Miles Davis: A Tribute to Jack Johnson
Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 2150
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.
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 HRAudio.net