Miles Davis: A Tribute to Jack Johnson

Miles Davis
A Tribute to Jack Johnson

This set, a very full LP brought out on a single CD, was one of the series that old Miles Davis fans regarded as horrors when originally released. Their hero had turned ‘electronic’ and participated in an early version of fusion. Davis going over to the other side? Say it ain’t so!

The liner notes state that after having ventured into jazz-rock not so long before this recording, here Davis went into rock-jazz. In terms of the balance between general rock passages and specific jazz ones, that notation is not far from the truth. The phrase jazz-rock fits mostly insofar as the introduction each of the two titles is plunged into the depth of Davis (at his best by standards applicable throughout his preceding career) and his astonishing playing is followed by mostly a lot of rock.

Davis devotees will assuredly own this music, previously issued on a five CD set which included all the sessions where much of this material was put to tape. The two included items (25-26 minutes each) were tailored into the music initially issued by Teo Macero, ace record producer and also a composer influenced by the tape-surgery of Edgard Varese (who gets called plain Edgar here, just as his pupil becomes in one prominent place Marcero[sic]).

“Right Off ” filled side one of the original vinyl issue, and opens with young John McLaughlin sounding incredibly fresh and vital on bluesy rock guitar. Davis had told him to outdo himself, and McLaughlin fulfilled the request by (whether he knew it or not) emulating Freddie Green, Count Basie’s inseparable rhythm guitarist: developing the music’s movement by playing the same chords but with successively different and unusual fingerings.

If Davis did in a sense burn himself out over the course of his career, that’s because he seemed to have kept trying to outdo himself. The eight minutes of fiery trumpet improvisation over a repeated guitar figure highlight “Right Off” as a performance futilely chasing perfection. Macero felt the necessity to insert a taped section between the end of the trumpet solo and what had followed in the jam; unfortunately the brief passage which was inserted (drawn from tapes of Davis’s In a Silent Way sessions) seems over-deliberate and somewhat dated now.

What follows is a soprano saxophone solo from Steve Grossman and a lot of McLaughlin and Herbie Hancock (playing a nasally sounding electric organ), Billy Cobham at times belabouring his drums and the former Motown bass guitarist Michael Henderson working with flair and efficiency. In comparison with the Davis solo all this other input tends toward the monotonous; ingenious but not affording much by way of inspiration. It’s incredible what Davis was able to do with so very little, while the rest juggle rhythmic figures and reorganise the original material.

The second title opens with McLaughlin’s quietly clanging guitar and then Davis’s soft, spare playing. His entry seems to have subdued the guitarist, and as the bass repeats an ostinato figure (very effective Henderson throughout) Davis solos, making use of the spatial parameters with an unusual ballad-esque finesse. His solo has a continuity of structure even more remarkable than the one on “Right Off”, and it unfolds as if shrewdly planned from the opening note.

The great musicologist Heinrich Shencker writes of the ideal performance having a peak toward which it aspires and moves, and after which it has to find a way back or down. He was talking especially about symphonies, but each of the two tracks on this CD peaks with Davis’s expert soloing. McLaughlin’s variety of chords presents an amazing effect of treading water, circling, postponing realisation that a vamp is a vamp is a vamp. Hancock manages an interesting sound when he joins in on organ, with un-credited electronic contributions by Sonny Sharrock on the second of the two titles.

Even Hancock’s efforts don’t do much besides adding variety (to dispel monotony), and most of the material after the initial solo is lighter-weight business. Davis’s re-entry at the end of the second track provides a tease, one that leaves listeners wanting more. Then there is a simulacrum of the sort of sound made by Gil Evans and Davis on their duly celebrated earlier sessions. It’s there to bring things together, and the knot is double-tied by an announcement in the bass baritone voice of Brock Peters, celebrating the great boxer Johnson in terms of a sort of pagan pride. This recording had a connection to the documentary film from thirty years ago, whose soundtrack consisted of at least some of this music, yet the precise relationship isn’t dwelt upon. It’s an all right CD, but since it republishes nothing but the original vinyl album (though that ran some fifty-three minutes and there’s no complaint about quantity here) it’s essentially the same as an earlier reissue on what Columbia Legacy presumably would call a sister label.

RATING 7 / 10