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Miles Davis - The Complete On the Corner Sessions

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Artist: Miles Davis

Album: The Complete On the Corner Sessions

Label: Legacy

Review date: Nov. 15, 2007

Miles Davis’s On The Corner rates as one of the most strenuously rehabilitated albums in the history of popular music. Upon release in 1972 it was hated, reviled, and utterly rejected. When I went to college seven years later, $2 mint copies of On The Corner still clogged bins in used record stores, but now you can spend $120 on a six-CD Complete Sessions boxed set. How’d it get from there to here?

The conventional wisdom is that music caught up with Miles, and there’s some truth to it. One reason that On The Corner was greeted with such hostility was that it drew a line between Davis and his old jazz audience. Even though he’d already been incorporating contemporary rock and soul elements – such as distorted guitars, heavy electric bass lines, and increasingly prominent studio post-production – into his music for a few years, this record reshuffled the hierarchy of those elements so that pop was prioritized and the jazz he’d been playing since the ’40s went well down in the deck. The people who had loved Sketches of Spain, Kind Of Blue, and In A Silent Way were not necessarily ready for him to make a record inspired by both Karlheinz Stockhausen and Sly and the Family Stone, one that subordinated jazz-based solos and melodies played by an established front line to aggressively assertive, remorselessly repetitive funk rhythms played by a large electric ensemble. Both the garish album cover and the title declared that this record was for brothers on the street who might never have listened to a Miles Davis record before, and Miles made no bones about coveting that audience.

But if this was a sell-out, it was a pretty damned weird one and misguided to boot. While On The Corner appropriated funky beats, choppy electric guitars, and exotic Indian seasonings, it put them to decidedly non-pop ends. The young black audience he targeted did not want to hear 20-minute groove workouts scored with scorching guitar licks, sitar drones and unearthly electronic textures.

What sounded incomprehensible in 1972 makes a lot more sense to ears touched by techno and hip hop. When Sony reissued OTC in 2000, the record drew a much more sympathetic response. Now it is the final brick in Sony Legacy’s wall of boxed sets, which span 20 years of Miles’ working relationship with Columbia Records. Its six CDs include all of On The Corner and Get Up With It, as well as one side of Big Fun, the last studio records Davis made before he was sidelined by a half-decade of drugs and illness. They also include several long, unedited jams that were cut up to make On The Corner, and some outtakes from that session and several others between 1972 and 1974.

Although OTC was rather monochromatic, this box has a lot of variety. Miles was experimenting with funk the way he had with rock a few years earlier, and any genuine experimentation can lead to blind alleys and intriguing possibilities for further research. “Jabali,” from the first disc here, represents the vision of Paul Buckmaster, the cellist, arranger and Gil Evans-like collaborator during the original OTC sessions. It’s more laid-back and atmospheric, with Bennie Maupin’s bass clarinet and Herbie Hancock’s organ reaching out of the mix much more distinctly than anything on On The Corner. Miles took this production on the road via another tune recorded at the same time, “Ife,” which eventually turned up after OTC alongside some post-Bitches Brew sessions on the double LP Big Fun. Michael Henderson’s bass line was “Ife’s” spine, and players could play almost anything on top and it would make sense. This linear, open way of working contrasted drastically with the inter-locking guitars, keys, and drums from On The Corner.

Another out-take shows a road not taken at all. “Chieftain” uses ferocious, hacking rhythm dominated by Reggie Lucas’s guitar and Mtume’s exceedingly high-in-the-mix congas as a backdrop for a long, marvelously aggressive solo by Davis. Lucas and organ player Cedric Lawson put in their two cents near the end, but only manage to show the greatest weakness of Davis’ ’70s bands – the soloists weren’t up to either Miles’ standard or those of predecessors like Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. Some of the best music from this time threw out solos altogether. Miles doesn’t even play trumpet on “Rated X,” which was recorded two weeks later. Instead producer Teo Macero dropped his organ dub in and out of churn. Imagine Squarepusher with a sense of discipline (and keep in mind that it was recorded three years before Squarepusher’s Tom Jenkinson was born).

By the beginning of 1973, Miles quit using outside keyboardists and began playing them both onstage and in the studio; the thick drones introduced on “Rated X” carried on the Stockhausen vibe even as a growing crew of guitarists and drummers amped up the Sly and James Brown influences. This music eventually came out as the double LP Get Up With It, which was initially released only in Japan but is included in its entirety here. I don’t suppose it would make much business sense to call this the Complete Get Up With It Sessions, but parts of that record were even more audacious than On The Corner. Beside “Rated X” is “He Loved Him Madly,” a huge, brooding tribute to Duke Ellington that sounded nothing like big band music – more like the feeling you get when you realize that everyone who led you to this point in life is gone. Brian Eno has credited it as a formative influence on his ambient music, but it wasn’t until this decade that Loren Connors took up its challenge and started working with its actual sound world on his Departing Of A Dream albums. However, you also see the beginning of the end at hand in the former of “Red China Blues” and “Maiysha,” tunes that push much farther in a pop direction. Another previously unreleased nugget, “Minnie,” shows Davis toying with the melody of Minnie Ripperton’s smooch jam “Loving You”; the roots of his Cyndi Lauper-covering smoove jass phase start here.

But if anyone from jazz knew how to make an album, not just a record, it was Miles – and the atomized, temporally sequenced presentation of this box dilutes the impact of the original organization of the records. But how many people buy these things who haven’t already invested in the albums once or twice? No, box sets like these are meant to enhance records that already command your attention. If you’re already down with this phase of Miles’ career, put The Complete On the Corner Sessions on your Christmas list and hope that someone loves you.

By Bill Meyer

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