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Miles Davis: The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions

illustration of Miles Davis

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.

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.

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