Band in My Head

How Mojo, Bitches Brew, and Butch Morris inspired a funktional African American family unit

Toni Morrison and Samuel Delany both say they write novels they'd like to read but cannot find. In humbler moments I imagine Burnt Sugar my self-pleasuring answer to the void. I invented a band I wanted to hear but could not find. Three guitars two drummers two basses a flute one trumpet one alto two cellos one violin three singers acoustic piano synths turntables triangles laptops optional and a partridge family in a pear tree. Five years later this band still follows the teachings of Shelley Manne: never play anything the same way once.

Blame the Mojo feature where they ask famous folk their favorite shower song and favorite album of all time. Ike Turner and Bootsy Collins both answered Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, as did BS guitarist emeritus Morgan Craft. Three of the funkiest brothers in the world need to hear they can go their own way, go figure. So I popped the question to myself. Self said, Bitches Brew. That was some surprise, because Bitches Brew is not an album that hits you in the heart or the gut so much as the tripping head. More than merely longplaying, Bitches' two discs form an epic petri dish, as revealing in jazz terms as two drops of the primordial soup for an organic chemist. A mutation is being born of human genes, and 35 years later you can drown in her amniotic sauce.

Instrumentation is key to the freakish nature of the organism—multiple drummers, multiple electric keyboards, multiple horns, multiple basses, notably the acoustic one plucked by David Holland and the electric one operated by Harvey Brooks. The chopping of wood heard against the pounding of iron and leather. Shango and Ogun working side by side, what a concept. For this reason, Bitches Brew, unlike any of the Miles albums that followed, does not provoke or even propose the end of jazz as we know it. I've been told Wynton Marsalis once refused to book George Russell's big band because Russell used an electric bass. You want to smack him but you get it. The upright is to the trad jazz sound as the 808 is to hiphop—the steady heartbeat of the thing. The electric keyboards are what make Bitches sound like late impressionism though, like what Delany calls the motion of light in water. Branford Marsalis once spoke of putting together an electric band modeled after early Weather Report—upright bass, drums, Fender Rhodes, him, and DJ Premier. If B had made that record instead of Buckshot Le Fonque, I probably wouldn't be preaching here today.

Burnt Sugar: Cats like us
photo: Shiho Fukada
Burnt Sugar: Cats like us


The Village Voice Jazz Supplement: Crossing Over Everywhere

  • Crossover Realities
    Seeking ways to get heard and to grow, and more often succeeding at the latter
    by Larry Blumenfeld

  • Fleishedik and Milchedik
    Jazzing the classics and classing the jazzers from Jelly Roll Morton to Uri Caine
    by Francis Davis

  • The Joan Baez of Jazz
    A great tradition strives to keep itself young by discovering its inner Melissa Manchester
    by Tom Smucker

  • Darn That Dream
    Major tie-up on the one-way street from jazz to jam
    by Martin Johnson

  • Summer Jazz 2004
  • We know now that Bitches Brew was also conducted into being. Hacked out of orchestral improvisational fits and starts by Miles, who revised as he went along. We also know the degree to which those puzzle pieces were recombinated. Spliced and subjected to looping in Teo Macero's lab and to such a RZA-sharp degree that no less an authority than Joe Zawinul, who hated the thing after the session, was so startled by the test-tube version he didn't even recognize his own creation. Affirming Miles's stated belief that the only way you get anything new to happen in music is by making the best musicians around play beyond what they know. Throw away all their safety nets, including their deadly good taste.

    Miles and Teo's conducted-improvisation process and cut-up procedures were novel in popular music at the time and remain novel in jazz today. Their approach is partly why Bitches evokes the bubble and babble of the human mind. Not like your typical avant-garde music for musicians, more like a novel, with an inner voice as legible as its barefaced narrative one. In this respect Bitches brings to mind other superb musical interior monologues of our time, from the Stones' Exile on Main Street to Meshell's Bitter. Studio constructs that emanate Consciousness and leave the impression that the music will be examining its own thoughts and feelings long after we've stopped listening.

    If Bitches is the mother of Burnt Sugar, Butch Morris is the pater. Point blank, I think Butch's conduction system is the only way African American improv is going find a way out of its cul-de-sac. I specify African American because I is one of dem, so I care, and because the jazz being produced by African American musicians under 45 is genteel and anemic compared to that by sexagenarians, septuagenarians, and octogenarians Ornette, Cecil, Wayne, Herbie, Bill Dixon, and Sam Rivers. Entropy is what it is. The Second Law of Thermodynamics. The radical conservation of energy inexorably leading to heat-death. In market terms it would be called risk aversion. The risk of being perceived as Ignant. A fear obviously nonexistent in our beloved hiphop, the sine non qua of Ignant Black creativity in our time. Brother Wynton and Uncle Stanley are merely symptomatic of the sense among us middle-class African Americans that our days of rage are done. That the system can be made to work in post-'70s America for those of us who are not several generations deep and still stuck in poverty, public assistance, the PJ's, public education, and the prison industrial complex. Hiphop's reality check, in other words, if not hiphop's real demographic, the silent milky majority in the 'burbs.

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