On a Perfect Album Cover

It was late at night when I finally left my mother. I spilled out, eyes closed but my new body exposed to light like raw film. My eyes eventually opened without will. I saw light and became confused and scared. Then I saw my mother.

Seventeen years later, I’m laying in my bedroom. I switch on Bitches Brew; I just got the CD from a library. I see it’s over and hour and a half long so I turn off the lights and close my eyes. Throughout the journey I’m confused, shocked, pleased, disgusted; sometimes I feel nothing.

I wake up to no light.

I feel a more intense confusion and scramble for my lamp. As the light fills my room the first thing I notice is the cover. It has no answers to what I just listened to. It doesn’t comfort me.

But it’s not auxiliary. It feels important, like a limb or tendon. It makes me stare longer and longer. I feel uncomfortably sober in the light. It seems Jesus Christ has visited me and bestowed me with the shroud of Turin. Now what? Should I advertise it as a believer and spread His word? Keep it for myself? I visited a strange, spiritual place but left with no answers. My only souvenir was this album cover.

miles-davis-trumpet

Miles Davis recorded Bitches Brew over three August days in 1969 and released it in 1970. By all accounts, it’s a hard listen. Davis practically throws his trumpet out of the window, recording its crash on the pavement, for 90 minutes. It’s not fun and it’s not smooth. It’s not even perfect, yet it’s the Miles Davis record that had the most influence on me, even beyond being a music listener.

1969’s In a Silent Way  is the foundation that enabled Davis to construct this monolithic experimental jazz album before he elects to blow it up by the end of the record. In a Silent Way, Davis initiated his “Electric Miles” period. He met Jimi Hendrix and George Clinton, started using electric instruments and ventured ambitiously into rock and funk.

But Bitches Brew  changed everything. He packed his rhythm section to the brim. Keyboards sing, percussion snaps and basses moan all at once. Songs, if you’re comfortable with such a traditional noun to describe something so passionately iconoclastic, last for 25 minutes. If you really dedicate yourself to it, listening to Bitches Brew can be religious.

mati-klarwein

It makes sense then that such a revolutionary album is accompanied by a mesmerizing art piece for its cover. Davis commissioned legendary album cover artist Mati Klarwein to design the cover of Bitches Brew. Klarwein was already an established artist in the 1960s, both in painting musical albums as well as creating more traditional pieces. But Davis was the biggest name he’d worked for. His work on Bitches Brew and Davis’s subsequent album Live-Evil cemented his status as the premier album cover designer.

The most immediate impression when looking at the gatefold of Bitches Brew is contrast. The left side dark, right side light. It’s at once a symbol of where Davis has been and where he’s going as an artist (further captured in the face looking back and ahead) and the music found on the record. At points on the album, the only audible sound is the dying hum of a keyboard note resonating too long, a sonic netherworld of disquiet and silence. Suddenly, Davis shouts into his trumpet; you’re jolted awake, remembering where you are and where you came from but not aware of where you’ll be taken next.

The right side is dominated by blues (a possible connection with Davis’s monumental Kind of Blue): the overwhelming lightness of the sky and the flowing ocean sprawling before two figures. It fits that Klarwein includes water on the cover, considering this is such a sea change of an album. But the rushing water also represents sex: a dominating motif in funk and Davis’s own music. The two figures are naked and embracing, alone on the shore of a grand and expansive body of water. Davis tried to make this album uncharacteristically unsexy, but the last two tracks, “Miles Brings the Voodoo Down” and “Sanctuary,” while fitting in with the experimental nature of the rest of the album, contain moments of sensuality, intimacy, even playfulness.

sun-ra-arkestra

The left side of the fold is a possible homage to the cosmic philosophy of Sun Ra and his Arkestra, fellow experimental jazz authors. Davis looked to emulate them both in size and composition on Bitches Brew, giving listeners a figurative rocket ship to a new realm of extra-planetary consciousness.

There’s also no denying the influence black and African-American culture had on both Davis’s music on the record and on the cover. He chose to include elements of blues,jazz, rock and funk, all genres pioneered and popularized by black artists.  Davis admitted that some of the most prominent black artists and groups at the time, like Sly and the Family Stone, Hendrix and Parliament Funkadelic, influenced him during the recording of Bitches Brew. The cover features black figures exclusively. The allusion of dark vs. light is as much a visual concept as it is a racial one on the gatefold. This album wasn’t conceived in a political vacuum either. The  Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act were only four and five years old, respectively, when Davis recorded the album, which only represented change in the political sphere of civil rights.

meditative-rose

Other images on the gatefold are purely aesthetic. The lower central image of the flower visually resembles Salvador Dali’s “Meditative Rose.” Klarwein’s work was heavily influenced by the Spanish artist. When the two met for the first time in 1961, Klarwein called him his “spiritual father.” Davis’s work on Bitches Brew is stylistically surreal, like Dali’s painting. The two became mavericks of their respective mediums, innovating constantly and without compromise.

At its most primal level, though, Davis’s music, especially on Bitches Brew, concentrates on rebirth. The musician and his creations were in a constant flux, feeding off of their creative inertia . Almost every five years he reinvented himself, and in the process reinvented jazz. The cover is a perfect reflection of this process. The Janus-like head in the center of the gatefold appears to be in transition: caught between the vivid fluidity of the concrete world and the mystic space-scape of the spiritual world. It has access to both; similarly, this music has the ability to take you places from another dimension. Like being born over and over again each listen, you come out different, confused, unsure of light or its absence or what world you’re in. You’re not sure why it matters, if it matters, if you matter. When your eyes finally function again, you look left and right, either blinded by the overwhelming darkness or the blurring light. You reach for answers, but Miles Davis and Mati Klarwein hand you this album cover instead. It offers no respite. It’s confounding and disorienting. But you grab onto it, stare at it, preach it, listen again, and know you’re somehow different.

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