The final box set from Columbia, and maybe the most important. Modern music would...
Chris Jones 2007
Forget Bob Dylan's mauling by the critics and fans for his move into electric rock in the mid sixties; if there’s one man who has suffered more from the ire of his peers it has to be Miles. Hindsight shows us that his move from modal jazz to dirty street funk between 1968 and 1975 was an inspired evolution of a musical genius, but from the release of In A Silent Way onwards Davis was frequently misunderstood and brutally chastised for daring to change. The culmination was On The Corner. A huge part of his fanbase took it as a genuine insult, directed at those who had stuck with him even through the drastic reinvention of Bitches Brew.
Here was an album that seemed to kowtow to the demands of a younger, hipper audience (just check the truly awful cover art for starters), eschewing soloing for the groove, yet even funk rock fans had a hard time getting it. As a result it was his slowest selling album of his entire career at Columbia. Nowadays it’s a different story. We now know that the dark undertow of these relentless jams along with the revolutionary cut and paste approach to their 'construction' from hours of sessions prefigured and in some cases gave birth to nu-jazz, jazz funk, experimental jazz, ambient and even world music.
This, the last deluxe box set to collect outtakes, original un-mixed masters and un-edited takes, is not just a document of the sessions that came to make up On The Corner, it also collects sessions from between '72 and '75 of the work that made up Big Fun and Get Up With It. Here we find the originals of some of Miles' most pivotal work, not least the incredible "He Loved Him Madly" which was once cited by Brian Eno as changing his entire view of music.
Over six cds we get the complete picture of Davis’ last effort to re-contextualise electric instrumentation within modern music. Here musicians checked their egos at the door and were asked to subsume their skills in service to brooding repetition and flurries of colour splashed over skewed vamps. The real heroes of the piece in fact may just be Michael Henderson - on whose staccato, minimalist fender bass riffing every workout hangs - and of course, producer Teo Macero, whose interest in Stockhausen and tape manipulation allowed him to piece together this material in such challenging ways.
Miles himself barely appears on some cuts, his muted trumpet squawking intermittently while a stellar cast whips up a storm. The cuts often feature up to five percussionists demonstrating how Miles wanted to connect with a street vibe that by the early 70s signified not only musical radicalism but also a political stance that connected his muse back to the ghetto. This is above all Black music, devoted to rhythm but steeped in confrontational voodoo. As if to underline the cultural rhetoric he throws into the heavy gumbo the Eastern flavours of sitar and tabla as on "Chieftain" and "Black Satin".
John Mclaughlin’s guitar bites and shimmers in a wah-wah frenzy, as does Pete Cosey’s. Both Dave Liebman's and Sonny Fortune's sax and flute frills add pathos…the list goes on and on, but above all the groove holds sway.
For Miles fanatics, hours could be spent identifying the source materials and players who make up each track. Luckily a fabulously comprehensive set of sleevenotes and annotations by mixer Bob Belden does the job perfectly. There’s also an insight into the process of recording by electric cellist and sessioneer extrordinaire, Paul Buckmaster.
It still sounds fearless and almost wilfully formless, but it’s also still some of the greatest music ever recorded. Without this modern music just wouldn't be the same, it’s as simple as that. For this reason alone this may be the most important box set of all released under Miles' name. Every home should have one.