Jazz CD Reviews
MILES DAVIS – The Complete On The Corner Sessions, 6-CD box set – Columbia/Legacy
Published on August 29, 2007
(Selected artists include: Miles Davis, trumpet; Wallie Chambers, harmonica; Cornell Dupree, guitar; Michael Henderson, electric bass; Al Foster, drums; Bernard Purdie, drums; Mtume, congas; Dave Liebman, soprano sax; Chick Corea, synthesizer; Herbie Hancock, electric piano; Harold Ivory Williams, organ; John McLaughlin, guitar; Colin Walcott, electric sitar; Badal Roy, tablas; Billy Hart, percussion; Bennie Maupin, bass clarinet, flute; Lonnie Liston Smith, electric piano. Teo Macero was the Producer.)
On The Corner is not an easy album to listen to. Take your ears away from its relentless, hard-edged grooves for just a second and when they return, you’ll be assaulted by sounds you never knew you wanted to hear in the first place. That’s not to say the album isn’t good—it’s just a highly acquired taste. It’s too diffuse to be truly funky and too jazzy to be acid rock, and yet both those genres definitely inform the album. In crude (and slightly silly) terms, On the Corner is the evil bearded twin of Miles’ earlier electric albums like Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way.
With the release of the complete On The Corner sessions, we get a peek inside not only the process of recording the album, but also the myriad stylistic twists and turns that would end up on later albums. Much of the stranger, spacier material of the On the Corner sessions ended up on albums like Big Fun and Get Up With It.
On Disc 1, On the Corner, take 4, features a low, low bubbling bass line and dirty-sounding wah-wah lead, along with electric sitar from Colin Walcott and tablas played by Badal Roy. While funky in theory, the song sounds more like a bad trip, all overstimulation and nausea (not that I would know..). Compared to the version that made the album, take 4 is less in your face and more all up in your head space. Jabali, from the same disc, is again anchored by a deep bassline and tablas. Electric piano floats above the rhythm while Miles plays a broken and despairing trumpet line that veers between pathetic and panicked. At one point, Bennie Maupin plays a low note on his bass clarinet that sounds like a reedy demon tormenting Miles’ skittish trumpet.
Disc 2 features Ife, from the album Big Fun, and a track new to my ears. The song has a choppy rhythm similar to the motoric groove used by Krautrock bands like Can and Neu! Davis’ horn sounds like a whining alley cat begging for food or just some company. Electric piano and synthesizers appears in breathes, exhaling on the upbeat. The song Chieftain too is choppy, but lacks the spacey melodicism of Ife, instead featuring a raga groove of sitars and tablas and a trumpet line that sounds like an air siren. The song sounds like one of the final On the Corner tracks, but with much more space.
Disc 3’s The Hen has a guitar so fuzzy that it’s hard to tell one chord from the next and double-time drumming that plays quite well with a triple time bass line that might have disrupted the Richter scale at the time of its recording. Though the readers of this site may not be familiar with it, there is a genre of electronic music popular in England called dubstep that features heavy, heavy basslines, big reverb, and slow, spacey grooves – a definition that fits The Hen quite well. Prophetic? Perhaps, but the song also features screeching hard bop trumpet work from Davis that reins in the subterranean groove. Big Fun/Holly-wuud starts heavy on the cymbals, moving into a dusty, scratching sounding funk song unafraid to sound a little ragged at the edges.
Two songs from Get Up With It are featured on Disc 4: Calypso Frelismo and He Loved Him Madly. The former has a jaunty, calypso melody interweaving with various dissonant elements, including a wah-wah guitar that is as persistent as the sound of helicopter propellers. The latter is a slow burn of a song (over thirty minutes long), driven by a funereal-sounding electric piano and subtle snare rolls, and it closely resembles the experimental B-side of a rock band, all ambience and drifting notes.
Disc 5 has more from Get Up With It, including Maiysha, which sounds like the score to a blaxploitation movie, especially with Sonny Fortune’s melancholy flute playing. Hip Skip, a previously unissued track, feels a little aimless, though Miles’ organ playing is wonderfully vocal and the two guitars are so processed they sound like video game sound effects.
Disc 6 contains almost all previously released material. Red China Blues, off Get Up With It, has a Delta blues vibe to it that’s not often found in Davis’ other work. Black Satin has a creepy whistling melody that dips in and out of the left and right channels and a mix of tablas and handclaps for percussion. Holly-wuud is a fiery space-funk song, its groove all forward motion.
While many have speculated that Davis took up fusion as a way to make his music more popular with a larger, more rock-oriented audience, the music found on the On the Corner Sessions reveal a musician most certainly engaged with the kind of music he’s chosen to play. Nothing here sounds like an artist adding electronic instruments to his standard jazz template; Davis was clearly excited by the possibilities of odd sounds, big grooves, and a cut-and-paste aesthetic. While it’s difficult to imagine fans of jazz proper enjoying Davis’ music from this period, those who appreciate experimentation, innovation, and the dogged pursuit of new sounds and moods will undoubtedly treasure this box set.
TrackList: On the Corner (unedited master), On the Corner (tk. 4), One and One (unedited master), Helen Butte/Mr. Freedom X, Jabali, Ife, Chieftain, Rated X, Turnaround, U-Turnaround, Billy Preston, The Hen, Big Fun/Holly-wuud (take 2), Big Fun/Holly-wudd (take 3), Peace, Mr. Foster, Calypso Frelismo, He Loved Him Madly, Maiysha, Mtume, Mtume (take 11), Hip Skip, What They Do, Minnie, Red China Blues, On the Corner/New York Girl/ Thinkin’ of One Thing and Doin’ Another/Vote for Miles. Black Satin, One and One, Helen Butte/Freedom X, Big Fun, Holly-wuud.
– Daniel Krow