Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The boiling brew of Miles Davis

I don't know if Miles Davis's iconic and ground-breaking album, Bitches Brew, was the first in which he used electronic effects to distort and enhance the sound of his trumpet, but it is certainly one of his most famous and, as I could see today while I listened to it over an over again, deservedly so. When you combine his extraordinary skill as a musican with some incredibly innovative recording techniques, you end up with something that is understandably recognised even now, forty years later, as having been a turning point in jazz. There is just so much in this phenomenal album, and it has such a massive impact on the development of jazz music since its release in 1969, that it wouldbe impossible to even begin to do it justice here. So the best I can do is talk a little about the impact that its title track has had on me, and on what I heard in it.

That in itself is a great deal. "Bitches Brew" is actually the second track on the album but is arguably the most substantial. It plays for just under 27 minutes - but they are 27 minutes full of the most amazing sounds.

It begins with something like a faltering, hesitant heartbeat from the bass, punctuated by discords from brass and woodwind. But this is really just a background for the grotesque, echoing fanfare that soon screeches and bounces in all directions, almost apocalyptic, from Miles's trumpet. It must be one of the most arresting beginnings to a piece of music - like a dark, haunted, twisted version of the opening of Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra, made so famous in Stanley Kubrick's movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But the music soon gives way to a lumbering, swaying rhythm, punctuated by increasingly insistent cries from the trumpet, spurting and stabbing away in this underworld against the seedy, smokey music from the drums, electric piano, soprano saxophone and bass.

To me, the trumpet here is more like a human voice than a musical instrument - tortured, deranged even, screaming at you from the something very deep within itself.

After a while we hear the faltering heartbeat, the strident discords, and the doomsday fanfare of the trumpet again.

But then the music seems to become even more sinister, it bubbles away in the background, ominous and dark. The bitches brew is simmering.

For a while the trumpet takes on a more angry, insistent role but then, before it has really staked its claim to anything, it gives way to the rest of the music, as if it is being dragged down into the boiling brew - it melts into it, and is drowned.

But, of course, this is Miles Davis so things can't end like that and, sure enough, the trumpet re-emerges one more time, with a last restatement of the opening fanfare, ascending and descending, like Phoenix rising from the ashes, and falling back into them again.

I didn't know that the trumpet could produce sounds like this. Its role in this track is really awesome - it has you rivetted whenever it's playing, and it has you waiting for it whenever it's not. This really is the most incredible of albums and, with its amazing, unprecedented sounds, larger than life, it is not just ground-breaking - it's earth shattering.

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