The Complete On the Corner Sessions
Picture this: You’ve stumbled onto a construction site where impressive work is under way. The builders appear to know their trade, pouring concrete and hauling steel. But no one cops to knowing the design, and the contractor, however carefully observant, is keeping his thoughts to himself. Lord knows if there’s an architect. From the perimeter, passersby vigorously debate what’s going up: a monument, a theme park or a mall.
Don’t scrutinize the metaphor too closely, but that scenario conveys some of the sensory confusion you might feel as you dig into The Complete On the Corner Sessions, the latest Miles Davis box set from the Columbia/Legacy vaults. Spanning several years and encompassing more than two-dozen musicians, it’s an expansive document that sheds new light without answering too many questions. And it comes under the banner of one of the worst selling albums in Davis’ catalog, and probably the most widely reviled.
The controversy may be the first thing to address here. On the Corner is, after all, the album that most alienated Davis from much of his jazz base. From the cover illustration, a cartoon Blaxploitation tableau by Corky McCoy, to the aggressive repetition of the grooves, it entered the world in 1971 with a blaze of confrontation. Critic Stanley Crouch would later appropriate its title for a scathing and now-anthologized essay. (His subtitle: “The Sellout of Miles Davis.”) And he was articulating what more than a few people felt.
In certain non-jazz circles, though, On the Corner had an impact that has only grown clearer and less ambiguous over time. Its otherworldly funk, somehow both hypnotic and clangorous, set the precedent for a whole subspecies of DJ culture. There are enormous summer festivals across the country featuring bands that replicate its vibe. Sure, Bitches Brew had the revolutionary simmer, but On the Corner was what brought things to a boil.
As with other recent Legacy box sets chronicling Davis’ post-Woodstock sessions, this one serves as a reminder of just how much razorblade splicing went into the finished product. Producer Teo Macero deserves credit, as usual, for extracting some choice material from an overwhelming amount of music. The more time you spend with the unexpurgated studio takes, the more you come to marvel at the astuteness of his choices.
The set’s purview stretches past its namesake album: The latest session heard here dates from October 1974, not quite a year before Davis’ spooky semiretirement. So this material establishes a through line between On the Corner and some subsequent releases, like Get Up With It (which was largely culled from these sessions) and Big Fun (which includes “Ife,” found here).
Most of the tracks rest on the granite authority of electric bassist Michael Henderson, and the in-the-pocket efforts of a few fine drummers. Al Foster whips up a prototype breakbeat on “Chieftain,” previously unreleased, and later receives a compellingly atmospheric honorific: “Mr. Foster,” also unreleased, with a searching solo by tenor saxophonist David Liebman. Billy Hart gets a song in his name, too: “Jabali,” a sinuous dose of Bitches-like funk that, again, is issued here for the first time.
Along with a mutating cast of musicians—guitarist John McLaughlin eventually gets replaced with Pete Cosey; keyboardists Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea by Cedric Lawson and then Miles himself—this set acknowledges a debt to the British cellist and composer Paul Buckmaster, who had worked with Elton John and the Rolling Stones. Buckmaster, who claims some credit for hipping Davis to the compositional process of Karlheinz Stockhausen, argues in the liner notes that “On the Corner” and some contemporaneous tracks “sound even more fresh and new today than back in 1972.” Of course, this is a bit hard to square with his confession, in the Paul Tingen book Miles Beyond, that “On the Corner is probably my least favorite Miles album.”
But maybe it’s appropriate, given the ever-polarizing effect of this music. One person might slog through these six discs and hear mostly stasis and repetition. (“Turnaround” clearly doesn’t refer to a harmonic sequence.) Another person might regard the set as a fever dream, a call to inner revolution, or a call to party. Whatever works.
What seems funny about this music in retrospect is the notion that it could ever serve as an effective bridge to African-American youth culture, a means of staying fresh. Davis was obsessed with the idea at the time, but at least during this phase, selling out wasn’t something he could pull off. There’s only one track on all six discs that has any potential as a single: “Black Satin,” a marvelous specimen of halting gutter funk, with sleigh bells, tablas, handclaps and a whistled hook. It’s been my ring tone for at least the past year.