The Rite of Bitches Brew: Miles Davis’s BB in light of Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre

I was introduced to Bitches Brew and Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (“The Rite of Spring”) around the same time, at the same place–at my rabbi’s house. People are surprised when they hear this, but Chaim Stern was one musically and culturally forward-thinking rabbi, and his older son, a guitarist/composer and I played together in a rock band. I sometimes find myself conflating these two musical works. This might have happened because of the juxtaposition in time and place, but the chance experience allowed me to hear some striking resonances.

First there’s the sound of the bass clarinet. Bennie Maupin’s evocative, serpentine lines on this low register instrument are part of what gives Pharaoh’s Dance its distinctive flavor. Often used in orchestral music for textural and sonic contrast and spice, Maupin heard Eric Dolphy playing it as a solo instrument in John Coltrane’s band when ‘Trane came to Detroit, Maupin’s hometown. Bennie Maupin began playing the instrument in 1965-1966 and “was working on it all the time.” Although he saw himself as a saxophonist, he was playing bass clarinet with McCoy Tyner at Slugs in New York’s East Village, when Miles Davis came in to listen to the band. Maupin recalls: “I never did play the saxophone with Miles, only bass clarinet. That was probably one of the greatest things that could have happened to me because what it did for me was set me apart from all the other saxophone players. A lot of people don’t even think of me as a saxophone player, they think about the bass clarinet.[1]

While it is the opening lyrical bassoon passage and the heavily—and asymmetrically–accented strings that Le Sacre calls to mind for most, for me the distinguishing feature was the bass clarinet. The bassoon is what we first hear, as the voice intoning the haunting, opening Armenian folk melody. Eventually a flute picks up the tune and the ensemble becomes multilayered. Melodic variants are tossed between instruments and send it back to the bassoon. The clarinet subtly plays a repeated note figure, and this becomes the grist for that sound – the gravel-like timbre of the bass clarinet, which borrows the clarinet’s stuttered notes, out of which sweep ornamental flourishes, up and down. The bass clarinet returns moments later, its line spiraling melodically downward to cut short a march-like four-note ostinato played by pizzicato strings, right before the first appearance of the heavily accented rhythmic, pulsing motif.

Before either of these musical events, another passage intervenes. Two different textures alternate, back and forth almost like a call and response pattern. One is thinner—fewer things happening at once (and the oboe is prominent)–and the other has a higher density of musical events. The more densely packed moments are where I noticed that Le Sacre, like Bitches Brew, had a “brew” of its own. By this I mean a passage where various instruments are layered, each playing its own line, interweaving or simply juxtaposed with the others. The texture is transparent, so that each individual instrument can be heard with clarity, yet what matters most is the overall sound of the ensemble. And isn’t this exactly a defining feature of Pharaoh’s Dance, most notably its multilayered electric pianos, but also the two basses, and multiple-percussion. All together, they create a distinct but ever-changing overall sound.[2]

The suggestion that Miles Davis or Teo Macero might have been influenced by Le Sacre isn’t all that wild. During his brief period of study at The Julliard School of Music, Davis became acquainted with the work of Stravinsky, Berg, and Prokofiev. In his autobiography he noted: “I wanted to see what was going on in all of music.”[3] Might he have explored this particular score? When in his Autobiography, Davis observes: “I had been experimenting with writing a few simple chord changes for three pianos. Simple shit, and it was funny because I used to think when I was doing them how Stravinsky went back to simple forms,” The reference “went back to simple forms” seems to refer to Stravinsky’s neo-Classical works. In works from the 1920s, Les Noces, L’histoire du Soldat, Duo Concertante, and others, Stravinsky treated short motifs as building blocks. However, Le Sacre also reflects a process of repeating and expanding small bits of melodic or rhythmic material.

Stravinsky’s Le Sacre has certainly captivated other jazz musicians. Only two years after Bitches Brew was recorded, flutist Hubert Laws crafted his own nine-minute interpretation.[4] Others, most recently, The Bad Plus, conductor Butch Morris’s The Rites (with Burnt Sugar and Pete Cosey), and the Mobtown Modern Big Band,[5] have done so on a larger scale. Certainly, while Stravinsky himself showed an interest in jazz during the 1940s, as well as with, ragtime only five years after completing Le Sacre, the early date of the rhythmically driven Le Sacre could not have reflected a relationship with jazz.[6] Pianist Ethan Iverson has noted its “earthy groove.”[7] If Miles Davis might have found inspiration in Le Sacre while composing “Bitches Brew,” the connection would likely have been its textures and sonic palate, not its syncopated rhythms and polyrhythms.

 

Notes

[1] Butters, Rex. 2006. “Bennie Maupin: Miles Beyond.” All About Jazz, September 12. http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=22723. Accessed July 9, 2013.

[2] There is another “Brew” moment in Le Sacre, at the opening of Part Two, where a dense haze of interlocking phrases in the strings and high woodwinds emerges, out of which a melody flows. This melody will figure throughout the ensuing minutes. This second “Brew” differentiates itself because of the intended lack of clarity. It is an effect akin to looking at a flower garden through a strip of gauze.

[3] Davis, Miles with Troupe, Quincy. Miles: The Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990, 61.

[4] Hubert Laws 1971.

[5] For a discussion by the arranger see Brenzel, Darryl. 2010. “More 2nd Clarinet, Please,” Stravinsky For Jazz Ensemble [Blog], Thursday, September 2. http://stravinskyforjazzensemble.blogspot.com. Accessed July 9, 2013; Bill T. Jones and theater director Ann Bogart utilize segments of this big band musical interpretation within their dance/theater work “A Rite.” See Macaulay, Alastair. 2013. “Bodies and Voices Riff on ‘Rite of Spring’: ‘A Rite’ Riffs on Stravinsky at Chapel Hill, N.C.,” January 27. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/28/arts/dance/a-rite-riffs-on-stravinsky-at-chapel-hill-nc.html?_r=0. Accessed July 9, 2013. Also see Iverson, Ethan 2011. “Mixed Meter Mysterium,” A Blog Supreme. March 21. http://dothemath.typepad.com/dtm/mixed-meter-mysterium.html. Accessed July 9, 2013. For a more general discussion, see Jarenwattananon, Patrick. 2013. “Why Jazz Musicians Love ‘The Rite Of Spring,’” National Public Radio blog, May 26. http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/05/26/186486269/why-jazz-musicians-love-the-rite-of-spring. Accessed July 9, 2013.

[6] While Stravinsky’s melodic and harmonic conceptions have been closely scrutinized in depth by Richard Taruskin and others, the same has not been done for his rhythmic ideas. Taruskin 1996. Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works Through Mavra, Volume I. Berkeley: University of California Press, 881-966.

[7] ibid.

 

Discography

The Bad Plus. 2014. The Rite of Spring. Sony, audio compact disc.

Brenzel, Darryl. 2012. “The Re-(w)Rite of Spring,” performed by the Mobtown Modern Big Band. Innova Records, audio compact disc.

Davis, Miles. (1970) 2010. Bitches Brew. [Columbia Records] Sony Legacy, audio compact disc.

Laws, Hubert. (1971) 2009. The Rite of Spring, CTI, audio compact disc.

Stravinsky, Igor. 1995. Petrushka, Rite of Spring (Le Sacre de Printemps). Pierre Boulez (conductor), Cleveland Orchestra, and New York Philharmonic. Sony, audio compact disc.

 

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~ by bobgluck on September 3, 2014.

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