We are traveling to Hiroshima on a high-speed train from Kyoto and I’m listening to Miles Davis’ timeless album of 1970, Bitches Brew. I’ve had Miles Davis, mostly Bitches Brew, in my ear buds since we arrived in Japan almost two weeks ago and in this post, I’m going to think through why this album is, to my mind, the perfect musical traveling companion.
There are some kinds of music that work very well for travel and others that don’t work well at all. On this trip, given its duration and the long distances we are covering, I’ve found that longer, meandering almost formless pieces of music work best for me and in that regard, Bitches Brew is matchless.
Music can either complement or work against any given travel experience. The most commonplace travel, the daily commute to work, for instance, calls for a very different music than the long, almost uninterrupted, travel that we have been doing for the past two months. For most of us, the daily commute has a definite beginning and end: you grab your bag and your keys, walk out the door, get in your car or on your bike and in a relatively short time, you are at work, wherever that might be. That sort of experience calls for short, brief bursts–like the three-minute pop song. Perhaps that’s why morning radio is so popular. The tunes have clear beginnings and endings, there is a great deal of repetition which is pleasing and doesn’t demand too much of your attention. The songs generally have a clear and consistent architecture–there are few surprises because you have, most likely, heard the tunes before or you are just so used to the format that everything sounds familiar.
There are also the proverbial ‘road songs’–communal sing-alongs that break up the monotony of cross-country travel. Last April we drove to Moab, Utah from Denver for our annual mountain bike trip with our good friends, the Shea-Davis family. Finnegan, the eldest Shea boy, and my two kids were in the back of the car–Sujata was shotgun and I was driving. It’s a long drive and by hour five, everyone was going crazy. The kids reverted to singing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” They got all the way down to 76 and were about to go to 75 before Sujata grabbed her Iphone and said with a grin, “I downloaded this for this exact moment–1970s Road Songs playlist from Spotify!” A few seconds later, the opening chords of “Born to Run” were blaring from the speakers, followed by “Tiny Dancer,” “Runnin’ on Empty” and “Sweet Talkin’ Woman.” Sujata and I smiled and sang as loud as we could, rendering the children silent.
The three-minute pop/road song, though, does not work for long distance, foreign travel where outside interruptions can serve to complement and even enhance the music and, in the same way, the music can enhance the world outside of it.
This is especially the case with Bitches Brew, an album that both challenges our received ideas of music and also fits into the expectations of what music is, or should be. It doesn’t really have a structure–musical ideas float freely through the entire album. It’s hard to pick up melodies, the emotional calibration moves from dark and ominous to jubilant and joyful. It’s avant garde and experimental at the same time it has a recognizable groove. There are strange musical sounds (Benny Maupin’s weirdly beautiful bass clarinet, for instance) coupled with moments that sound familiar–halfway through the title track, for instance, Miles vamps the melody of Blood, Sweat and Tears’ pop hit, “Spinning Wheel.” Some people call it electric jazz or fusion jazz. Others call it funk. Some call it unlistenable and others call it genius.
Miles assembled a veritable army of players to conjure the uncanny tunes on the album. On any given piece on the double album you can hear two guitars, three electric keyboards, three drummers, a bass clarinet, a bass guitar and, of course, Miles’ trumpet. What’s amazing is that the players never trip and fall over each other–it’s a kind of ideal musical democracy where people are listening to each other, playing off each other, imitating each other’s ideas and making up their own.
There are all kinds of surprising delights listening to Bitches Brew as I’m moving through Japan. I do not like to use noise-cancelling headphones when I’m listening to music as I’m traveling. Instead, I prefer the classic white Apple earbuds–they let in ambient and direct noise from the world so the interplay between the music and the noise of the streets, trains and planes all comes together in an aural stew. Plus, I can hear Sujata or the kids if they are yelling to me, “Hey, come on–the train is leaving!” Or, “Come up, get up, it’s time to go!” Otherwise, I’d probably be sitting on this train long after they departed.
Every once in a while, on the train to Hiroshima, the train’s PA system plays an eight-note melody that begins with an octave jump, a return to the octave, a quick move up to the perfect fifth, a chromatic progression back to the octave and then about halfway up toward the perfect fifth again. It’s a simple tune that you could easily miss if you weren’t listening for it. Sometimes, though, when that little number comes on the PA, it gets mashed up with Chick Corea’s keyboards–sometimes the two work against each other and other times, it almost sounds like the music on the PA is a part of the music in my ear.
If you listen closely to Bitches Brew you can sometimes hear Miles whispering directions to the players. “Hey Jim,” “Keep it up,” and “John,” as well as some inaudible declarations are peppered throughout the album. These bits of voice are pretty common on many of Miles’ records–there’s a famous moment on Miles’ 1955-56 Prestige recordings where John Coltrane asks for a beer opener at the end of one of the tune. They have a particularly wonderful effect, though, when I’m walking down the street listening to the music and Miles’ voice gets mixed in and wrapped up with the conversations of passersby or people chatting on a train–it’s like he’s joined the conversation.
I think, though, that Bitches Brew works best when I am walking. Within the first minute of the album, the band picks up a sound that just lurches you forward. It’s not really an easy album to listen to when you are sitting down. Part of this is the rhythm section–the two drums kits kick out ancient and exciting rhythms. The long pedaled bass lines hold up the short melodic bursts and scale runs from the guitars and horns. Everything is constantly moving–even in the quiet moments as the musicians gather themselves together to make another run, you feel like you are being pushed from behind–sometimes gently and other times with the force of a will more powerful than your own.
Part of the reason Bitches Brew works so well in this kind of travel environment has to do with the way that Miles and producer Teo Macero put the album together.
The entire album was recorded over the course of three days and rather than rehearsing pieces from the album and then recording them over and over until they got a good take (the more traditional way of recording music in the 1960s and 1970s), Miles and Macero just left the tapes running the whole time the musicians were in the studio. The musicians sat in a circle, facing each other, and Miles would walk around encouraging them, one by one, to create new ideas, hold on to what they were doing or move on to something else. When the sessions were complete, Macero started splicing the tapes together, basically organizing the album by cutting and splicing the tape together. This gives the whole album a kind of unsettled feeling–sometimes you can actually hear the drop outs where Macero made the edits.
In this regard, then, Bitches Brew is a lot like the life many of us lead everyday–conversations start and then end, the floor boards creak as you walk across the room, tire wheels whistle by as you stand on the street corner, rain beats on your umbrella, friends shout greetings to each other across a crowded room, children cry from third-story windows, cars honk greetings and warnings, crickets chirp as in the evening, water runs in the next room and beds groan as they accept our tired bodies.