Mile Davis - The Complete On the Corner Sessions (Sony Legacy Recordings) - Keith Boyd - 12.6.7
Whenever I think of Miles Davis there are certain images that come to mind. First there is Miles with his back to the audience. He’s slightly stooped and wearing huge sunglasses. His clothes are an electric mish-mash falling somewhere between Jimi Hendrix at his gypsy finest and a Ghanaian king. His trumpet is clutched in his boney fingers and held close to his chest. The look in his eyes betrays the arrogance of turning his back on the crowd. He’s not actually being rude here, that’s just a side effect. It’s a look of such deep concentrated listening that it’s almost scary. It’s the look of a magician waiting for all of the correct elements to materialize before he lashes out with his spell. The other image that comes to mind when someone says the name Miles Davis is the one from the back cover of his album, “Tutu”. In this photo we see the full force of Miles and his slightly wizened countenance. Those spectral hands rest against his forehead while his lips pucker as though getting ready to blow away his pain through some phantom trumpet. What to make of these images? It’s hard to say really but considering that the real legacy of Miles Davis is the vast and ground-breaking musical work he left behind, it’s funny that what comes to my mind first are these images. There is something so singular about the man and these pictures reveal a glimpse of it. He seems to confront you without putting forth the effort to do so. His overarching attitude is that of the self-guided seer bending reality to his will while fully accepting what it will cost him. I’ve dug all kinds of Miles Davis music. From the Bebop to the majestic to the detuned, electric funk, it all holds together. The tones, tempos, pace and players may be different but it all bears the imprint of this difficult and deep genius.
Both Jazz fans and critic’s alike love to argue about the importance of Miles Davis's albums from his late-'60s addition of electric instruments to his mid-'70s semi-retirement. Was 1970's Bitches Brew the first true fusion record? Isn't 1969's In a Silent Way the true precursor to fusion because of its arrangements, instrumentation and studio techniques? Perhaps 1968's Miles in the Sky deserves greater recognition for its use of electric instruments? As entertaining as this exercise may be for the pundits, one point seems oft forgotten: how ripe with ideas each of these records was. As opposed to trying to find a list or ranking for this handful of albums perhaps a better use of time would be dig in deep with a good listen and experience the thrill of discovery. While it’s true that this music can at times be difficult repeated spins allows you to hear sound presented in a whole new way. Truly these records are still shocking 30 + years on. At this point (1969-1972), the jazz icon and pioneer could have rested comfortably as the genre's (arguably) greatest commercial success. However, Davis deliberately pushed further into the unknown. In this period he produced albums that may have been purchased or shared by smaller numbers, but they stirred an unprecedented amount of conversation and controversy.
For what it's worth, then, 1972's On the Corner may be one of Davis's least-listened-to yet most-talked-about records. From a historic standpoint, it is notable for being one of Davis's last proper albums until the musician's reemergence from retirement in the '80s (1974's Big Fun and 1975's Get Up With It were collections more than coherent records). However, On the Corner is also a pinnacle of Davis and producer Teo Macero's use of the studio as a music-making tool. Much like the pair's "format" of editing, looping, applying effects and generally throwing the rulebook out the window on Bitches Brew, the two apparently set out to burn the book's remaining pages while working on On the Corner.
The process of reaching that point is the subject of The Complete on the Corner Sessions. This six-disc set exhaustively documents the recording sessions related to and spun off from this milestone effort. Although the album has often been cited as an influence in hip-hop and electronic music, the reissue's inclusion of unedited master takes make explicit the extent to which tape loops, studio effects and "production" techniques were employed. For example, the title track sputters and spurts in a honking frenzy in its’ untouched form but is edited down to a molasses of funk and squelches. Included then is the album's principal "source material" of two recording dates in early June, along with "follow-up" dates from the next two years. Davis's well-oiled, “nontet” performs throughout with his trademark wrenches-in-the-engine: Stevie Wonder-alumnus/bass guitarist Michael Henderson and percussionist James "Mtume" Heath were hired as a deliberate affront to jazz standards; cellist, arranger and composer Paul Buckmaster, known for his collaborations with Elton John as well as prog-rock groups Third Ear Band and Nucleus, came from the U.K. with a head full of ideas and a suitcase full of Stockhausen records -- from lead sheets that Tom Terrell describes in the extensive liner notes as being "more akin to a Rube Goldberg hieroglyph." Though On the Corner's original four tracks (two of which reach the twenty minutes mark) are frequently described as funky or compared to Sly & the Family Stone, the boxed set treats the album like an entirely distinct beast -- funky without being restrained to the blues, and sounding circa Riot Sly, sans pop structure -- and makes Bitches Brew sound almost conventional. This was a densely packed and deconstructed funk that perhaps we’re only now growing the ears to really understand.
Admittedly, The Complete on the Corner Sessions confirms some of the album's weaknesses, particularly its tendency to be heady and insular. Although at what point do we give up calling that a weakness and treat it for what it is; a Miles Davis trademark? Six discs of dense material makes you feel fortunate that Macero and Davis took the time to filter through the tapes. And although fancy packaging and endless essays by Davis compatriots (Buckmaster) and scholars (Terrell and Bob Belden) are boxed set de rigeur, a more appropriate bell/whistle would have been a disc of isolated tracks for aspiring producers to remix/edit/sample. However, the set demonstrates the creative virility Davis experienced at a time of life when most artists fall victim to habit. If this set is truly the last of Columbia's Davis boxed set series, it certainly solidifies the bookend to one of Davis's many accomplishments.