The year was 1969. Walking down Park Street in Kolkata, I stopped at my favourite record shop and stared in through the window. The shopkeeper, who knew me well as a college kid with little money but who knew his music, smiled and called me in. He showed me this double album, with the strangest foldout cover art I had ever seen. It was a Miles Davis album – which was good enough for me. And it was called “Bitches Brew”. The cover looked really great, so I bought the album, took it home, played it, and it changed my world of music for ever.
1969 was annus mirabilis for me as far as music went. I heard “Sergeant Pepper’s”, Jimi, “Blonde on Blonde”, and of course “Bitches Brew”; I discovered Grateful Dead, Cream, and Jefferson Airplane: I read about Woodstock. Also, I heard Beethoven and Bach for the first time, and I heard Subbulakshmi perform for the first time. Quite a vintage year!
I had heard Miles’ music before – particularly his first great quintet with John Coltrane. I had heard “Kind of Blue” – but not with the attention that it deserved; later on, I have given it all my attention, at least thrice a year. But, “Bitches Brew” was, and still is amazing. Whereas the earlier Miles albums were linear, with a theme-solo-solo-solo-theme structure, “Bitches Brew” was anything but. Tracks like “Pharoah’s Dance” and others remind me of are a tapestry, in dark colours, with clear lines and patterns woven in gold and silver. The tapestry moves in the breeze, and the patterns change and suddenly, a new line and pattern emerges from the tapestry, something you had not paid attention to before. And the picture is different.
I had never heard anything like this before or since. On listening to Miles over the years, certain signs leading up to “Bitches Brew” were there in two albums prior to “Bitches Brew” – “In a silent way” had some of the same qualities, not as fully developed. Also, “Miles in the Sky” had a few things which got developed more fully in “Bitches Brew”.
Nearly forty years later, “Bitches Brew” still surprises and thrills me. I still marvel at the concept of the album, and how Miles and Teo Macero (the producer) must have spent hours going through miles and miles of tape, and editing them down to the tracks on the album. To me, the tour de force is “Miles runs the voodoo down”, a track he has performed many times in his live shows with the lost third quintet and other bands. The studio version is seminal – it reminds me of a world champion middleweight boxer, a Marvelous Marvin Hagler, swaggering into the room, reveling in his physical perfection and indeed in his sexuality, and blowing away the competition by just strutting around the room. Miles has rarely sounded so strong and physically irresistible than in his two solos on this track.
If you haven’t heard this album, and you are adventurous in your music, go and buy the 2 cd pack, and also buy the box set called the “Bitches Brew Sessions” – which contains other tracks recorded at that time, but released on other albums, or not released at all.
My love affair with the album continues apace – it’s like Cleopatra: age has not withered nor wisdom staled the infinity variety of the double album I first encountered nearly four decades ago.
(first posted on sulekha.com on Nov 25 2006)