Miles Davis: Taking It Back to the Street (Relix Revisited)
Just over 20 years following the death of Miles Davis, we revisit this Relix feature that explores the On The Corner sessions.
From 1972 to 1975, Miles Davis made his most complex, most aggressive, most unforgiving and occasionally most beautiful music, and it’s often been given short shrift in the past by jazz critics who’d never been able to adjust to the screaming electric-ness of it all. Pete Cosey’s howling, post-Hendrixian guitar solos; Michael Henderson’s thumping, ultra funky basslines; Al Foster’s crashing cymbals and huge kick drum; and Miles’ own trumpet, fed through a wah-wah pedal until it sounded like an infant battling a cat in a hurricane—for folks who’d found the psychedelic swirls of Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way too much, On the Corner was absolutely the end of the line. For many, it was the peak, the most creative and endlessly fascinating music of the epic Davis catalog. And it’s finally getting its due with an epic six-CD boxed set, The Complete On the Corner Sessions.
The title’s a little misleading. Yes, the raw recordings that made up that 1972 album are here. But they’re surrounded by over three hours of previously unreleased studio jams, as well as tracks that wound up on Big Fun and Get Up With It.
Five years ago or so, I interviewed some of the players from the early ‘70s bands for my book Running the Voodoo Down: The Electric Music of Miles Davis, trying to gain some insight into what Miles was thinking back then. Saxophonist Dave Liebman was one of them—he’d been recruited on a few hours notice to replace Steve Grossman for the On the Corner recording sessions in June of ’72, receiving the phone message while in the dentist’s chair. His soprano sax is the first solo heard on the album, a weird, squiggly stream of notes that doesn’t have anything to do with the pulsating groove behind it, but somehow manages to fit. There’s a reason for that disjunction, too.
Liebman recalls getting to the studio “around 12:30 p.m. It looked like [Miles] was giving directions and instructions, and he signaled me to come in, through the glass, ‘cause I was standing out in the hall. And he made a motion to play—to take the horn out—and he was talking to Jack [DeJohnette] or something, saying some things. I recognized a lot of the guys. The cast was three keyboards, a whole bunch of drummers, and so forth. They started playing, he pointed me to a mic and just gave me the signal to play. I had no idea what they were playing. It wasn’t like there were headphones or anything and most of the instruments were electric and plugged in [to the soundboard], so all I heard was a lot of tapping and percussion sounds on drums. And it wasn’t like I walked in and anybody set me up with microphones or anything.”
That kind of spur-of-the-moment jamming, with the resulting tapes to be culled later by Davis and Producer Teo Macero, was the rule, not the exception, and had been since 1969 or so. “We’d get in there playing, and Teo would have the tapes rolling,” recalls bassist Michael Henderson, who was recruited from Stevie Wonder’s band in 1970 and stayed with Davis for five years. “A lot of that happened. We started, and wherever it went from there, it went. Miles would start off, and we knew when we were going to end a piece or start a new piece because he’d give us code phrases, and we knew what to do from that point.”
“What Teo did on In a Silent Way was cut out all the lollygagging,” says producer Bob Belden, who’s overseen all the boxed sets of Miles’ electric material, The Complete On the Corner Sessions included. “He essentially got it to where the guys were locked in and hittin’ it. And the same thing with On the Corner, because I have some of the session reels, and it took ‘em awhile to get the vibe. And what Miles would do is go into the studio and work on one or two grooves. And he’d get it and do something on it, and he’d go on to the next thing. And they’d get something after a while, do something, and then go on again. So [Teo was] able to trick you into thinking something exists naturally, when it’s not really there. It’s a kind of sonic alchemy.”
That’s what makes the new boxed set so fascinating. On the Corner is a patchwork album that combines the fruits of a couple of recording sessions from June of ’72 with overdubbed handclaps, radical tape editing and an approach to the mixing board unprecedented in jazz, and much rock, of that era. Macero was bringing in techniques used in dub reggae, and later in hip-hop as well, collaging the sounds in ways nobody would have thought of, or dared, even a few years earlier. In Belden’s words, “they were utilizing what was at that time pop technology,” employing all the high-tech gadgetry at Columbia’s disposal (including some devices Macero invented himself to perform specific, unprecedented bits of audio magic) in defiance of jazz’s traditional aesthetic of documenting a single perfect performance from beginning to end. There are moments on the record when the most prominent sound is those handclaps, or an intensely repetitive, hypnotic hi-hat. Meanwhile, Miles’ own trumpet is swallowed up by the sound of the band, a ribbon of sound running through a rattling, squealing horde of other noises. And yet, there’s always a system and an idea at work.
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