On The Corner program notes, Merkin Hall concert 5/25/09

Miles Davis
intended On The Corner to be a
personal statement, an esthetic breakthrough and a social provocation upon its
release in fall of 1972. He could hardly have been more successful: the album
was all that, though it has taken decades for its full impact to be understood.

On The Corner was also a snapshot of its time, place and progenitor, a reorganization of music’s conventional structures and one of the most prophetic works of the 20th century. Many composers have developed new vocabularies and systems and declared them the future — Miles is one of the few whose intensely personal vision and attitudes, as expressed in On The Corner, have actually come to dominate the vernacular.

This result was not to be predicted. Even in creation On The Corner was iconoclastic, revolutionary, disturbing the musicians who contributed to it. The initial reactions of Columbia Records, of unaffiliated musicians, of critics and the record-buying public was almost universal objection and rejection. Though Miles had been known for more than 20 years as an innovator with an agenda all his own, though just two years before he’d detonated an explosion that shook jazz to its foundations with Bitches Brew (an immediate commercial blockbuster) and had delivered powerful aftershocks with the guitar-driven Tribute to Jack Johnson, moody Live-Evil and frantic Live at the Fillmore East, no one who loved or hated his music was prepared for On The Corner.

The album famously stemmed from Miles’ enthusiasm for the soul-rock-funk  of James Brown, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix and George Clinton, but it doesn’t resemble anything by them, only seeks to tap a similar spirit. It is Miles’ most rhythmically charged studio recording, which he aimed at a black audience and referred to as a project of “the street” — gritty, challenging and contradictory as urban America was in 1972 — but the music was way too weird, globally attuned and densely detailed to appeal immediately to the pop world’s ear. Though the cast of On The Corner included Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin and Jack DeJohnette — celebrated players already associated with Miles — neither they nor any other contributors were listed on the album’s cover. Straightahead jazz musicians assumed the album was a product of Miles’ cynicism. Interviewed even years later, musicians who participated in On The Corner remained dubious, ambivalent or dismissive of it.

Paul Buckmaster, an English pop and classical musician who had consulted with Miles prior to the recording sessions, playing him Bach cello suites and Stockhausen electro-acoustic works for inspiration, disapproved of the music’s unstructured nature, which he considered loose jams over static rhythms. Saxophonist Dave Liebman, called in by producer Teo Macero and arriving just as the sessions began to solo with an ensemble he’d never before been part of, said “I started playing without really knowing what was going on. I couldn’t hear anything, because everybody was amplified and plugged in directly to the board and there were no headphones available for me. . . you can hear me fumbling around trying to find the right key.” Badal Roy, the Indian tabla player who Miles had stared at and said, “You, start,” improvised a rhythm and kept it going for almost 20 minutes, but became distraught over that duration and didn’t listen to the finished product until, 20 years later, his son marveled that he’d been involved.

“It was pretty daring music for that time,” said Herbie Hancock, whose Headhunters album was released in the same season as On The Corner and achieved through sales and radio airplay of its hit “Chameleon” something like what Miles wanted. Nonetheless, according to bassist Michael Henderson, who Miles had hired away from Stevie Wonder, “Miles was happy as a school kid when we finished that session. The music was just great.”

Executives at Columbia Records disliked the cartoonish cover art and were — according to Miles, at least — reluctant to promote it. Stan Getz called it “worthless” and Clark Terry regretted its “one-chord bag.” Critics reviewing On The Corner mostly took the opportunity to vent contempt for what Miles had wrought (Ralph J. Gleason, a champion of Miles’ experiments, was a notable exception). So how did On The Corner come to be regarded as one of the most exciting of all Miles Davis’s exciting albums?

Miles dared to be different, and had his ear to the air. What all the record execs, straightahead jazzers, black-pop and rock fans and critics missed was the forest from the trees. They complained about a lack of clear melodies and song forms, the repetition of the beats, the chaos of the arrangements. They didn’t appreciate the polyrhythmic and cyclical layers percussion, the flash and glitter of its ensemble orchestra, the soloing guitars, saxes, keyboards and wah-wah trumpet weaving in, out and around each other like so many determined individuals pushing through a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd.

They couldn’t grasp the music’s surging tension and ecstatic moments of
release and resolution, its waves of energy rushing forth without evident end. They believed the music was an insult to the intelligence, not comprehending how it simultaneously defined, deified, defied,and decried blaxploitation, how it depicted the near-constant confrontations and crushing blows of city life, or the joy of such struggles. They didn’t get how On The Corner embraced everything at once and taught listeners to listen, anew.

On The Corner sounded like nothing else in circulation in the early ’70s, yet portrayed the clangorous era to a tee. Remember? War was raging, civil rights weren’t won, the presidency was corrupt to its core. The audience that did discover On The Corner recognized their context in its sonics and thrilled to hear life rendered so relentlessly by Miles, who was 46 years old. He was not a happy man, suffering from sickle-cell anemia and arthritis of the hip, displeased with his grown son living with him, and recently dumped because of his drug use by his lover, who had just borne him another son. But Miles did as he always did: made music. We heard it — the beats, the press of activity, the rage and celebration, the ensembles’ chants and individual’s variations. Black and white, city-dwellers and suburbanites, Americans and citizens of the world pursuing the future listened to On The Corner and realized the music of the new dance, trance and technology had emerged. It remains a soundtrack of immense relevance now. Thank the one and only Miles Davis. — Howard Mandel, c 2009

Howard Mandel is author of Miles Ornette Cecil — Jazz Beyond Jazz (Routledge 2008)


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  1. CraigP says

    I love this album. Can anyone tell me if the box set is worth the price, or does the single disc capture the essence of the sessions?
    HM: The single disc IS the essence. The box set is fascinating on a number of counts, though, and extends beyond what we know as “On the Corner” to include other music recorded during the same period by MD, though much of it wasn’t issued until later. The entire Get Up With It is included, parts of what was issued as Big Fun, there are unedited masters and several tracks previously unreleased. The box itself is a nifty metal bas-relief version of the OTC corner — everybody who sees it wants to touch it.

  2. says

    When I discover Miles Davis through this album, I say clearly it’s not a time wasted.I really love it. How can they believed that his music was an insult to the intelligence? Truly speaking, they did not pay atention to what they were listening to, so it’s the audience who made the difference by supporting Miles in what he wrote. Fantastic what he did.