(Credit: Wikimedia)

The Cover Uncovered: The story behind Miles Davis’ album cover for ‘Bitches Brew’ by Malti Klarwein

Art does not exist in isolation; it never has. It draws influence from things before it, or around it. Similarly, art influences art and the influence does not restrict itself to the artistic creation of its own kind. For example, if we think about what influences a particular piece of music, it’s hardly ever just other pieces of music. That specific piece of music can be affected by paintings, by theatre, by literature and so on. And what is beautiful to witness is when all of these different kinds of arts come together to create a collaboration of all the different elements.

For instance, let’s take into account the type of collaboration that takes place in the music industry, especially in popular culture. When a musician releases an album, it’s not just about the music. Of course, the main focus is on the music itself, but there are also little added extras that go into the process of producing a complete project. There are the lyrics which, if not wholly, at least partly, has elements from the literary tradition. We have the melody, the music. We have the ever-evolving technology that works in its own way and, once the record is ready, it’s put inside a case. Now all that is needed is a cover, and that’s where photography, painting, graphic designing and more come into the process. Once the album and the singles are released, it’s time for the music video. Directors, actors, dancers, camera operators, light and sound technicians and so many other artists are involved in completing and enhancing that single piece of music.

With that, let’s take a more in-depth look at the cover art for Miles Davis’ 1970 album Bitches Brew. Davis, famously, a pioneering American jazz trumpeter who changed the musical landscape. He was one of the most influential figures in the history of jazz and 20th-century music. Davies incorporated a variety of stylistic developments to the conventional form of jazz, experimenting with and including styles from different genres into jazz music.

Bitches Brew was Miles’ studio double album released on 30th March 1970. Miles experimented with a number of electric instruments on this album, departing from the traditional jazz rhythm and adding electric piano and guitar to make a rock-influenced soundscape. Even though the album received mixed reactions upon first release, eventually it started to claim recognition, topping charts, winning awards and making it Davis’ first gold album certified by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). 

The artist behind the album cover for Bitches Brew was a French surrealist painter of German origin named Malti Klarwein. Klarwein was known for his vivid and colourful style of painting, consisting of popular psychedelic imagery, and on themes of religion, race and sexuality. For the cover of this particular album, Klarwein used a technique known as ‘Mischtechnik’, which was a method of layering tempera and oil paints to create a bright, realistic painting.

The album cover featured an interweaving of multiple figures and components. It was a fusion of the dark and the light, the relationship between nature and humans, and certainly an amalgamation of cultures. Klarwein said in an interview, “While it’s easy to see how the cover might represent dichotomies, it is really more about tandems and shared experiences, coupled with the acknowledgement that individual perspectives can create an otherworldly experience.”

The album cover resonated with the music on the album itself; both set in a backdrop of fusion, inclusion and representation. Both the album as well as its cover showed how apparently heterogeneous elements could also be places in a way that it creates harmony, rather than chaos. A befitting cover art of a unique and diversified music album.

To end on a note of influence, and how arts influence other arts, Klarwein’s son once spoke on where his father got the inspiration for his paintings from. He said, “He would listen to it constantly – in the studio, the kitchen, in his car. Music was very much part of the family environment. It was African music, Spanish flamenco, classical, afrobeat, jazz, sometimes maybe some rap or hip-hop or drum and bass. People would send him cassettes from all over the world, and he would play them religiously. In his studio up in the mountains, there is a small music library, almost an entire record store. His big love was Afro-Cuban music, and I guess it’s that fusing of different cultures that made him so particular.”

Needless to say, Miles Davis was more than satisfied to see his album concept being manifested and carried forward by Klarwein’s artistic rendition of the musicality expressed in Bitches Brew. 

(Credit: Wikimedia)
Subscribe to our newsletter
Delivering curated content