Miles Smirks

Charting the genesis of the seething On the Corner across six sprawling discs

The title of the six-CD Miles Davis Complete "On the Corner" Sessions box set is misleading, and that's good. So far, only one of his Complete Sessions packages has lived up to its name: 2003's Jack Johnson set really did contain raw, fragmented takes that producer Teo Macero spliced together to create the side-long jams ("Right Off" and "Yesternow") that made up 1970's original A Tribute to Jack Johnson. The Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way boxes, though, did nothing of the kind, instead placing those albums in a broader context, surrounding them with contemporaneous studio work (cuts from compilations like Big Fun and Water Babies) and previously unreleased material. Each set covered a period of about a year, maybe 18 months, during which time Miles and his band were laying down many more tracks than Columbia's release schedule could handle. The five-CD Jack Johnson box covered only a few months in early to mid-1970.

This On the Corner set, by contrast, gathers all the worthwhile studio recordings Miles made between 1972 and 1975. And yes, it includes raw versions of jams that were later edited to become 1972's titular album—a relentless, seething masterpiece that's been my favorite Davis disc since I first heard it as a teenager in the late '80s. But it also piles up tracks from Big Fun and the 1974 double album Get Up with It, along with the one-chord, rare non-album single "Big Fun/Hollywuud" and about three hours' worth of previously unreleased studio tracks that are the equal of, if not better than, the ones we Miles freaks have been obsessing over for years already. This is especially true of the new material on discs three and five, where the band Davis formed in 1973 (saxophonist Dave Liebman, later replaced by Sonny Fortune; guitarists Pete Cosey, Reggie Lucas, and Dominique Gaumont; bassist Michael Henderson; drummer Al Foster; and percussionist Mtume) had solidified through hard touring and was ready to spit fire in the studio.

Cuts like "Jabali," "The Hen," "Hip-Skip," and "What They Do" are based around fairly straight-ahead funk-rock grooves, anchored by Henderson's thunderous, dub-as-Zen basslines and Foster's metronomic, Kraut-rock-meets-metal drumming. Lucas plays one chord like he's backing James Brown or Earth, Wind & Fire; Mtume pitter-pats around the edges, adding '70s ghetto Afrolistics; the three lead players solo in their own styles. Cosey, a Chicago-based guitarist who backed Muddy Waters on the much-loathed Electric Mud several years before joining Miles's band, was a post-Hendrix flame-thrower whose playing—frequently from a Buddha-like seated position onstage—prefigured both Eddie Van Halen and Greg Ginn. Miles, for his part, was as deep into the wah-wah pedal as his ax man in these years, sputtering out shimmering ribbons of sound and the occasional piercing stab.

Ultimately, though, On the Corner still stands alone in Davis's discography, neither illuminated nor softened by the presence of all this other stuff. It's a throbbing hive of clatter and blare, a sonic portrait of a place I'd never want to live. It kicked off his final sprint through the studio and across the world's stages prior to his 1975-80 retirement, but it was a singular gesture, a combination "fuck you" and "welcome to my world." It was also Miles's final album-as-manifesto until 1986's ice-cold, almost all-electronic Tutu, another album I love dearly.

Perhaps this previously unreleased studio material was buried because Miles didn't feel it represented the band at its best. Certainly, none of it has the balls-out ferocity of Dark Magus or the disorienting, Afro-psychedelic power of Agharta and Pangaea (two concerts recorded in a single day). Some of it's almost . . . ordinary, in a Funkadelic-meets-Louis-Armstrong-at- Hendrix's-gravesite kind of way. Maybe Miles figured if he couldn't spin your head all the way around Linda Blair–style, better to just get back on the road, blow the walls down, and let archivists dig this stuff up when he was gone and past caring. That's what happened. And while I can understand that way of thinking, I'm damn glad this music's finally slinking and strutting out into the daylight.

 
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