Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Corner shopping

Sony/Columbia has, for many years now, been milking the Miles Davis legacy, creating box set after box set based on the sessions for later albums such as In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew and Tribute to Jack Johnson. At £50 and up, these sets appealed to completists, audiophiles and spendthrifts alike. But, like the BBC putting off making Titus Andronicus until the very end of its Complete Works of Shakespeare cycle, Sony has shied away from issuing a box set based on the extended sessions for On The Corner, notoriously one of Miles' more "difficult" albums. Until now.

With On The Corner we’re a long way from Kind of Blue. Miles is in full-on early-70s black power mode. He doesn’t give a fuck. You can tell this just by looking at him—he’s wearing those glasses that look a bit like welding goggles. On The Corner is not an easy listen, and Miles isn’t pandering to the critics; a pre-Camper van Beethoven Eugene Chadbourne reviewed the LP for Coda magazine on its release, and opined:
His new music is pure arrogance. It's like coming home and finding Miles there, his fancy feet upon your favourite chair.
Miles reputedly felt that jazz had increasingly become a dead end, and this was his response, a soupy fusion of funk riffs and rock chops that owed more to Hendrix, James Brown and Stockhausen than it did to Coltrane. Incredible though it may seem when listening to the LP, he didn’t mean to alienate his rapidly shrinking fan-base, though that was the album's ultimate effect; in fact, he felt that the (con)fusion of On The Corner was the best way to connect with younger black audiences alienated by Nixon and Vietnam.

While Miles’ name is on the sleeve, much of the credit must be given to Jack DeJohnette (that hissing, insistent hi-hat), Chick Corea, John McLaughlin and Herbie Hancock. However, the lion’s share of the plaudits must go to producer Teo Macero, who trawled through hours of Davis’ crack band’s noodling with a pair of scissors, and somehow managed to salvage some sort of shape out of the endless jamming. The album is constructed almost entirely of tape loops and edits, and so audiences that have been exposed to Squarepusher and Autechre will not find it quite as alien as punters did in 1972.

The album received almost universally appalling reviews (even some of the musicians who played on it hated it-- tenor saxophonist David Liebman was particularly scornful), sold poorly and caused Miles to cease studio work until the 1980s. Its reputation grew slowly, though; so much so that the album was cited as a touchstone for bands such as Defunkt and Living Colour. Now it's held in high esteem by bands like The Noisettes, at least according to this article, which gives more background to the box set's release.

Reportedly, this is the last box set that Sony will issue of Miles’ work with them; presumably they don’t feel that the Complete You’re Under Arrest Sessions will sell big, or that there’s much of a demand for The Unreleased Tutu Recordings. And, to give Miles his due, he had changed his working methods by the early 80s, relying less on extracting materials from hours of extended jams, and more on structuring songs before going into the studio. Which means there probably isn’t all that much left in the vaults.

The box set, which confusingly also contains material that eventually surfaced on Get Up With It and Big Fun, is possibly overkill even for Miles enthusiasts. But just in case you think you may be in the mood for six hours of electronic jamming, I've included a quick download of one of the original album's shorter tracks, Black Satin, below. If you like it, you might like the album, the second side of which is variations on Black Satin. And if you really like it, there's always the box set, which you can buy here. As a bonus, you can also download a Sly and Robbie cover of the tune from their peerless Language Barrier album below.

Download Black Satin by Miles Davis mp3 (deleted May 2008)

Download Miles (Black Satin) by Sly and Robbie mp3 (deleted May 2008)


The Drood's website weighs in with a review of the original release


Digital Plamf said...

Re: Davis's 'Black Satin: amazing track - just listened to it 3 times in a row- if you'd told me it was a Bobby Konders or Rheji/ Ronald Burrell Nu Groove Records b-side from 1991 I'd've believed you.

The only jazz record I listen to with any regularity is "A Love Supreme", so my knowledge of jazz is limited to say the least, but Black Satin (if you can call it jazz) - fookin awesome.

irkthepurists said...

I heartily agree (well, I would, wouldn't I?). The whole album sounds very much like this (in fact, it's basically two extended jams with entirely arbitrary track names inserted). So definitely worth a fiver or so. And if you're a glutton for punishment, as I said, there's always the box set.

And no, I don't really think it's jazz either, which is probably why so many jazz purists utterly detest it.