A Chat With Fearless Improviser Harvey Brooks.
By Dave McElfresh
MARCH 8, 1999: TUCSON RESIDENT/BASSIST Harvey Brooks is a fearless improviser, having played on two of the most significant--and intimidatingly unstructured--albums to come out of the '60s. His 1965 Highway 61 sessions with Bob Dylan and 1969 Bitches Brew sessions with Miles Davis are both notable in their lack of direction, yet resulted in two outstanding albums that will still be praised a century from now as genre classics.
Unlike the Nazi-like discipline and slickness behind the production of current music releases, Brooks recalls an era when loose, exploratory hippie values frequently struck gold. Brooks remembers that, while waiting for Dylan to show, Mike Bloomfield's stunning guitar noodling led Al Kooper, who sneaked into the session, to shelve his axe and move to the organ--an awkward moment that resulted in one of the most identifiable opening keyboard riffs in rock history. "Kooper created that organ sound out of ignorance," Brooks remembers. "Basically, there was no musical direction during the sessions. You just played the song, you made your best impression. As long as something didn't get in Dylan's way."
Bloomfield was impressed with Brooks' input on the Dylan session and recruited the bassist for Electric Flag, one of the first bands to meld rock, blues and jazz. "Bloomfield introduced me to keyboardist Barry Goldberg. And through him they asked me to join. After I had played with Electric Flag, I got to know the people at Columbia Records. Teo Macero, Miles' producer, had an office right next to mine.
"Teo and I got to chew the fat a lot. Miles was doing a demo for his wife, Betty, so Teo told me that Miles was doing this session and that he would like to try an electric bass, and I was asked to come down. Mitch Mitchell from Hendrix's band was playing drums, and there was Herbie Hancock and I think Joe Zawinul, Larry Young and John McLaughlin. And after that session, Miles asked me to play bass on another session, which was thrilling. I had jazz influences but I never was a jazz player, but he said, just do your thing."
Davis' interest in incorporating rock influences made Brooks an obvious choice. The trumpeter's notoriety for winging it was soon obvious to Brooks. "The only rehearsal I had with Miles was at his house, and we played for about five minutes, then we watched Jack Johnson boxing films the rest of the time."
In the studio, Davis used a very basic technique, giving the players a minimal amount of information. He'd just count it off and say, "go," recalls Brooks. "I don't remember which tune it was, but on one of them he said he wanted a C seventh sound. There must have been 15, 16 musicians in the studio, and he'd just point someone in, and point someone out. He used the musicians like paints on a canvas. And if he found a little slot he liked, he'd go in and play a few notes."
Though structure was lacking, Davis was still very much in charge. "He put it right in your face," says Brooks. "There wasn't a lot to think about. If you weren't with him, you were gone. He knew what he wanted, and you didn't have to know." Brooks refers to the players' status as being that of "soldiers." "There were no games going on among the players. Miles was directing, and everybody else was just giving out, searching, and some could react better than others. It was a matter of what was your level of hearing, understanding; an ability to absorb and instinctually react."
In spite of the loosely directed proceedings, Bitches Brew stands as the most significant album to first fuse jazz with rock. Recently, the Columbia/Legacy label has reissued a four-CD box of the studio sessions, Miles Davis: The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions, edited into what became the two-CD Bitches Brew release of 1970.
But most Bitches Brew fans are oblivious to the fact that producer Teo Macero played a tremendous role in shaping the best-selling fusion album. Macero, who manned the boards during Davis' studio jaunts, was left to splice the trumpeter's jam sessions into compositions that would fit on the limited length of album sides, resulting in exquisite cut-and-paste efforts paring down most of what Davis, who erratically slipped in and out of the studio, conjured up during this period.
"But Bitches Brew was Miles' album," Brooks reminds us, "so you can rest assured there were some conflicts with Macero. But I think it turned out great, and they got what they went after. On the box set you're hearing the raw stuff, where the ideas came from. And a lot of it you won't recognize from the album because much of it was created by looping certain sections."
Brooks believes that Macero remains an underrated figure who heavily influenced Davis' career.
"Yeah, he's definitely not well known, probably because he's not a guy who stepped out front. In fact, he wasn't happy about this reissue. I won't put words in his mouth, but I imagine it's because, why undo what is? But personally I find the reissue very interesting. I think that of all the many, many recordings I've made, if you'd have put a lot of those back in their original context, they'd sound like dog shit. There's definitely a reason people edit."
Brooks has since found himself in less strenuous circumstances, preferring the calmer (and warmer) atmosphere of Arizona to what he experienced during his Dylan and Davis days. "My daughter was going to school in Santa Fe, and we drove her out with all her stuff and made a little vacation of it. We drove all over Arizona, visited the Grand Canyon, Sedona, and just got totally enthralled with Arizona. Also, we'd gotten tired of the winters back East."
Now a westerner, Brooks continues to play with intriguing music figures. "I've got a concert coming up at South By Southwest that's being negotiated with David Hildago from Los Lobos. I met David at a previous South By Southwest gig when I was playing with an amalgamation of people, including Elvis' original guitar player, Scotty Moore."
But Brooks and his family have settled into a far less intense schedule here in Tucson, the bassist admitting that he is free of the tension of his Dylan and Davis days. "I'm really just enjoying being here and doing things that are fun to do."
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