In the ’70s, when the progressive young Afro-centric Black man’s fancy turned to fusion, free jazz, and funk, Miles Davis was our hiphop, our punk rock, our glam. He was where supreme Black artistry and supreme Black arrogance folded in on themselves and we got caught up in the efficiency and elegance of his recombination hustle. James Brown we worshipped but mocked. Jimi was gone, Sly even more gone. Who you gonna call? Inky, the Prince of Darkness.
Nostalgia for these youthful enthusiasms is one reason I dutifully entertain every box set of luscious barrel scrapings from albums I once quixotically championed—until hiphop, house, techno, and drum’n’bass made it abundantly clear how sagacious Miles’s drum, bass, percussion, and psychedelia manias would prove for all the experimental pop since. The man with the zeitgeist and the horn. A prophetic, predictive, and reformist force who we miss for his consolidations as much as for his brinksmanship. By 1970, when the Jack Johnson sessions went down, Miles and producer Teo Macero had already bridged the gaps between serious improvisation and serious clicks, cuts, and scratches with DJ Herc still years away. Up till 1975 Miles and Macero dropped proto-everything music—boom-bip to jungle, ambient to moshpit, techno to Timbaland.
The Jack Johnson box is five CDs of jams and outtakes, unmolested master takes and final versions meant to represent Miles and Macero’s state of mind when they produced the original vinyl disc of Miles’s score for William Miles’s documentary on the boxing legend. It’s long been admired as the most concise and satisfying of Miles’s guitar-heavy discs, primarily for the one-two punch of Brit John McLaughlin at his metal-shop crunchiest, dropping distorted and eruptive passing chords like a six-string Kenny Clarke, and Detroiter Michael Henderson straight outta Stevie’s band, wringing tough Jamerson variations, declensions, and dissonances from a walking bassline. With the first beats of Billy Cobham’s suspended shuffle, you know this is some next shit. We’re talking staggeringly angular funk here, funk reconsidered as leapfrogging sentence clauses, stuttering head-slaps, and vertical leaps of faith. Miles’s first solo, a volcanic ode to schizo shadowboxing, illustrates why Miles is the only trumpeter you want to hear try to bob and weave through some funk. His ability to flow over, under, and against big-footed vamps links Miles to hiphop’s dopest lyricists, and omnidirectional hoopsters like Vince Carter. He brings a Cheshire cat illusionism to his insistent lyricism, projecting a spooky half-here half-not void that forces you to feel the warp and curvature of space and experience him as a grinning mirage. Hands can’t hit the stinging butterfly your eyes can’t see.
On the box set there are throwaways titled after other pugilists, including Ali, and except on “Duran,” the ring scientists fire Miles’s muse. Electric Miles was process music on stage or in the studio, and though the Johnson box is best heard by completists who know the original release by heart, it provides an exploded view of electric Miles’s procedural vision back in the day. Sonny Sharrock was more present in these sessions than we knew—on one “Willie Nelson” outtake he blows in like a guitar Bill Dixon, all fog, shadow, and cloudburst, and manages the mean feat of sounding more like the glitch-a-tronic future than any of his compadres. But McLaughlin dominates, adumbrating the beat with ambient and deconstructed wah-wah sighs and what you hear Miles acknowledge as some “raunchy shit.” At the curtain call, deep-throated thespian Brock Peters speaks as Johnson and by implication Miles himself: “I’m Black all right—they never let me forget it. I’m Black all right: I never let them forget it.”
When it comes to Annunciatory Black Genius there can be only one Romantic Ideal. Miles had Johnson, and for as long as Sony’s elves keep scraping and trawling, we got Miles.