The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions
The Music Box's #3 specialty package for 2003
First Appeared at The Music Box, January 2004, Volume 11, #1
Written by John Metzger
The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions is the second Miles Davis-oriented box set to be released this year, and while on the surface it doesn’t appear to be as user-friendly as In Person: Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk, Complete, it’s an equally worthy offering that deserves exactly the type of treatment it now has received. Without question, its song cycle is at first quite daunting — 42 variations on only 16 themes are spread over the course of 5 discs — and superficially speaking, this isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Yet, within the collection’s 6 hours of material, Davis’ genius is placed uniquely within a rather extraordinary spotlight, and the talent of the amazing array of musicians around which he surrounded himself causes each tune to mutate rather dramatically from one take to the next. That’s not to say that there aren’t a few meandering moments — the prototypical blues-rock groove of Johnnie Bratton or the sprightly amusement of Little High People, for example — but before these tracks can devolve into anything even remotely sub-standard, someone in the ensemble comes to the rescue, planting a seed that blossoms into something greater within the hands of the rest of the band.
Davis was notorious for vaguely guiding his team rather than providing concrete direction, and in recording A Tribute to Jack Johnson, he frequently left his musicians sitting in a room, biding their time until out of boredom, they embarked on an impromptu jam to which he added his fluid, playful solos. By continuously recording the totality of his sessions, he and producer Teo Macero were able to capture both the magic and the mayhem that resulted from this strategy, and this gave them the freedom to pick, choose, slice, and dice the tapes to form what became the oft-overlooked, two song Jack Johnson album — not to mention the segments that found their way onto his subsequent outings Live-Evil, Big Fun, Directions, and Get Up with It. The final versions of Right Off and Yesternow that comprised A Tribute to Jack Johnson draw the newly expanded package to its conclusion, but the bulk of the material on The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions either has never been heard or has never been proffered in quite this manner. As such, the chronological presentation of each recording session demonstrates the ensemble’s collective vision in developing a particular song, and over the course of the entire box set, it also illustrates the quintessential exploration of an overarching idea — to fuse jazz and rock as it never before had been done.
At the time, Davis had been pioneering the field of jazz-fusion, and though the earliest examples of his experimentation peeked through the post-bop wonderland of Water Babies, Miles in the Sky, and Filles de Kilimanjaro, his ideas truly came to fruition on the masterpieces In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Yet, Davis wasn’t finished with this new direction, for it was his vision to create "the greatest rock ’n‘ roll band you ever heard," and damn if he didn’t do just that with A Tribute to Jack Johnson, an album that was as much a product of the late ’60s psychedelic rock scene as it was the jazz world. Davis increasingly had become infatuated with the styles of Sly Stone, James Brown, and Jimi Hendrix, and he utilized their hybridization of funk, blues, and rock as a starting point to reinvent jazz, which in turn greatly influenced rock bands such as the Grateful Dead, prompting these groups to reformulate their own music. Indeed, the roots for the Grateful Dead’s Blues for Allah album as well as the commonly performed jam that followed its 1974 concert renditions of Eyes of the World were planted within the various burbling tracks of The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions. Want proof? Look no further than Willie Nelson [Remake Take 2], and revel in the striking similarities to be found within its intertwined patterns of bass, drums, and guitar. Likewise, the keyboard-laced freak-out of The Mask [Part 1] provided fodder for the latter day Grateful Dead’s MIDI-fueled Space jams.
In essence, Davis’ selection of musicians was a carefully orchestrated, trial-and-error approach geared toward a specific purpose: to bring the elements of jazz and rock together, overlaying one on top of the other in order to create a densely woven tapestry that was exciting and new. To achieve these results, Davis employed 15 different configurations of his band over the course of his 16 weeks in the studio, and witnessing the experimentation and subsequent transformation of his ensemble is one of the most interesting aspects about The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions. One thing that remained consistent throughout his search for the ideal sound was where each characteristic was derived. The jazz-oriented aspects were drawn from bass clarinetist Bennie Maupin, saxophonists Steve Grossman and Wayne Shorter, and Davis’ own fanciful flights on trumpet while the rock side of things was covered largely by his rhythm section combinations — drummers Jack DeJohnette, Billy Cobham, and Lenny White were paired with bass players Dave Holland, Mike Henderson, Gene Perla, and Ron Carter — as well as the guitars of Sonny Sharrock and John McLaughlin. Meanwhile, his keyboard players — Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Keith Jarrett — provided a bridge between the two factions, adding strange collages of sound (Corea’s ring-modulated and Jarrett’s wah-wah inflected electric piano, Hancock’s escapades on Farfisa organ) to the proceedings. Save for the ambient ballads featuring vocalist Hermeto Pascoal, the concoction frequently yielded deep grooves that were funky, percolating, and hypnotic while serving as the ultimate support mechanism for the volcanic eruptions of distorted guitar from McLaughlin as well as the sometimes brash, sometimes mellow excursions from Davis and Grossman. Make no mistake, with such raw footage, The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions is undoubtedly a flawed affair, but it’s also an insightful document that is no less brilliant than the primary album that it helped to shape.
46th Annual Grammy Award Winner:
Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package
The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions is available
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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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