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October 2003

Miles Davis
The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions
Columbia/Legacy

Tailoring a jazz vocabulary to tap the American youth market in 1970 was nothing new when Miles Davis embarked on the sessions that yielded A Tribute To Jack Johnson. What separated the trumpeter's strategy from those of his predecessors was the decision to make key elements of popular music more intense and complex instead of diluting the jazz. First and foremost of these elements was attack, specifically that of Jimi Hendrix and his Band of Gypsys drummer, Buddy Miles. This catalyzed the transition from the trippy sensuality of Bitches Brew to the pugnacity of Jack Johnson.

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Johanna Goodman

illustration of Miles Davis

This five-CD set reveals in almost excruciating detail how Davis lurched into and refined the components that gives waggish credence to the idea that Jack Johnson is "the greatest rock and roll record ever made." As the chronologically arranged sessions confirm, much of "Yesternow"-which comprised the entire B-side of the original LP-was recorded in the first two of the 11 sessions. This suggests that much of what Davis needed was already at hand, and only required paring to deliver the knockout punch that was "Right Off," the A-side-long tour de force. This is particularly the case concerning the role of bass and drums. From a jazzcentric perspective, one that arguably overvalues virtuosity, both Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette delivered the goods on the initial sessions. Even on repeated takes on a flimsy two-chord vamp, Holland and DeJohnette culled complexity from deep in the pocket with engaging results. Certainly, their work is sufficient to trigger repeated withering volleys from John McLaughlin, whose guitar is the North Star of Davis' explorations.

Yet instead of scrutinizing the materials, Davis responded to the unevenness of these early sessions (which nevertheless birthed some of the most cogent blues of Davis' latter years) by rotating personnel. The pieces came together in short order. Billy Cobham is brought on for the hard-hitting "Duran," and his hook-up with McLaughlin is palpable. Within a month, electric bassist Michael Henderson is aboard for the perfect-storm session that produced the first half of "Yesternow" and all but 76 seconds of "Right Off."

Arguably, "Right Off" is Davis' last masterpiece; it's a unique combination of raw energy, serendipity and postproduction craft. Cobham's jackhammered backbeats, Henderson's deceptively serpentine riffs and McLaughlin's stinging lines and ripsawed power chords were an unprecedented assault on parochial jazz sensibilities by Davis. Yet without Herbie Hancock's impromptu Farfisa workout and producer Teo Macero's deft insertion of a previously recorded trumpet solo in the middle of the finished track, the track would lack a necessary formal dimension. Still, it is Davis' incendiary trumpet that rises above the other elements of the piece, like a prizefighter hoisted onto the shoulders of his corner crew. The first note of his solo alone is masterful, a testament to how great an ear he had. Just before Davis' entrance, McLaughlin shifts to a B-flat tonal center while Henderson maintains the shuffle vamp in E. Miles turns the potentially fatal dissonance inside out with a piercing D flat, a minor third above McLaughlin and a minor third below Henderson. From there, Davis goes on a tear, soloing with a riveting intensity that exceeds even McLaughlin's.

As was the case during the period covered by The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions (which is not as complete as the present volume, which includes both the finished pieces and most of their component parts), Miles refused to stay in one place long, even if the resulting music was searing. One can only speculate where Davis could have taken the harrowing guitar tandem of McLaughlin and Sonny Sharrock, whose Echoplex and feedback-tinged ax singes the previously unissued takes of "Willie Nelson" on disc one. Or if Miles had simply called a second session with the five musicians who appear on "Right Off"-the fifth being soprano saxophonist Steve Grossman, who, despite being only 19, more than holds his own throughout. Instead, Davis roamed far and wide over the course of the collection's remaining sessions. He promptly heavied up both his own sound, via an octave divider, and his ensemble's (with percussionist Airto Moreira and Keith Jarrett as a second keyboardist) for a funk-oriented session featuring "Honky Tonk," which would be reprised for Live-Evil, and "Ali," a workout based on a copped Hendrix riff. After the full version of "Konda," which was released in edited form on the Directions comp, Miles then does an abrupt about-face and records the hauntingly beautiful Hermeto Pascoal compositions issued on Live-Evil: "Nem Um Talvez," "Little High People," "Selim" and "Little Church." Then, as if to confound anyone trying to ascertain emerging trends or tendencies, Davis uses the last session, on disc five, to revisit the avantish tip of his then recently dissolved working band. Featuring Jarrett, Corea, McLaughlin, Holland on double bass, and DeJohnette, the two takes of "The Mask" are as stunning and provocative as anything included in the Live at the Fillmore East recordings Columbia issued in 2001.

This set concludes with the original album, and it's almost anticlimactic after all its parts have been revealed. However, its placement does prompt renewed appreciation of Macero's composerly efforts to give this music its final form, particularly the orchestral and spoken word materials that bring "Yesternow" to its end. Given the fragmentary results from the album's principal sessions and the haphazard course Davis took at times during this period, Macero is due enormous credit for not just the album's coherence but also its fierce nobility and moral gravity.

One of the very few shortcomings of this package is the absence of detailed discussion about Macero's role in this project, or Macero and Davis' collaborative practices in postproduction, generally. Understandably, annotator Bill Milkowski's commentary centers on McLaughlin, whose ascent through these sessions is definitely a-if not the-history-shaping component of this body of work. At the very least, McLaughlin was the obvious catalyst for Miles' moves in this period. However, one comes away from The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions with the sense that the album's unsung hero is Teo Macero.

Originally published in October 2003
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