TO CELEBRATE TODAY’S RELEASE OF OUR 110TH 33/13 ON BITCHES BREW, WE’RE PLEASED TO BRING YOU THE FOURTH INSTALLMENT OF MILES DAVIS WEEK BY AUTHOR GEORGE GRELLA JR. !
“Miles did Bitches Brew and from Bitches Brew came all those other broths. Mahavishnu, all that shit, that’s broths out of Bitches Brew.” … Mtume
As Mtume said, all those who are today considered the iconoclastic Godfather bands of fusion—Mahavishnu Orchetra, Return to Forever, Weather Report, Mwandishi and Headhunters—owe their existence and genre to Bitches Brew. All of the principal founders/visionaries of those bands played on those revolutionary sessions. All were either sidemen or original members of earlier Miles Davis recordings and touring bands. Even more astounding was that for Miles Davis himself, Bitches Brew was both the end of an era and the genesis of a Brave New World.” -Tom Terrrell, liner notes for The Complete On the Corner Sessions
There were two directions out of Bitches Brew: Miles took his own, which ran through Live-Evil, Jack Johnson and On the Corner; the other was the astounding proliferation of electric jazz and improvised instrumental funk and rock promulgated by Miles’ musicians. Fusion, like progressive rock, has a bad reputation based on some of its more attenuated, rococo practitioners, and also because socially it was never the club that cool kids wanted to join. But people keep playing it and listening to it, and like progressive rock it continues to have a powerful presence, especially under the surface of a lot of contemporary classical music and post-rock.
Fusion, like any other genre, can be done well or badly (don’t tell me there’s no awful indie music). The advantage vintage fusion still has is that it was made by some of the greatest musicians of the late 20th century, people who could not only play their asses off in any situation, but, presented with what was a newly discovered continent, built a variety of incredible, creative, lasting edifices. When you read the names of the bands, remember that the Mahavishnu Orchestra was John McLaughlin, that Weather Report was Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul, that Mwandishi and Headhunters was Herbie Hancock (with the invaluable Bennie Maupin). Miles maintained constant transitions up to his retirement, and On the Corner is something of a logical culmination, a consolidation of the fundamental ideas and methods of Bitches Brew with a conscious fusion—that word has a meaning—of James Brown, Sly Stone, and Stockhausen. Intellectually, that promises arguably one of the heights of musical creation across all genres, but On the Corner doesn’t consistently fulfill that promise. It still has glorious moments though.
After that, Miles’ only recorded on the road, three years of music that is itself unique and often astounding, slabs of sound gliding tectonically together over heavy funk, on one side abstract and often very dark, on the other pure populism for the hips and the feet. Until Sunn O))), there hadn’t been anything else like it in popular or experimental music.
He couldn’t keep it up though. The music he made from the start of his 1981 comeback to his death in 1991 is mostly a disappointment. Miles often plays beautifully, and the bands are full of talent, but there’s no daring, no danger. There’s a lot of pleasure to find in the music, but it’s the satisfaction of the known quality—audiences had caught up to Miles, and he never left them behind again. The Aura album is a last burst of creative glory, and Miles’ playing on it is deeply intelligent and involving. The final and best tribute comes from Bill Laswell, who remixed music from the electric period into the wonderful Panthalassa album, which turns music that might have settled into memory into something once again new, transitional, moving ahead.
– George Grella