The Complete On the Corner Sessions
#5 Boxed Set/Live Album/Music DVD for 2007
First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2007, Volume 14, #9
Written by John Metzger
Mon September 17, 2007, 06:00 AM CDT
Once Miles Davis invented fusion, he owned the genre. During the 1970s, other acts obtained greater access to the mainstream, but as they moved their music in directions that were either flamboyantly virtuosic (Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report) or decidedly commercial (Maynard Ferguson), their approaches generally lost touch with their art’s heart and soul. There’s little doubt that Davis was just as obsessed as his followers were with exploring the ways in which rock and world rhythms could be used to provide a new framework for jazz (and vice versa). Although his ego also was equally enormous, he nevertheless wasn’t so smitten with himself that his recordings became insular concoctions. Rather than being the primary impetus for his work, his self-pride fed and bolstered his confidence; without negatively impacting his output, it enhanced his creativity. Consequently, he never lost touch with the group-think mechanics that allowed his ensembles to live, breathe, and move in unison.
Between 1972 and 1975, Davis held 16 recording sessions with an alternating group of 27 musicians. The results spawned a trio of albums: On the Corner, Get Up with It, and the odds and sods set Big Fun. Not only did these efforts effectively sever his ties to old-school jazz critics and fans, but they also remain among the most challenging and controversial endeavors within Davis’ canon. Like a lot of his pursuits, On the Corner and its offshoots were far ahead of their time. Only in hindsight did they begin to receive the attention and adoration that they always have deserved. In that regard, The Complete On the Corner Sessions — the ninth and final chapter in a series of exquisitely packaged boxed sets that masterfully have examined Davis’ extraordinary career — is designed to provide insight into the trumpeter’s creative process, and much like The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions, which was issued in 2003, the comprehensive endeavor does its job better than anyone could have predicted.
Collectively, On the Corner, Get Up with It, and Big Fun signaled yet another twist in the path that Davis had paved since his transitional, post-bop trilogy of Water Babies, Miles in the Sky, and Filles de Kilimanjaro. While its contents maintain a certain level of connection to his early fusion projects (In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew) as well as to his blues and rock explorations on A Tribute to Jack Johnson, the entirety of The Complete On the Corner Sessions also finds Davis carrying his pursuits to yet another level. Here, the focus is placed entirely upon rhythm, and his further deconstruction of the role of melody results in an increased emphasis upon sounds, textures, and moods. The swirling currents of the faster cuts are designed to spur movement and dance, while on the slower fare — such as the seductive, churchly soul of Peace and the Eastern modality of He Loved Him Madly, a reverential ode to Duke Ellington — the percussive drive of the material creates a reflective and hypnotic aura that is sometimes spiritual and sometimes spooky. Tapping into the primal urgency of urban street corners, Davis loosely captured the basic essence of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, and he reshaped its transcendent force for a new generation.
All music — whether it is improvisational funk, jazz, blues, or pop — makes use of repetitive motifs. Davis merely distilled his rhythmic undercurrents down to their simplest forms. On all of the 31 tracks contained on The Complete On the Corner Sessions, he builds his complex arrangements upon a foundation that combines Michael Henderson’s short bass riffs with an array of circular drum patterns that simultaneously are played on congas, tablas, wood blocks, and cowbells as well as on a standard trap set. The effect that is created is a rolling sense of movement, like the crashing of waves against the shore, and the currents that result from each iteration serve to propel the music forward in an irresistible and compelling fashion.
Even among the rest of Davis’ ensemble — the keyboard players, guitarists, saxophonists, clarinetists, flautists, and sitarists — it matters less as to who is playing which instrument or what actually is contributed; it’s more important how it all fits within the flow of the groove. The gravitational pull of the rhythm is too great to resist, and whenever the soloists stand in the spotlight, their outpourings contribute both color and texture to the never-ending rhythmic flow. They highlight the violent turbulence of modern society (What They Do) as much as they embrace the sultriness of soul (Maiysha). Yet, no matter what it is that the musicians do, they never are able to disrupt the flow of the music. It’s as if the tide has gained control over the various phases of the moon.
The sound of Dave Liebman’s saxophone darts through the intricate rhythms that drive the various takes of On the Corner, but by necessity his flights turn into gritty wails in order to compete with the mayhem of The Hen. At times, the music is harsh and unnerving. During One and One, for example, John McLaughlin bounces distorted shards of guitar against the aqueous presence of Herbie Hancock’s electric piano, while Davis and Cedric Lawson slather Rated X and Billy Preston, respectively, with abrasive assaults of dissonant organ. Elsewhere, guitarist Reggie Lucas sends metallic shrapnel flying through The Hen, while Pete Cosey’s winding, live-wire leads snake through Big Fun/Holly-wuud (Take 3). Davis frequently lays low, reveling in the sonic waves concocted by his band. When he does join the fray, the sounds that emanate from his trumpet often assume the sonic properties of bent, misshapen guitar tones. This is particularly apparent on Red China Blues, the earliest and most straightforward piece on The Complete On the Corner Sessions. It’s this track that connects On the Corner to A Tribute to Jack Johnson and, hence, to the rest of his canon. In that sense, On the Corner is just another variation on the blues-oriented themes that reside at the very core of jazz.
Nevertheless, while all of the material that Miles Davis recorded between March 1972 and May 1975 sprang from the same electro-funk space, there’s nothing quite like the quartet of heavily edited tracks that composed the album for which The Complete On the Corner Sessions takes its cue. Based upon musical scores that were created with the help of Paul Buckmaster, the full-length versions of One and One, Helen Butte/Mr. Freedom X, and the title track that appear on the first disc of the set undeniably are groundbreaking wonders in their own right. Yet, the final versions — which are presented in their proper sequence near the end of the collection — paint a portrait that is entirely different.
Thanks to Teo Macero’s innovative and manipulative production techniques, On the Corner was enveloped in an aura that remains as disorienting and otherworldly as it was when it initially was released. Between the churning, looping rhythms and the sounds that pan from left to right and back again, Davis’ compositions collectively exude an orchestrated air that is as gritty as it is sophisticated. At first glance, the distance that lies between On the Corner and Ellington’s Masterpieces seems to be almost unfathomable to consider and as impossible to traverse. Yet, upon closer examination, both efforts are the creations of artists with broad visions, ones that also reflect the totality of the eras in which they were created.
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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