Friday, 7 January 2011

Miles Davis Album Reviews

Here's two Miles Davis album reviews I wrote for the Head Heritage website in 2005......


On The Corner
New York Girl 
Thinkin' One Thing And Doin' Another 
Vote For Miles 
Black Satin 
One And One 
Helen Butte 
Mr. Freedom X

Recorded: Columbia Studios, New York City, June/ July 1972.
Produced by Teo Macero.

Frantically kick-starting another period in the forever changing Davis musical psyche and blowing the webs away from several years of cosmic ambience, ‘On the Corner’ served up a heat hazed, down and dirty stew of funk and avant-garde in a glorious cacophonous soul sauce. Simply sizzling in the heat and humidity of the NYC studio it was recorded in, the album is a total masterpiece from beginning to end.

Featuring an all star line up of some of the best jazz musicians this side of Acker Bilk, the music featured on ‘On the Corner’ is executed with attitude, ferocity and with a feeling that this may be the last time they play. The diverse range of musicians gel more than a thick blancmange and the band is as taut and tight as a crabs’ arse. The music contained on this release is three dimensional, nasty and demonic…. Miles runs the voodoo down, down, downtown.

‘On the Corner’ features a wealth of instrumentation, both rich and varied. The percussion and drumming on this recording has obviously been influenced by european avant-garde music such as Stockhausen due to its uniformity and intensity and sounds very much like the rhythm track tape has been cut and looped throughout much of the session to give an almost organic drum machine feeling – no doubt Teo Macero had a field day here. In fact, the master tape sounds like it was cut and pasted in sections – especially with the feeling of being thrown in at the deep end on the first track. (Also, interesting in this direction is that percussionist and later member of Davis’s group, Mtume, is credited on the proceeding live gigs with drum machine). The bass groove from Michael Henderson often sounds looped throughout the record as well. Keyboards featured on the album are played layering upon each other textures of warmth with the music. The reeds section of the band is kept fairly taut and frantic throughout the sessions and the eastern instruments sprinkle the magic spice upon the whole – giving it a far out vibe but never cosmic. The overall sound is evocative of the hustle, bustle and humidity of NYC in unbearable heat.

The most practical way to review this album is to split the review into the three recording sessions which make up the final release – each session featuring slight musician line-up differences:

Session 1: ‘On The Corner’ / ‘New York Girl’ / ‘Thinkin' One Thing And Doin' Another’ / ‘Vote For Miles’. Recorded Columbia studios, New York City : June 1, 1972.. Line-up: Davis (tp) Dave Liebman (ss) Harold Williams (org, syn) Chick Corea (el-p) Herbie Hancock (el-p, syn) Collin Walcott (el-sitar) John McLaughlin (el-g) Michael Henderson (el-b) Jack DeJohnette, Al Foster, Billy Hart (d, per) Badal Roy (tabla).

Never before, or not since, has a musician mixed funk-rock and jazz like Miles does on the opening ‘On The Corner’, which is actually the first four tracks (‘On The Corner’ / ‘New York Girl’ / ‘Thinkin' One Thing And Doin' Another’ / ‘Vote For Miles’) welded together by the rhythmic genius of Jack DeJohnette. A little bit of Sly and a lot of James B are thrown in the melting pot together with echoes of Hendrix and a smattering of Stockhausen for good measure. John McLaughlin plays mean guitar licks and an even meaner guitar solo further on into the piece and Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock offer some great keyboard passages…Nice! Miles’ trumpet playing is incredible on this track, as he spits out piercing notes processed through wah wah as if his life depends on it. This four part epic finally ends in an Indian style with a sitar and a bongo menace fadeout.

Session 2: ‘One and One’ / ‘Helen Butte’ / ‘Mr. Freedom X’. Recorded Columbia Studios, NYC, June 6, 1972. Line-up: Davis (tp) Carlos Garnett (ts) Harold Williams (org, syn) Chick Corea (el-p) Herbie Hancock (el-p, syn) Collin Walcott (el-sitar) David Creamer (el-g) Michael Henderson (el-b) Jack DeJohnette, Al Foster, Billy Hart (d) Badal Roy (tabla).

'One and One' is similar to the previous piece but there is more interaction between the band members. There's a great clarinet solo by Bennie Maupin and some nice playing from the bandleader.

Lasting over 23 (count ‘em!) minutes, 'Helen Butte’/ Mr. Freedom X' is another welded together track and is the longest piece on the album. ‘Helen Butte’ is similar to 'Black Satin,' in rhythmical terms albeit more arresting but the rest of the music is more layered with keyboards and exotic instrumentation. Herbie Hancock is the more apparent instrumentalist on this track with his beautiful Fender Rhodes playing and the piece is nicely capped off with some sweet trumpet phrasing from Miles. ‘Mr Freedom X’ changes the mood somewhat to a darker space before the percussion section thrust themselves forward in the mix and the keyboardists (Hancock and Chick Corea) create the right atmosphere to end the piece. 

Session 3: ‘Black Satin’. Recorded Columbia Studios, NYC, July 7, 1972. Additional musicians: Carlos Garnett (ss); Bennie Maupin (bcl) Khalil Balakrishna (el-sitar).

The Eastern sound of the band open ‘Black Satin’ featuring sitar and tabla. This doesn’t last long as DeJohnette quickly establishes a wicked funk before Miles enters the show soon after with his signature style. The track propels itself forward until it eventually closes with the same sitar licks that started the piece. ‘Black Satin’ also features some great overdubbed handclaps and an incredibly catchy trumpet riff. If this track was played on national radio, 24-7, it would probably have bricklayers and office workers the length and breadth of the country whistling the signature tune.

‘On the Corner’ is a motherfunking masterpiece. This unique and innovative recording put the cat amongst the pigeons as far as the jazz elite and critics of the day were concerned. Miles was accused of cheapening the genre and was called the jazz anti-christ in many quarters (and quartets no doubt). This is the album that the jazz purists hated and in doing so, encouraged a new avenue of exploration for Miles. A less focused live album featuring many of the same musicians was released soon after - ‘Miles In Concert’ - (Live at the Philharmonic, NYC, September 1972).

‘On the Corner’ is the sound of a multi dimensionally talented band stood at the crossroads of four musical genres and exploring the next road to venture down. It’s simply awesome in its scope and delivery. 

Written by Dave Clarkson - 2005


Great Expectations (including ‘Orange Lady’)
Go Ahead John 
Lonely Fire
The Little Blue Frog*

Originally released in 1974. *bonus tracks on CD re-issue edition, 2001

Musicians : Miles Davis, trumpet; Jack DeJohnette, drums; Sonny Fortune, flute, sax; Carlos Garnett, sax; Herbie Hancock, keyboards; Billie Hart, drums; Dave Holland, bass; Bernie Maupin, clarinet, flute, bass clarinet; John McLaughlin, guitar; Wayne Shorter, sax; Lonnie Liston Smith, sax; Larry Young, organ, celeste; Steve Grossman, sax; Airto Moreira, percussion, berimbau, cuica; Joe Zawinul, keyboards; Badal Roy, tabla; Khalil Balakrishna, percussion, sitar, electric sitar, tambura; Harvey Brooks, bass guitar; Billy Cobham, drums; Chick Corea, keyboards; Al Foster, drums; William Hart, drums; Michael Henderson, bass guitar; Bihari Sharma, percussion; Harold Williams, piano, sitar, Mtume, percussion; Ron Carter, bass;

This hotspotch of an album was assembled by Teo Macero and Davis after it was realised that the fans who had attended his ‘On The Corner’ gigs, wanted another album. ‘Big Fun’ consists of outtakes from rejected tracks that didn’t end up on the final editions of ‘Bitches Brew’, ‘Jack Johnson’ and ‘On The Corner’. Why? …it’s not understood but what is clear is that the individual pieces on this album are some of the finest and underrated gems that Davis recorded during his ‘electric’ phase. The album tracks collected on this release are quite diverse and have several things in common in the fact that they are all brooding, dark and tap into a vein of psychological madness. 

The album was reissued in 2001 with the addition of four bonus tracks and is now available at a length of nearly 100 minutes of music. The additional tracks (‘Recollections’, ‘Trevere’, ‘The Little Blue Frog’ and ‘Yaphet’) were originally released on the ‘Complete Bitches Brew Sessions’ but it was decided at Columbia records to also include them in the context of the rest of ‘Big Fun’ as they were closer and more appropriate to the original album. The result of this marriage of music, is a fresh outlook on the recordings. An additional track recorded that didn’t make the ‘Big Fun’ master was ‘Jabali’.

The original bulk of the album was recorded following ‘Bitches Brew’ (1969) after another need by Miles to alter direction and blend some eastern vibes into the sound. These collected sessions, like ‘On The Corner’ mark Miles’ only use of Indian instruments in his studio recordings. ‘Big Fun’ displays a hybrid of raga phrases in rock and jazz structures. Although the likes of Weather Report, Tony Williams’ Lifetime, Return To Forever and Mahavishnu Orchestra tried this melting pot of sound, it was this Miles release that created the mix in an entirely new and unexpected context.

The first track ,‘Great Expectations’, is a mean, brooding, Sun Ra like complex piece of fourth world music featuring a groove of expansive proportion. Its upward sounding bass pattern is locked throughout, enabling the soloists to provide some divine experimentation over the top. This track has had, in my opinion, a profound effect on many musicians since – especially those experimenting in crossover ‘world’ music genres. Indeed, listening to a fairly recent and wonderful Jah Wobble and Deep Space album ‘Five Beat’, reminded myself of the deep groove similarity. ‘Great Expectations’ was written by the keyboardist Joe Zawinul and, like his other well known composition ‘In A Silent Way’, exhibits an almost trippy, psychedelic feel, helped by the addition of sitars and Indian percussion. The music of this track displays a depth and texture that is like nothing else and the drone of the strings and the longing trumpet phrases are incredibly and spiritually evocative. This track in itself is worth the price of the disc alone, but wait until about fifteen minutes in and the mood rapidly changes to another incredible section of music, ‘Orange Lady’. This section is still part of the first track (but doesn’t get namechecked on the re-release) and is a gorgeous piece of Zawinul ambience. The emphasis on the sitars and the other wordly feel, all add up to an incredible stoned feeling. This is Miles the cosmonaut speaking. ‘Great Expectations’ is a masterpiece.

‘Yaphet’ was recorded on the same day as ‘Great Expectations’ and has some interesting moments of darkness and other life forms. The track is made up of moody passages which morph with ambient soundscapes and create an overall dark picture and turns into a rockier piece further on.

‘Ife’ was recorded during the same sessions that produced the ‘On The Corner’ album in June 1972. The track was played live on many occasions and features horror organ phrasing of impeccable delights. ‘Ife’ is pretty diverse in its’ sound and structure with funk bassist Michael Henderson, percussionist Mtume and Al Foster and Billy Hart on drums. The track manages to cover much ground throughout and it’s a mystery that it didn’t make the final master for ‘On The Corner’.- maybe it wasn’t funked up enough or deemed too weird and wired for the release.

‘Trevere’, ‘Lonely Fire’ and ‘The Little Blue Frog’ were all recorded in the same session. ‘Trevere’ is a nice amalgam of gospel inspired instrumentation and has some great trumpet phrasing and drum patterns on it.. ‘Lonely Fire’ is a forlorn, beautiful ballad and sounds wonderful in the context of the album. The track is reminiscent of older Miles Davis records such as Nefertiti. ‘The Little Blue Frog’, meanwhile is a brooding, funk workout with some superfly guitar courtesy of John McLaughlin and some strange percussion effects from Airto Moreira. 
A few months following the above session, came ‘Recollections’, another Zawinul composition that highlights the soprano talent of Wayne Shorter and also features John McLaughlin’s guitar work.

The real jewel in the crown though is the 28 minute motherfucker of a track called ‘Go Ahead John’ which is an out take from the ‘Jack Johnson’ album sessions of 1970. Wow – don’t know where to start with this beaut. The track features a more stripped down quintet and is a platform for the wonderful soloing of Steve Grossman (sax) and McLaughlin (acid guitar). Backed by a tight knitted full on battery of cymbals and drums courtesy of Jack DeJohnette, the soloing of the two jazzers is phenomenal. Grossman squawks and shrieks his way through the first six minutes of the track, sounding as if a set of vultures is cleaning up the bones of the critics who had been harsh to Miles throughout the years. This gives way to an incredible psychedelic acid soaked guitar onslaught by McLaughlin, the volume of the solo blasting in and out and all over the place. The production on this track is superb and designed to throw the listener, especially during the guitar solo. The drums shift from speaker to speaker – knitting hihat and cymbals clips all around the listener in a three dimensional sound spectrum. The guitar playing over the top of this is positively incendiary and also sounds great with the panning effect added. Warning: this may damage your nervous system. ‘Go Ahead John’ is like being thrown in a washing machine of sound, set on jazz-rock full load with big box white powders.

Apparently ‘Big Fun’ received bad reviews on initial release. Again, Miles proved the critics wrong as the album went on to inspire many musicians to experiment in similar ways. ‘Big Fun’ is a great purchase and introduction into Miles’ freakier stuff for those coming from ‘In A Silent Way’ and needing a bit more edge and spirituality. It’s a good choice for a collection of Davis’s ‘electric’ period and one which can only satisfy the more adventurous listener. From it’s musical dynamics to it’s range of genres, ‘Big Fun’ is a must for any serious jazz or rock fan. In my opinion, it features some of the best musicianship that the Davis band committed to tape especially as far as McLaughlin is concerned. 

In July 1973, Miles entered Columbia Studios in NYC with Dave Liebman, Reggie Lucas, Pete Cosey, Michael Henderson, Al Foster and Mtume, to start looking at a new direction….. 

Written by Dave Clarkson - 2005

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