Miles Davis: A Tribute to Jack Johnson

Miles Davis: A Tribute to Jack Johnson

Mobile Fidelity  UDSACD 2150

Stereo Hybrid


Miles Davis

Miles Davis’ A Tribune to Jack Johnson is the best jazz-record ever made. Equally inspired by the leader’s desire to assemble the “greatest rock and roll band you have ever heard” as well as his adoration of Johnson, Davis created a hard-hitting set that spills over with excitement, intensity, majesty, and power. Bridging the electric fusion he’d pursued on earlier efforts with a funkier, dirtier rhythmic approach, Davis zeroes in on concepts of spontaneity, freedom, and identity seldom achieved in the studio. Mobile Fidelity’s sterling reissue brings it all to fore with unsurpassed realism.

Mastered from the original master tapes, this collectable audiophile version of A Tribute to Jack Johnson joins the ranks of eleven other essential Davis sets given supreme sonic and packaging treatment by Mobile Fidelity. The most prominent difference longtime fans will notice is how much more aggressive and immediate the music sounds, aspects central to the composer’s desires. Amazing degrees of instrumental separation and imaging allow you to focus on singular musicians and the roles they play.

Indeed, utilizing wah-wah and distortion, guitarist John McLaughlin comes on here with a nasty edge, slashing style, and vicious streak that allows A Tribute to Jack Johnson finally cross the divide between rock and jazz. Davis puts both feet in the former camp and permanently erasing any gap. In addition to highlighting McLaughlin’s ripping performances, Mobile Fidelity’s SACD showcases the headliner’s white-hot trumpet solos like never before. Bristling with exuberance, Davis’ high-register passages explode with authority and commanding presence. Around him, a barrage of urgent backbeats, knifing riffs, and three-dimension bass lines emerge amidst an ink-black background.

The least-well known true masterpiece of Davis’ career, the 1971 record—like Bitches Brew, seamlessly assembled from sessions by producer Ted Macero—was a victim of scant promotion. But to those that heard it, among them critic/musician Robert Quine and renowned writer Robert Christgau, A Tribute to Jack Johnson surpasses everything that came before. Davis treated it as a personal manifesto: An opportunity to salute the championship boxer admired for his threatening image to the establishment and taste in clothes, cars, women and music. Davis explains in the liner notes his affinity for Johnson—a stance revealed in the music, which simultaneously hits with a prize fighter’s brutal force and reflects the graceful elegance with which a pugilist navigates the ring.

Producer and journalist Michael Cuscuna may have summed up the record’s significance in 2003: “The dense textures introduced and developed the prior fall on the Bitches Brew recording sessions gave way to a lean, stripped-down, guitar-heavy sound. There was now only one drummer, and that kept the groove more pronounced and defined. The three-keyboard configuration appears only on the last session; the rest have none, one, or two, and they are used sparingly.”

By any measure, A Tribute to Jack Johnson is a monster album. Experience it the way Davis would’ve wanted you to hear it.

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1. Right Off
2. Yesternow
Reviews (1)

Review by Mark Werlin - November 8, 2018

In 1970, at the time of the recording sessions for A Tribute to Jack Johnson, Miles Davis had been under contract to Columbia Records for nearly 15 years. From Miles Davis: ‘Round About Midnight to Miles Davis: Bitches Brew, Columbia had successfully commodified Miles' unmistakable sound, his exemplary bands, and his cool, arrogant image. In response, Miles spent Columbia's money. On cars. On clothes. On alimony. And as he restlessly pursued new directions in music, on studio time. The box sets of sessions recorded for or around In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, A Tribute to Jack Johnson and On the Corner, reveal a working method that involved setting his musicians an impossible task of figuring out what he wanted from them and telling them practically nothing, while tape was rolling.

That In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew are so artistically successful can be attributed in part to the collaboration of another strong musical personality—Joe Zawinul—who wrote preparatory sketches and co-conducted the ensembles. Zawinul's departure to launch Weather Report created a void that Miles stubbornly refused to fill. He was determined to make new music that did not privilege the piano.

The personnel on the February 18, 1970 session, John McLaughlin on guitar, Sonny Sharrock on guitar/echoplex, Benny Maupin on bass clarinet, Chick Corea on electric piano, Dave Holland on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums, are virtuoso musicians. But the OCD repetition of basic drum and bass patterns that Miles demanded (listen to the numerous takes and inserts of "Willie Nelson" on the Complete Jack Johnson Sessions box set) makes you want to throw something at the loudspeakers.

What was Miles getting at?

Four sessions later, when he convened the April 7, 1970 date that generated most of the music heard on the finished release of Jack Johnson, the band was almost entirely different: only John McLaughlin reappears. Bassist Michael Henderson, sax player Steve Grossman and drummer Billy Cobham were new to Miles. Herbie Hancock dropped by to hear the session and was drafted on the spot to play electric organ.

While Miles was in the recording booth talking with producer Teo Macero, McLaughlin, Henderson and Cobham (recalled by McLaughlin) "began to get bored. I began playing a blues structure…in E, really, with some funny angular chords…We hit a groove very quickly. And at that moment Miles ran in the studio…to play some of the most inspired trumpet I have ever heard." (Complete Jack Johnson Sessions booklet, pp. 71-72).

McLaughlin isn't exaggerating. Miles Davis' first solo on "Right Off" is one of the high points in his recorded legacy. From the outset, when McLaughlin modulates to Bb (and it takes Michael Henderson several bars to realize what key they're now playing in), Miles is on fire. This is what he was trying to get at in the earlier sessions, and it happens almost accidentally. Throughout the trumpet passages, Miles sustains a level of intensity that's positively demonic. After a quiet interpolated trumpet and electronics interlude, you almost can't hear Steve Grossman—your ears are still buzzing from the trumpet solo.

Herbie Hancock appears at 15:00, testing out an instrument which McLaughlin refers to as a terrible-sounding Farfisa electric organ, though it could be the Fender "Contempo" electric organ that Keith Jarrett played in the 1970-71 live engagements and concerts. Hancock plays sparse single-note lines, leaving a lot of space, perhaps watching for Miles' reaction. A little further along, he plays sustained tone clusters and stabs of repetitive ascending block chords, anticipating what Miles himself would play on the electric organ with the 1974-75 band. The remainder of the 26:54 features more soloing by Miles, Grossman and McLaughlin assembled by Macero from separately recorded takes. The repetitive riff appropriated from Sly Stone's "Play a Simple Song" remained in the Davis band book as "Theme from Jack Johnson", and was a regular medley component in the 1974-1975 period.

Segments of "Willie Nelson" recorded in February were edited by producer Teo Macero into the April recording of the original album's Side Two (Yesternow). The juxtaposition of two different bands, and the inclusion of a separate orchestral passage with voiceover narration situates the piece outside the margins of jazz production of that period; Yesternow is completely unlike the documentary film soundtracks of the 1970s or the jazz-rock music created by Miles' ex-sidemen. Its dreamlike and impressionistic mood lingers long after the music is over.

A sonic "boxing match" between the MoFi SACD and the relevant tracks on the Sony box set gives the decision to MoFi. For the box set, Mark Wilder remixed the 8-track studio tapes to recreate the original album sequence. The box set shines a spotlight on the period when Miles was using the recording studio as a sketchpad. Michael Henderson and Sonny Sharrock especially, are well served by Mark Wilder's mixes of the takes and inserts.

The MoFi SACD has all the virtues of the original LP mix and mastering, with none of the compromises needed in 1970 to get the music onto vinyl grooves. There's good bass extension, warm analogue character to the electric guitar and electric organ, and forceful presence to the trumpet and drums. The box set is essential for Miles Davis completists, but I'll reach for the MoFi SACD when I want to hear the original album.

Copyright © 2018 Mark Werlin and



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Comments (6)

Comment by Mark Powers - January 15, 2017 (1 of 6)

This has now been released. I received my copy from Acoustic Sounds on 1/13/17. A very good Miles Davis performance with Billy Cobham.

Comment by GregM - January 20, 2017 (2 of 6)

The content is well known, but how does the MFSL compare to the earlier JSACD version? This comparison would be useful.

Comment by Downunderman - March 5, 2018 (3 of 6)

Well GregM I cannot give you a comparison beyond general observations around the respective sonic character of the Miles Davis titles (JSACD/Mofi)in the titles from this period.

I have listened to other JSACD Miles titles from this period, but not this one.

For want of a better word the Mofi Davis titles sound more natural (but still highly detailed)than the JSACD efforts which sound more clinical in presentation. As is generally the Japanese mastering style.

For source tapes that are a bit ropey the Japanese mastering style can be a net positive, but when the source tapes are in very good condition AND very well recorded (as these are) in the first place then it tends to be a net negative.

There is also the fact that Mofi had actual physical access to the master tapes. I'm not sure this would have been the case for the JSACD's

This Mofi title has been mastered by Shawn Britton and a brilliant job has been done by him. listening to it makes you feel you are in the studio.

Comment by Mark Werlin - March 9, 2018 (4 of 6)

I'm in full agreement with Downunderman's comments.

Mobile Fidelity Miles Davis Columbia SACDs are sourced from either the original master tapes or the best available 1st generation copy. I have the MoFi A Tribute to Jack Johnson and the 2003 Sony box set "The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions". For the box set, Mark Wilder remixed the studio 8-channel tapes to recreate the original album sequence. The remixed and remastered "Right Off" and "Yesternow" are on Disc 5 of the set.

Excerpt from the liner notes (p. 118)

"This box set was mixed from the original 8-track 1" analog master tapes using DSD Technology [sic]. A DSD stereo mix and a 5.1 multi-channel mix were made simultaneously by mixing from the 8-track master directly in the Sony "Sonoma" system."

If Wilder's stereo DSD remix was the source of the JSACD, then the JSACD would sound better than, but very similar to, the stereo mix on the CD box set. But what happened to the 5.1 MCH mix? Perhaps the liner notes are in error. The JSACD (SME SRGS4504) is described as stereo single layer on its HRAudio page, and none of the user reviews on the old site mentions a MCH program (or rates the sound quality very highly).

The MoFi SACD has the virtues of the original LP mix and mastering, with none of the compromises needed in 1970 to get the music onto vinyl grooves. The box set gives a broad perspective on the period of time when Miles was using the recording studio as a sketchpad. Michael Henderson, and Sonny Sharrock especially, are well served by Mark Wilder's remix. But I reach for the MoFi SACD when I want to hear the original album sequence.

Comment by Mark Werlin - November 8, 2018 (5 of 6)

I meant to review this album months ago and finally got around to it today. I’ve been re-listening to a number of SACDs (including Jack Johnson) through headphones to get a different perspective on the remastering. And while I don't think it's "the best jazz-record ever made" (see the promo at the head of this page), I do think Jack Johnson is one of the most compelling jazz-rock-funk-art records of its time.

Miles' 1969-1975 electric albums still resonate with jazz musicians — check out Dave Holland's recent album Aziza, with guitarist Lionel Loueke.

Comment by Kandiru - January 2, 2020 (6 of 6)

No expert here but this blows me into another dimension on my fully balanced UD9004/CP700/CA-2200/Paradigm Ref. Sig. 8 rig.

It is a reference disc, the one you put on to show off your theater to a classic jazz lover.

Very much in love, MoFi sound engineering rarely disappoints.