Miles way beyond, and raw

Great day in the mail! On The Corner, the most outre project of American master Miles Davis, is restored” in a 6-cd boxed set.This recommendation is completely unsolicited, but I’m tellin’ you: his all-star jam-band stills sounds prophetic after 35 years, and even unedited it’s energies are razor sharp, infinitely more exciting than most of jazz (much less pop or new music composition) today.

Miles Davis — The Complete on the Corner Sessions is a 6 cd-review, reclamation and/or (harshly viewed) reshuffling of recording sessions led by a renegade prince of jazz-and-its-universe starting in June 1972 and ending in 1975, after which he withdrew for five years into darkness, to emerge a mildly chastened and more ostentatiously market-driven man.
Though reviled by many prominent jazz journalists upon initial release, On The Corner establishes some of the farthest outposts of unhampered musical, nay, artistic, improvisational exploration, via Davis’s use and encouragement of of new instruments, loose forms, intuitively juxtaposed colors, irresistibly syncopated rhythm and unabashed immersion in pure sound. Besides concocting a vivid, compelling soundscape, Miles connects a lot of dots here — linking the collective improvisation of earliest New Orleans jazz to the jagged thrusts, choppy comping, dynamic pulse and over-ripe extravagance of a post-Coltrane/Hendrix world and on to suggest a zillion possibilities some of which we’re finally getting to hear in the present. Miles at the point of his electric breakthroughs in the late ’60s and early ’70s generated what’s still some of the newest of new music, which is also undeniably of its time.
With sidemen who were shortly to attain peaks of jazz “stardom” where they remain (Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Jack DeJohnette, et al), Miles mixed up every odd, exotic, gritty and unpredictable idea he had encountered from, say 1957 (year of both Miles Ahead, his first masterpiece with Gil Evans, and his innovative soundtrack to Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’Échafaud) to the day he was shocked by Sly Stone, got a wah-wah pedal for his horn and an extra percussionist, tuned into Stockhausen’s Gruppen and called British cellist/composer Paul Buckmaster to hop the pond . . .
Electric and eclectic instruments, yes, but also atonality, polyphonics, polyrhythms, free improvisation, minimalism, funk, pointillism, long-lasting grooves – these were l ideas spreading throughout the ’60s-’70s’ highly-music-identified, mostly urban and recently more empowered cultures. According to Buckmaster’s liner note recollections, Miles liked Charles Wuorinen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning electronic Time’s Encomium (follow this link to hear a snatch among his “compositions” but not as much as Stockhausen’sGruppen. . . and I bet he dug Terry Riley’s Rainbow in Curved Air and Ravi Shankar, too. Besides Sly and Hendrix, James Brown and everyone rhythmically potent.
There’s more than electronics and exotic drumming and minimalism here, though. It’s Miles — and how he generated a cult of personality. He is unmistakable. When I played this for composer Steve Reich during a Down Beat “Blindfold Test,” in the late ’70s, Reich id’d that charisma — in the music — right away.
Miles’ unrivaled control of haunting tone — his incisive, fragile/bold, snaky-sneaky melodies — the intensity of moods (from, say, total disinhibition to mordant grief (for just-deceased Duke Ellington on “He Loved Him Madly”) — his eerie melodicism, his drives, turns his music hypnotic, liberating, provocative, seductive, discordant, the only sound that makes sense. Having heard it no other music is the same. I count few equally-well realized such adventures.
I just got this boxed set as an advance of its September release two hours ago, have not gotten through half of it yet, but there are already long expanses of luxurious collective improvisation and solos by players at the peak of their inspiration, adding luster and mystery to what was already one of my enduring favorite albums. It’s surprising Miles and his men (all men) could do this live, but repositions them between Sun Ra with his Solar Arkestra and not-quite emergent Dr. Funkenstein, George Clinton. Miles never toured On The Corner, its personnel never reassembled. On The Corner was assumed to be a feat of studio wizardy, edited by Teo Macero. It is, and isn’t. The original release is that, but not because there wasn’t enough music to make a focused album – because there was too much good stuff, so a lot had to be left out.
Teo made use of fast, hard and obvious cuts — for jarring contrast, like turning a corner to be hit by a blunt epiphany. The crits who didn’t like On The Corner were as I recall (post-college newspaper, not yet professionally published) either crusty and fussy traditionalists staging their counterattack to the juggernaut that was Bitches Brew and its less satisfying but impervious followup, Live/Evil or proto-neo-cons anxious about protecting the jazz tradition from iconoclastic creativity, especially from a hero turned decadent apostate.
In 1972 the gas was also kinda leaking from the fueltank of semi-radical society, you may recall. The deflation of the progressive optimism might have had a wee bit to do with the protracted, indefensible Viet Nam war; the re-election, criminal exposure, disgrace and resignation of President Nixon; the CIA-engineered fatal coup against elected Chilean president Salvador Allende, by an economy verging on recession, increased crime in U.S. streets and poverty ravaging U.S. cites?
At least the body politic then admitted there are U.S. cities — urban policy isn’t big on any current national political candidates’ agenda, so’s I know, though maybe Edwards’ anti-poverty initiatives address related topics. But the U.S. metropolis, real and mythic, is what On The Corner is all about. This was supposed to be music of and for the street — as it has proved to be. It anticipated the next 35 years’ program, leading directly to rap and hip-hop and to the present, proposing standards and substance of a vision of music that expands on mere linearity, and not as collage so much as melange.
The critics haven’t just changed their tune about On The Corner — we have different critics. The conservatives, some of them still begrudging bebop from influential positions in jazz journalism in the early 1970s, are now long gone, and the generation of jazz writers, broadcasters, educators, amateurs, fans, listeners who grew up on this urgent, tribal sound succeeds them. Among many critics and analysts, Greg Tate, Bill Milkowski, Paul Tingen, and in the liner notes to the new boxed set Tom Terrell have written insightfully about Miles’ music and its centrality to our common era. I add my bit in my upcoming book, Miles, Ornette, Cecil — Jazz Beyond Jazz (stiill forthcoming! from Routledge in the late fall, contrary to’s advertised pub date).
I received The Complete On The Corner Sessions as an advance –the boxed set “arrives in stores [what stores?] September 25.” I’m not usually this unreservedly enthusiastic, but this is what I like to listen to most of all, and central to the issues I raise in Miles, Ornette, Cecil about the relentless absorption by visionary individualists of any and all elements appealing to them for any reason or none is what makes jazz an essential and relevant art form, whatever its financial state or fashion status. On the Corner is a bracing jolt of jazz beyond jazz.

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  1. Anonymous says

    This was a super article. You are fortunate to receive the Cd early, truth comes for all when more people listen to it. Thank you for writing this… inspiring. From a singer…Trace T

  2. says

    Thanks for that–one of the best, if not the best, article I’ve ever read on On the Corner and other Miles music from that era. I will be looking for your book.

  3. G Koop says

    Nice…very jealous that you’ve been able to listen to this holy grail of unreleased creativity…one note…Miles did tour with this music, from late ’72 to early ’73 until the African roots took over the group and transmorphed the music into the band that we hear on Agharta/Pangea..check that music out if you get a chance

  4. Sloan says

    Wow. I’ve been starving for analysis like this of Miles’ journeys in the 70’s. You seem to get it in a way that most writers of this period don’t. It’s impressive that we’re still trying to make sense of what Miles was doing at least four genres ago. Personally I feel “Live Evil” was his peak, and I wish Keith Jarrett stayed around longer to influence more of Miles’ output (he comes off as a bit of a diva in the Cellar Door liner notes, complaining about his sonically unwieldy instrument). But damn if Miles didn’t draw the map from jazz to hip-hop, after gil scott heron but long before grand master flash. I can’t wait to dive into this box set.

  5. Howard Mandel says

    I hope you’ll dive into Miles, Ornette, Cecil — Jazz Beyond Jazz, too — now scheduled for bookstores first week of December (but I’m trying to get them to move it earlier).
    Live-Evil, like so many of the quasi-live Miles albums from the early ’70s, seems but a patch on the original takes it was derived from — the Complete Cellar Door Sessions as Sloan writes, has a lot more Jarrett (when he was good) and McLaughlin. To me, the Hermeto bits are inconclusive. Hermeto’s own albums offer so much better realized, and with a percussive attack all Hermeto’s own. But every step of the ’70s electric period, leading to the still mysterious and seldom-revisited “He Loved Him Madly,” is fascinating. The new boxed set, I was told by Columbia representatives, might be the last of the “complete” series. I’m hoping, though, there’s more of the material that was used for MD’s most exciting return album, Decoy (with John Scofield).

  6. Howard Mandel says

    There is overlap with other albums besides On The Corner on the Complete On The Corner – “He Loved Him Madly” is on the box, and some other studio-created tracks — I’m just on my way home from the Chicago Jazz Festival (and on my way to tghe Guelph Jazz Festival and colloquium on The Future of Jazz” so I don’t have the box in front of me to fullly report. Watch this space! I’ll try to be more informative tout suite.

  7. Jim Szabo says

    CD6 contains the original “On the Corner” as released, as well as “Big Fun” c/w “Holly-wuud”, which were released as 45 RPM singles (!) earlier.
    In addition, “Ife” can be found on “Big Fun” (the LP), and 7 of the 8 cuts from “Get Up With It” (“Honky Tonk” came out earlier on the “Bitches Brew” boxed set). The rest is unreleased.
    Jim Szabo, WRUW-FM

  8. Howard Mandel says

    Thanks for the clarification, Jim — it’s amazing that author Mitch Myers (The Boy Who Cried Freebird) and I spent 20 minutes on the phone trying to determine whether the original OTC is contained within the CD — nowhere in press release or liner notes is this point made! I urge people who’ve never heard OTC to check out the complete version AS ISSUED first, before dipping into the unedited masters. The issued music is what Miles’ listeners have had for more than 35 years, and all associations emerge from it, not from the previously unissued (and satisfying, fascinating) tracks.