Miles Davis put together a multicultural band for the recordings captured in "On the Corner."
Jazz master Miles amazes with his funkyard friends
All good things must come to an end, they say, and so it is with Columbia's series of Miles Davis box sets. This last one, the ninth, covers studio recordings of 1972-75 and contains a wealth of previously unissued music.
"The Complete On the Corner Sessions"
Jazz fusion was still dangerous business in '72, before Weather Report, Return to Forever, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Herbie Hancock's "Headhunters" band -- all led by Davis alumni -- popularized the style. Of course, few courted danger -- in life and music -- like Miles Davis.
Even longtime fans who had stuck with him through his first jazz-rock efforts had trouble with "On the Corner." The problem? Funk -- a half-hour slab of it on each side.
From its cover art -- cartoon depictions of ghetto characters -- to its music, "On the Corner" was aimed at young African Americans, who ended up largely ignoring it. By now the marketing scheme matters not at all. The music has influenced such luminaries as Bill Laswell, the Beastie Boys and Carlos Santana, and funk, while still a four-letter word in some quarters, is pervasive in present-day pop as well as "contemporary jazz" (which is usually neither, but that's for another time).
THIS EDITION begins with the unedited master take of "On the Corner," and the first of the set's many surprises: that the music pretty much happened as it was issued. The shifting percussion textures, with Indian tabla drums not always in sync, appeared to bear producer Teo Macero's occasionally heavy hand; but no, these guys could seem out of whack on their own, thank you. Add three keyboards, congas, an electric sitar, Dave Liebman's snaking soprano sax, John McLaughlin's biting guitar and Davis' wah-wah trumpet, and you have one heady multicultural brew.
A previously unissued alternate take features a steaming groove perfect for club deejays and adventurous remixers.
Oddly, the "unedited master" of the track "One and One" bears no resemblance to the original LP cut, nor is the actual master's raw take included.
MUCH OF WHAT ensues relates to "Get Up With It," a two-record set mostly recorded in 1973 and '74. Among previously unissued gems are "Peace," a precursor to the breezy, tropical "Maiysha," "Turnaround," "U-Turnaround" and "What They Do," with elements that would show up later on the incendiary live album "Agharta," plus the R&B-ish "Minnie." There are also two takes of "Big Fun/Holly-wuud," which was an elusive 45 rpm single; bassist Michael Henderson is particularly creative here.
"Get Up With It" has a denser, more African sound than "On the Corner," mostly thanks to percussionist Mtume. Another crucial element is the guitar work, especially that of Pete Cosey, who seemed at the time to have taken up Jimi Hendrix's mantle but has kept a low profile since.
The album's two masterpieces are "He Loved Him Madly" and "Calypso Frelimo," each originally a 32-minute LP side assembled from several takes and presented here as issued, not in raw segments. The first is a dirge for Davis' one-time alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. Organ chords (by Miles, whose keyboard style completely broke away from the jazz norm), echoey guitar, pitter-pat congas and rat-a-tat snare drum set the solemn mood. Halfway through, Davis' trumpet finally appears, in a mournful, understated eulogy; it reappears much later in an inventive solo, Miles coming up with genuinely new things to say. This track is the sound of time standing still.
"Calypso Frelimo," though, is the sound of time hurtling forward. A frightfully intense rhythmic bed is occasionally leavened by a cheery organ riff, but darkness and mystery reign. Davis is reaching -- and hitting -- during his trumpet solo (overdubbed, but the liner notes do not say so). A slow, spacey section ensues with enveloping textures of organ and guitars. Davis switches to trumpet, and we get his most sustained soloing of the entire set so far, melodic and compelling in the classic Miles manner.
The tempo then picks up and it's a full-on guitar freak-out -- acid jazz for real -- leading to another major trumpet statement, with the band churning behind Davis' punching, harmonically skewed lines. It's an entrancing, exhausting auditory experience.
WHILE THE MUSIC in "The Complete On the Corner Sessions" has been vilified by hard-line jazz classicists, it has mostly stood the test of time well. Even with the funk, the congas, the electric guitars and all the wah-wah and echo, it is, after all, expressive collective improvisation, just like the old New Orleans music that got folks excited about jazz way, way back when.