Miles Davis: On the Corner
Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 2171
Exotic, Bold, Streetwise: Spirited 1972 Album Embraces Davis' "Jungle Sound" With Percussive Foundations, Trance Loops, and Transformational Arrangements
Miles Davis' boundlessly influential On the Corner was so far ahead of its time upon release in 1972, the jazz cognoscenti rejected its groundbreaking concoction as middling in nature. Yet time has a way of righting wrongs and shifting views by adding needed context and perspective to visionary ideas, music, and approaches – the likes of which fill Davis' boldest and most controversial – undertaking. Designed to bring the focus back on the groove and bottom-end frequencies, the funk-loaded On the Corner revolutionized jazz. It also set new standards for record production, presaging remixing and electronica by more than a decade. And the work has never sounded more thrilling.
New degrees of spaciousness and airiness – equally important to the musique concrete arrangements – give the impression Davis and Co.'s creations float in space. Instruments are portrayed in three-dimensional manners, rhythmic loops retain tonal purity, and horn solos skitter across an extra-wide soundstage that takes listeners into Columbia's Studio E. our digital version captures Teo Macero's innovative production – and the trumpeter's cutting-edge aural collages – in definitive fashion.
Heavily inspired by Sly and the Family Stone, On the Corner portrays street vibes and remains Davis' blackest-sounding record. The conscious attempt to connect with youthful audiences tapped into rock and funk is evident not only on the colorful cartoon cover art depicting hot-pants and zoot-suit revelers, but in the music's emphasis of recurring drum and bass grooves. Distinct from Davis' earlier fusion experiments, the record's long-misunderstood set dials back improvisation in favor of beats, loops, and atmospherics that generate trance-like effects. While Davis utilizes his band for core duties – Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock prominently figure – he also relies on an all-star cast of sidemen for concentrated soloing and additional support.
With rhythm providing the basic foundation, other notes fall into place, with their positioning steered by Macero and Davis' editing-room techniques. Looking to the manipulation-based work of Karlheinze Stockhausen and teaming with Stockhausen disciple Paul Buckmaster, Davis re-imagines what grooves constituted and could accomplish throughout On the Corner. The shapes of the songs become completely transformed as they progress. Faint melodies, spacey chords, chunky riffs, wah-wah fills, and repeated motifs bounce in and out of a sonic funhouse that wouldn't be out of place at a Harlem block party. Exotic, intrepid, and filled with Davis' "jungle sound," On the Corner remains daringly hip more than four decades later.
Review by Mark Werlin - October 21, 2016
On The Corner was the most alienating and controversial record Miles Davis ever recorded. Almost none of his generation of jazz musicians, much less the jazz critics of the day, understood or appreciated the album's rigorous beauty. Even the musicians who collaborated and played on the sessions were perplexed by Miles' enigmatic creative process.
That was precisely the point.
After maintaining Miles' high-priced lifestyle for numerous years with generous advances against royalties, Columbia Records finally made their investment back on the best-selling 1969 double album Miles Davis: Bitches Brew and subsequent live recordings. Miles had broken out of the jazz club circuit and was playing to full houses at Bill Graham's Fillmore venues in New York and San Francisco, and at concert halls and colleges on both coasts. Throughout that period, he was also burning through studio time and dumping hours of tape on producer Teo Macero. When the volatile trumpet player could manage to be civil in Macero's presence for any length of time, they worked on refining the experimental (for jazz) practice of cutting, editing and looping takes, isolating and running tracks through echo, reverb, distortion and other effects that they'd started doing on "In a Silent Way", to create the tracks that would appear on the albums "A Tribute to Jack Johnson" and after a long delay, "Big Fun".
Restless for new musical inspiration, Miles spent hours listening to pre-release rough mixes supplied by Columbia of songs that eventually appeared on Sly and the Family Stone's album "Fresh." Sly was addicted to cocaine, distracted by groupies, dealers and bodyguards, and was recording very slowly—but in his own eccentric way, methodically. And he was experimenting with the kinds of studio techniques that intrigued Miles.
In early 1972, Miles began working with English cellist-composer Paul Buckmaster, who had written arrangements and conducted on recordings by the Rolling Stones and Elton John. Buckmaster was drawn to the German avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, many of whose compositions included pre-recorded electronics. The prospect of a cross-genre encounter with the jazz trumpeter seemed to offer limitless possibilities. While staying at Miles' townhouse, he wrote charts and extensive notes in preparation for a large-scale recording session that would include players from the Bitches Brew sessions, but in a different musical framework.
Whatever Buckmaster thought Miles intended to do with his charts, he was mistaken. Miles had other plans. On the first day of recording, June 1, 1972, the cellist showed his charts to the two drummers, Jack DeJohnette and Billy Hart. According to Buckmaster, who was interviewed in Paul Tingen's meticulously-researched book Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991:
"…I sang my phrases to the drummer, and they started playing them. Miles said, 'Good, leave it like that,' but I wanted to say 'that's not what I mean!' … instead of playing the grooves I'd written, they played the fills, and they became the groove… the rhythm was never intended by me to be as obsessively repetitious as it became."
Anyone who had ever heard Billy Hart or Jack DeJohnette perform live would have known that you don't tell a master percussionist what he can or cannot play. Hart and DeJohnette heard exactly where the groove was, and they knew who was leading the session—and it wasn't Buckmaster.
A recollection from bassist Michael Henderson:
"Paul Buckmaster came in with some charts, but I don't think anybody followed them."
The charts that nobody followed were written according to the cellist's interpretation of the albums Miles Davis: In A Silent Way and Miles Davis: Bitches Brew. But he wasn't at those recording sessions to witness Miles' creative process, and he didn't realize that all the preparation he'd done for On the Corner—the charts, discussions about Stockhausen, practicing Bach cello suites—had made a deep impression on Miles, who was now fully prepared to discard all of those maps and explore the actual territory of music-making.
Miles knew—the moment he heard them play—that his two drummers were locked in the right groove, regardless of Buckmaster's preconceptions. He knew that he could silently gesture for the late-arriving saxophonist Dave Liebman to enter the studio and start playing a solo with no headphones to hear the other instruments and no preparation whatsoever, not even an indication of what key he should play in. That kind of knowledge can't be charted, analyzed or rationalized. Musicians interviewed in Tingen's book compared Miles to a zen master, a guru, a magician.
Miles' process hinged on the disruption of conventional communications with his sidemen. The only musicians in the On the Corner sessions who had any idea what to expect were Buckmaster (whose expectations were upended), bassist Michael Henderson and drummers Hart and DeJohnette. Miles did not discuss or rehearse the music with anyone else; the other players had to grasp what he was seeking from them by listening to the music in the moment it was being created, and watching for the leader's nonverbal responses.
It shouldn't have worked. But it did work.
Side One of the LP, On the Corner / New York Girl / Thinkin' of One Thing and Doin' Another / Vote for Miles, was edited by Miles and producer Teo Macero from the output of the June 1 session. (Sony's boxed set "The Complete On the Corner Sessions" contains some but not all of that session in unedited form.) Probably their most significant and expectation-confounding choice was to push the horns, guitar and keyboards far back in the mix and bring Indian percussionist Badal Roy and the two drummers forward. This balance forces the audience out of passive receptivity into active listening—you have to engage with the music or else turn away. There's no middle ground. The sheer density of sound is almost overwhelming. Floating behind layers of rhythm, the electric keyboard instruments paint abstract patterns while the wah-wah trumpet and soprano saxophone draw lines on the sonic canvas.
Producer Macero experimented with post-production techniques in the creation of the LP Side Two segments. The June 6 session that was used to create "Black Satin", "One and One" and the astonishing 23-minute "Helen Butte/Mr. Freedom X" was recorded to 16-track tape, then mixed and transferred to a second 16-track machine, allowing for extensive overdubs at the July 7 session. The Side Two segments again feature driving grooves from drummers Hart and DeJohnette, augmented by percussionists Badal Roy, Don Alias and James Mtume.
Mtume would become a critical member of the "funk collective"—the 1973-1975 band—which he has eloquently defended in recent years against the baseless claim by conservative jazz apologist Stanley Crouch that Miles Davis turned to electric music in response to demands by label chief Clive Davis that he produce saleable records. Mtume recalls Miles saying "if you're going to create new music, you must have access to new sounds and new colors."
On the Corner is richly painted with new colors. In "Helen Butte/Mr. Freedom X" the large rhythm section and multiple electronic keyboards display a wide tonal palette, and far from overbalancing the sound, open up space for melodic solos from Miles, saxophonist Carlos Garnett, bass clarinetist Bennie Maupin, and guitarist Dave Creamer. Dynamics build towards the midpoint of the piece when Hart and DeJohnette suddenly add forceful drum fills, breaking out of the trance groove with fury and release.
Garnett's solo is almost surprisingly mainstream, Maupin explores the idiom of mid-60s free jazz and the keyboards dart in and out of the background. Guitarist Dave Creamer contributes an introspective solo free of rock or jazz cliché phrases. The Northern California-based musician, a respected player and educator who published several books and articles on theory and technique for guitarists, has emerged out of the obscurity into which he was consigned by Miles Davis biographers. Even Paul Tingen, a professional guitarist, wrote in 2001 that "nothing is known of Dave Creamer." That wasn't actually true; Creamer was well-known to the editors at Guitar Player magazine and to his guitar students (such as Joe Satriani). Today, anyone with access to YouTube can hear this brilliant, if under-recorded musician.
Miles' insistence on the primacy of rhythm, the necessity of technological interventions, the meeting of preparation and chance, were widely misunderstood and mischaracterized by jazz and rock music critics at the time the album was released. The radical presentation of the music failed to register with jazz critics of the time. At a remove of four and a half decades, the music on Side One seems much more comprehensible, in no small part due to its influence on subsequent art-rock trends (No Wave in the late '70s, downtown jazz in the '80s), in the techniques of hip-hop production, and the multicultural synthesis of World Music. Wadada Leo Smith and Henry Kaiser's Yo Miles! and writer-musician Greg Tate's band Burnt Sugar resonate with the revolutionary soundfield of On the Corner.
When the Side One medley cuts in at full force you'll think you stepped onto an uptown NYC street corner. The blare, the insistent rhythm… it's impenetrable on a single listening. Mobile Fidelity's new transfer drew me to listen more than once, to listen with deeper attention to the background instruments. This is the third SACD issue of the album, with two previous releases on Sony Japan. It is verifiably sourced from the original master, and like the other titles in MoFi's Miles Davis SACD series, it presents the sound on tape in vivid detail while preserving the analogue character of the recording. All of the electronic manipulations used in the studio, wah-wah pedals on the trumpet, Michael Henderson's bass guitar and John McLaughlin's electric guitar, Yamaha electric organ, Fender Rhodes electric piano and ARP monophonic synthesizer, the guitar and bass amplifiers, were produced with analogue devices that generated intentional harmonic distortion. (Listen to Henderson's bass guitar timbre deepen as he clicks his wah-wah off and on during the Side Two segments.) That character of sound has not been well served by mastering to 16/44.1—amplifier and device distortion sounds unrealistically harsh at that resolution and file density.
Mobile Fidelity's tape-transfer chain has a warm sonic character that makes this series of SACDs and concurrent LP pressings highly listenable and worth collecting. Rob LoVerde faithfully recreates the sound of the original master tape so that those with open ears and open minds can hear what Miles Davis intended.
Copyright © 2016 Mark Werlin and HRAudio.net