Sunday, January 08, 2012

Miles Davis on the corner

My god! This is just the most amazing shit! I wanted to play On The Corner on iTunes on my laptop and somehow I managed to play Talking Heads' "Life During Wartime" and thought it was a pretty extraordinary type of thing for Miles Davis to be doing in 1972, until I discovered my mistake when David Byrne started singing. Then I switched to On The Corner and was blown away. Talk about visceral, kick in the guts, gobsmacked and highly charged up! This is awesome stuff and I not use "awesome" lightly in any context. It WAS a pretty extraordinary type of thing for Miles Davis to be doing in 1972.

The interlinked suite of tunes on the first side of what was once a record are connected by restless Africanised funk drumming, a relentless groove that sounds like a vamp on one chord, much like the best of James Brown from the same era, minus the grunting vocals, interspersed by all manner of weird soloing in short bursts of intensity.

If this is jazz fusion I am all for it! This music is so totally unlike the tunes on Kind of Blue, recorded 13 years earlier than On The Corner, and a lifetime away from the pretty, pastel tunes of that typical cool jazz album from the late Fifties. On The Corner does not sound like background jazz; it does not sound like anything that belongs in a smoky after hours joint on the legendary 52nd Street in New York. On The Corner is just some kind of monstrous groove thing that grabs hold and does not want to let go. Man, this is great!

In my comments on Kind of Blue I made the point that it is the kind of pleasant listening album that does not demand much attention and could easily fade into the background and that I cold visualise the kind of movie scenes for which its tracks could serve as soundtracks. This kind of jazz may be hell of impressive to musicians but to my ears this is cool jazz by any other name and not qualitatively too much different from the hundreds of similar records recorded during the Fifties and early Sixties.

I understand that Miles Davis was one of the most important jazzmen ever and that the musicians on Kind of Blue were stellar and not merely side men but potential band leaders too. The thing is: for all the talent in the room when those tracks were recorded, they produced a work that is not different to the competition but, at best, only a superior sound-alike to the many acts hoeing the same row.

The cuts from On The Corner are startlingly different to any jazz album I've ever heard and startlingly different to almost anything else I've heard in any other genre. Having said that, I can hear echoes of music that came later as much as I can hear the influence of contemporary funk. The Miles Davis of Kind of Blue could have been copies wholesale to great commercial effect. I cannot see how anyone would have copied the Miles Davis of On The Corner in the same wholesales fashion and hoped to retain any kind of audience. Yet elements of this record have obviously more or less directly emerged in popular music, both from the northern and southern hemispheres.

I should mention, again, that I have only recently for the first time listened to Kind of Blue because I bought the remastered CD at a second hand book shop in Montagu where my wife and I spent a couple of days in the week before Christmas 2011. Emma Follett-Botha, who now lives with us, spent a couple of days over Christmas with her father Braam Botha in Darling and brought back a bunch of music on her flash drive that she took off her father's portable hard drive. In this haul she copied three Miles Davis albums: Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain and On The Corner. I have no idea why she chose these albums, as she is not much of a jazz aficionado, as far as I know. Anyhow, I copied these three albums to my laptop and elected to listen to On The Corner before I tackled Sketches of Spain, for the older album is orchestral jazz which I've listened to before and found a tad boring and pretentious, and I think of it as of a piece with Kind of Blue even if it was recorded by a nineteen piece orchestra as opposed to a sextet.

Well, On The Corner has warped my fragile little mind. Apart from the fleeting touches of trumpet or saxophone emerging from the monolithic percussion and bass grooves, it does not sound like my idea of jazz, or anything else for that matter, or like Miles Davis. This is not Jamiroquai. That is a good thing. This record is an astonishingly good thing.

Where Kind of Blue is universally acclaimed and allegedly one of the bestselling jazz albums of all time, On The Corner was hated by mainstream jazz critics and fans alike and was one of the worst selling albums ever released by Miles Davis. Forty years later, though, there has been a much more favourable reappraisal, even if the common or garden jazz fan still hates the album. Perhaps I have more of an open mind because I am neither a jazz fan nor a Miles Davis fan, and in any case I have a very eclectic approach to music. If it fits in with my aesthetic, regardless of where it comes from or how different it is to the mainstream, I will like it.

Kind of Blue is not going to induce me to buy more Miles Davis albums. On The Corner makes me want to find everything Davis released between 1972 and 1975 when this new approach was being fully explored. No more introspective, "proper" jazz tunes. No more running the changes on standards and wowing audiences with the prowess of a jazz soloist expressing himself at length while the rhythm section vamps behind him. No more orthodoxy. All of this was replaced by the deranged fury of fat funk bass, clattering poly-rhythmic percussion and the absence of a recognisable tune. Glorious!

Somewhere during the past ten years I had the opportunity to listen to Bitches Brew (1970) for the first time ever and was quite impressed. The tunes made sense and the furious pace of some of them, and John McLaughlin's guitar did make this jazz sound more like a bastard child of rock. Although the album took jazz somewhere it had not been before it is still almost orthodox compared to On The Corner.

The first great thing about the album is that the opening cut and title track "On the Corner" just starts in the middle of nowhere and "Mr Freedom X", the final cut, ends in the same way. There is no opening theme from which improvisation flows and there is no neat resolution. The album arrives and departs in thin air. This must be something like the state of the universe before the big bang: once there was nothing and then there was something and who knows how it happened. Or how it will terminate.

This big bang theory of mine is not so farfetched. Apparently Davis wanted to combine street music with space music, whatever that might have meant, and I guess this urban space was what he came up with. As I understand it, On The Corner was built, like Frankenstein's monster from various parts to form a monstrous whole, in that improvisational jams were fitted together in a cut and paste fashion, on top of the groove, to make up the "compositions" on the album. The sum of these parts absolutely makes more sense, probably, than the individual parts would have made. The interpolated blasts, squalls and wafts of guitar, keyboards and horns could and would only have significance amidst the sitar drones and rhythmical maelstrom that ties the album together.

In my iTunes library On The Corner follows straight after Kind of Blue and the transition is shocking. There is a small gap (the silence before the storm) after the fade out of the tasteful, doleful final notes of "Flamenco Sketches" and before the aural assault that is "On the corner" and the tracks that follow. One cannot believe that we are dealing with the same band leader, albeit a totally different band. The cool sounds of Kind of Blue, no matter how great an album it is supposed to be, just do not lodge in my consciousness in the same way the rock jazz funk raga sounds of On The Corner does. The latter is a gut reaction enjoyment whilst the former is an intellectual appreciation. The tracks from the earlier album could easily be separated from the parent body and played individually or as part of a selection of similar tunes. It would make no sense whatsoever to separate the tracks from On The Corner or to attempt to make them fit on a compilation of Miles Davis tunes. The impact derives from the whole suite played in sequence.

I guess nobody is going to write a book about the making of On The Corner or spend too much time on it in any biography of Miles Davis but that would be a crying shame. Davis may have recorded many landmark albums that will always feature in a Top Ten of jazz albums but to my ears much of his Fifties and early Sixties output is a tad anodyne and not that much different from the much derided cool jazz movement. Maybe it is because I am not a musician and cannot appreciate the infinite subtle variations that Davis and the various instrumentalists can weave. Music that goes in the one ear and out the other is just about meaningless to me. If it does not grab my attention it probably does not deserve my attention. Bitches Brew serves up something that does demand close attention and On The Corner absolutely shook me when I first heard it and not many records do that these days.

I've said previously that owning Kind of Blue would not make me go out and search out other Miles Davis product and it was fortuitous that I got my hands on Sketches of Spain and On The Corner (as MP3 tracks) so soon after I bought the Kind of Blue CD. Now I am quite convinced I should search out more of the Seventies output of the Davis electric funk jazz ensembles, such as the live albums Live-Evil, Agharta and Pangaea, which may replicate the type of funky, hard edged electronic jazz of On The Corner.








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