon layer of sound, building to a sonic crescendo.

Jazz trumpeter-film composer Mark Isham, whose disc “Miles Remembered: The Silent Way Project” was released in 1999, recalls what set “Bitches Brew” apart from its predecessor: ” ‘Bitches Brew’ had more of a presence,” says the Grammy-winning artist. “The cover was very striking — like a rock cover. It was a double album; it was a big statement. ‘In a Silent Way’ was sort of polite, almost ambient in that sense. There’s a style of reserve; it was the beginning of something. ‘Bitches Brew’ way outgrooved ‘In a Silent Way.’ There’s no reserve. The guys are just full bore going for it.”

For the two LPs, Davis recruited his own axman, John McLaughlin, whose talent soon put him in a league with the guitar gods of the day: Hendrix, Clapton and Page. The Englishman’s distinctive metallic accents, Wayne Shorter’s serpentine soprano sax and Benny Maupin’s primordial bass clarinet played key roles in “Brew’s” spacey, atmospheric rhythms. Rolling Stone magazine, not normally given to reviewing jazz recordings, said of the LP: “Miles’ music continues to grow in its beauty, subtlety and sheer magnificence.”

The melding of jazz and pop was not without precedent. Jazz leader Ramsey Lewis achieved pop-single chart success with “The ‘In’ Crowd” in 1965; a year later, pianist-composer Joe Zawinul, who wrote “In a Silent Way” and played on “Bitches Brew,” mixed jazz, gospel and R&B in such compositions as “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” with the Cannonball Adderley Quintet. In early 1967, the Charles Lloyd Quartet, with later Davis alums Keith Jarrett (piano) and Jack DeJohnette (drums), was the first jazz ensemble to play the Fillmore West in San Francisco; the resulting live album, “Love In,” featured psychedelic cover art and a version of Lennon and McCartney’s “Here, There and Everywhere.”

On the pop side, Al Kooper, best known for his swirling Hammond organ fills on Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” formed Blood, Sweat and Tears in 1967, inspired by the brassy, big-band stylings of jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson. And in April 1969, Chicago’s debut LP, “Chicago Transit Authority” — featuring heavy jazz brass arrangements, extended jams and experimental improvisation — would hail the full-scale arrival of “jazz rock.”

If Davis was the movement’s fountainhead — recruiting and mentoring players who would go on to form such fusion super­groups as Lifetime, Weather Report, Return to Forever and the Mahavishnu Orchestra — Columbia Records, Davis’ label and the home to such stars as Dylan, Streisand and Simon & Garfunkel, emerged as the base camp. Clive Davis, at that time Columbia’s president, gained fame for signing such acts as Janis Joplin and Santana. But he also signed Chicago, B,S&T, Weather Report and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, giving them a level of creative freedom almost unprecedented at the major labels then or since.

“Miles did come to me and he said, ‘Look, these white boys that you’re signing are stealing my licks and stealing my thunder, and they’re selling in numbers that are unheard of compared to what I’m doing,” recalls Davis for Variety. “And I looked at him and said, ‘You’re playing Shelly’s Manne Hole and the Village Gate before 500 existing fans who know your work and believe in you. If you would let me book you to a totally different audience, play to young people, maybe listen to their music, I know your audience will become larger and I know you’ll be affected creatively.”

By March 1970, with the help of promoter Bill Graham, Davis would kick off a series of concerts at such rock venues as the Fillmore East and the Fillmore West, opening for acts like Neil Young, the Grateful Dead and Santana. By August, Davis would play in front of his biggest audience ever, the 600,000 or so at the Isle of Wight rock festival, sharing a bill with Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, two artists whom Davis admired and emulated. Another virtuoso who appeared on that stage, Joni Mitchell, who has cited “In a Silent Way” as a key influence, would later record and tour with such jazzmen as Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny and Michael Brecker.

“Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Sting — all these guys admired jazz because of the dedication that jazz so obviously requires,” says Miller. “And the rock musicians were like, ‘Man, I wanna get some of that,’ and it really opened a door.”

As the 1970s came to a close, the jazz-rock renaissance began to fade. In 1975, after a series of poorly received live albums — “Agharta,” “Pangaea” and “Dark Magus” — Davis withdrew from the public eye for five years. The fusion movement he helped spearhead would become increasingly self-indulgent before devolving into the “soft jazz” of the 1980s.

“What made early fusion so profound is that the pioneers were the best musicians in the world,” says Miller. “Miles Davis, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock — these were not just guys who learned a couple of jazz licks. When they decided to add some rock or funk or Indian elements to their music, they still had the foundation of being ultimately creative. They started out somewhere original and pure.”