Running Down Miles’ Voodoo

By: Ron Hart

Bitches Brew 40th Anniversary
Collector’s Edition
2010 marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Bitches Brew, an album long considered to be one of the pivotal turning points in the history of jazz. Change was indeed in the air when Miles Davis initially incorporated electronic elements into 1968’s Miles in the Sky and 1969’s Filles De Kilimanjaro. However, when he created an album with an all-electric ensemble with In A Silent Way (also released in ’69), it was met with a staggering combination of awe and angst by both jazz and rock critics, particularly because they really didn’t know what to make of the album’s experimental nature, which was billed as Davis’s debut foray into the then still-emerging fusion movement, as well as his first collaboration with longtime producer Teo Macero.

However, when Bitches Brew was released in April of 1970, Miles had fully immersed himself into the rhythmic propulsion of the psychedelic funk and rock sounds popularized by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Santana, James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone, most of which he was introduced to by his ex-wife, R&B sex kitten Betty Mabry-Davis, whose inspiration is all over the record. Putting together a veritable supergroup of collaborators including Wayne Shorter on soprano saxophone, keyboardists Chick Corea and the late Joe Zawinul, bassists Dave Holland and Harvey Brooks, drummers Lenny White and Jack DeJohnette, clarinetist Bennie Maupin, conga players Don Alias and Juma “Jim Riley” Santos and guitarist John McLaughlin, Miles crafted a double album that took the explorations of the outer perimeters of exposition, development and recapitulation featured on In A Silent Way and sent them even further into the freak zone, incorporating such special effects as tape looping, electro-acoustic reverberation and frequency filtering spurred by Macero’s fascination with the musique concrète movement of the late 1940s and the works of Edgar Varese and Karlheinz Stockhausen, only propelled by an acid jungle groove that would eventually become Miles’ calling card in the early-to-mid 70s on albums like (A Tribute to) Jack Johnson, Live-Evil, On The Corner, Big Fun and Get Up With It.

The end results were nothing short of a sonic revolution across the jazz landscape equal to what The Beatles were doing to the pop idiom with Revolver, Sgt. Pepper and The White Album, creating even more of a furor at the time with stuffy-shirted critics who clung to their copies of Birth of the Cool and Kind of Blue as if they were bracing themselves for a hurricane of Katrina proportions.

Original gatefold album art
In honor of this legendary album’s historic 40-year milestone, Legacy Recordings has released a gorgeous anniversary Collector’s Edition of Bitches Brew. Similar to the monster celebration for the 50th anniversary of Kind of Blue the label released in the fall of 2008, this version contains two CDs containing the original six tracks plus six more bonus cuts, a third disc containing a previously unreleased live performance of the Miles/Keith Jarrett/Chick Corea/Dave Holland/Jack DeJohnette/Airto Moreira/Gary Bartz lineup from an August 1970 concert at Tanglewood, a DVD of another unissued show from Copenhagen in November 1969 featuring the Davis/Shorter/Corea/Holland/DeJohnette quintet, plus the original album on 180-gram vinyl housed in a gorgeous double-LP replication.

JamBase was lucky enough to catch up with two key members of the Brew crew, Messrs John McLaughlin and Lenny White – both of whom would take the fusion genre to new heights of innovation with their respective groups Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever – to discuss their roles in the making of this monumental masterstroke.

John, tell us about the first time you ever met Miles Davis and how you came to join his electric ensemble for In A Silent Way?

John McLaughlin: I met Miles on the first day I arrived in NYC from London. It was during the first few days of January 1969. I’d been invited to join Lifetime with Tony Williams and Larry Young. However, since Tony was doing his final week with Miles before leaving and devoting himself exclusively to Lifetime, that week was at Club Baron in Harlem – long since disappeared. Even though we’d never met, Miles knew about me since he was losing Tony as his drummer, and was naturally curious about what he was planning. We met that night at the club, and the following day I was with Tony at Miles’ house, and out of the blue Miles said to me, “We’re recording tomorrow. Bring your guitar to the studio.” That was it.

Lenny, when did you first meet Miles and how did you come to join the band for Bitches Brew?

Lenny White by Susan J. Weiand
Lenny White: The first time I met Miles was at The Village Gate. I took the subway from Queens into the Village and went to see Miles. I heard he called my house the same day but I had left to go see him. Miles dressed in back asked me, “Can you play fast?” I said yes and he said “When?” and I said, “Whenever I’m asked.” He then said to be down here every night this week. I got a call to be at his house on 77th St. for a rehearsal. Jack, Chick, Wayne and Dave were there and we rehearsed the beginning statement of “Bitches Brew.”

How much input did you have in the blueprints of Bitches Brew? What were your thoughts on how this new form of electric jazz could be taken to the next level?

McLaughlin: By the time Miles was ready for Bitches Brew, I’d gotten to him very well. Right after the In A Silent Way sessions he kind of took me under his wing and was inviting me to play concerts with him even though I was with Tony and Lifetime. He’d become fascinated with guitar – he loved guitar and eventually got one for himself (I played it on On the Corner). I would go over to his house several times a week and he’d ask me about this or that riff, what would I do thythmically with such and such a chord, things like that. By Bitches Brew, he was moving ahead of everyone else (like always) into the world of fusion.

White: Miles said to me, “Jack will play the beat. I want you to play all around it, like a spice in a big brew.” So, I wanted it to sound like one drummer with eight hands.

Do you have a favorite story stemming from the Bitches Brew sessions?

John McLaughlin
McLaughlin: I have a better story for Jack Johnson, but what maybe was one of the nicest things was that Miles invited sitar player Balakrishna and tabla player Badal Roy, both of whom I’d introduced to Miles.

White: Yeah, I learned a great lesson on the very first day. I had been playing all kinds of music, and R&B and funky stuff was a big part of what I did along with playing jazz. On “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down” he wanted a straight, simple funk groove. We had done a few takes that I thought were great but he wanted something simple. I played what I thought he wanted; more like Tony was playing and it wasn’t what he wanted. Don Alias, who played percussion, said, “Miles, I have a beat,” so he got on my drums and played this real simple beat. Miles loved it and I wound up playing percussion instead of drums on that track. The lesson I learned was don’t pot-think yourself by doing what you think somebody wants. Ask and find out what is needed.

Lenny, being so young going into the Bitches Brew sessions, was it intimidating to be in the room with all of these established cats?

White: It was scary. This was my first real recording session and it was with my idol. Everybody was cool, especially Miles.

What kinds of music were you listening to personally that may have influenced the direction of Bitches Brew?

original cover
White: We all were listening to Tony Williams, but along with Tony and Elvin [Jones], I was listening to Clyde Stubberfield and Jabo Starks with James Brown’s band and John Bonham.

McLaughlin: At that time I was listening to the heroes of my youth – Miles, Coltrane, Bill Evans, etc. – but also I was listening to Bartok, Webern, Jimi Hendrix, Sly & the Family Stone, The Beatles and The Eagles, amongst others. I guess they all played a greater or lesser role. An anecdote about Jimi: One day I was with Miles at his house and I was telling him about Jimi and what he’d done with the electric guitar. Miles had never seen Jimi play so I looked in the Village Voice and found out that the Monterey Pop Festival movie was playing in the Village. So, I took Miles down to see the movie. It was great to see Miles watch Jimi, especially when he burns his guitar. All Miles could say was, “Damn, damn…”

Any truth to the rumor that Miles and Jimi were in talks to record and/or jam together?

White: As far as I know, this was definitely talked about, even to the point that Tony Williams and Larry Young did record a jam with Jimi. One of my big regrets is Miles asking me if I wanted to play with Jimi, and I said no because I wanted to play with [Miles].

Did Miles have a favorite Jimi Hendrix song or album that was crucial in inspiring the Bitches Brew sound?

White: I know he loved “Machine Gun” and around that time the version we were all listening to was from the Band of Gypsys recording.

What is your personal favorite track on Bitches Brew and why?

Lenny White by Lynn Goldsmith
White: “Spanish Key” because it was the first song of the second day after my big mistake with the direction on “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down” and I no longer had any fear. I went into it all the way.

John, how did your name become the title of a song on the album, and why was it that Miles didn’t play on “John McLaughlin”?

McLaughlin: This was and remains to this day a mystery to me. I was kind of shocked when I saw the album. We, most times, never knew the titles during Miles’ recordings. I really don’t know the why of anything about his decision to give the tune my name.

How much did the music you created with Tony Williams and Larry Young in Emergency come into play with your role in the Bitches Brew sessions?

McLaughlin: Playing with Tony and Lifetime was a different creative environment for me. Tony encouraged me from the start to write music for Lifetime. Miles never did this, and I was very happy with this situation, too. Miles would pick my brain for riffs and stuff like that and then adapt it in his inimitable way. This was a really deep learning process for me. I should say that a tremendous amount of Mahavishnu music was born during my tenure with Lifetime. Miles has had a profound impact on me since I discovered him in 1958, and even more so when I had the opportunity to play with him. It really is impossible to quantify or qualify the degree of influence Miles had on me, musically and personally. It’s just enormous.

Lenny, how much of an influence did your time in Miles’ electric ensemble have on your work in Return to Forever, Azteca and Twennynine?

White: It didn’t just shape my attitude in playing in those music projects it changed EVERYBODY’S attitude. After this you were obligated to take chances, try new directions.

In listening to new music now in 2010, where do you most hear the influence of Bitches Brew

White: I hear the influence in the jam bands. I think they have taken the spirit of what we did and brought it to a present day audience.

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