The first half of 1970 saw Miles marching onward with an ever-strengthening blend of jazz, rock, and funk. The only thing that kept the music from actually being rock and/or funk is that it was still based on improvisation, and rather long-winded, dramatic improv at that. The studio doors revolved for both usual and unusual suspects.
As with the Silent Way box set, the marquee album appears at the very end of the final disc - in this case, the fifth disc. A Tribute to Jack Johnson is a rousing cut-and-paste soundtrack that just might be Miles’ strongest fusion-era studio work. Johnson was a heavyweight champ of the early twentieth century with whom Davis (the amateur boxer and successful minority) understandably felt a certain kinship. Hendrix and Sly Stone were on Miles’ mind as well, as the draperies of In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew give way to overt backbeats, snarling guitars, and pop-chart basslines. Apart from some solos by Steve Grossman (soprano sax) and Herbie Hancock (Farfisa organ), the bulk of the Jack Johnson record is Miles plus rock guitar trio: John McLaughlin, bassist Michael Henderson, and drummer Billy Cobham. Every minute of the record is tightly focused. Primary hero McLaughlin asserts himself in an aggressive style, as opposed to the somewhat timid sound he first had with Miles. Johnny Mac brings riffs and raunch aplenty, especially on “Right Off”, the first of two side-long tracks. “Right Off” rides a bluesy shuffle beat for most of its duration and detours into a Sly riff near the end. The thing about the track is not just its directness, but how well Miles solos over the decidedly non-jazz beat. Apologists of Miles’ electric era claim he was still playing the same jazz phrases over new backdrops, but they needn’t bother trying to sell “Right Off” in that manner. The trumpeter targets and teases the backbeat in pure rock and R&B fashion with triumphant results.
“Yesternow” is a darker, moodier suite. The first section dwells on a slow, repetitive bassline, over which Miles blows another diamond of a solo with masterful phrasing. A lot of folks rightly rave about the “Right Off” solo, but I think the first statement in “Yesternow” is even better. Hear how he “kisses” some of the ghosted notes. As an artificial segue, “Shhh/Peaceful” drifts across the mix, courtesy of producer Teo Macero, and “Yesternow” then shifts into a funkier home stretch with a different rhythm section (Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette). Sonny Sharrock joins on second guitar. As McLaughlin continues his wah-wah vamps, Sharrock twists Echoplex knobs to generate warped noises in the other channel. Nasty stuff. “Yesternow” ends with an orchestral patch and a dramatic recitation of Jack Johnson’s words: “I’ll never let them forget it.” We won’t.
The larger stretches of playing within Jack Johnson are given form by Teo Macero’s postproduction work. His edits on other Davis fusion albums can be brutally abrupt, but any sudden transitions in Jack Johnson accentuate the suspenseful nature of the music, which actually was a soundtrack for a Johnson biopic. The raw materials that Teo worked with are found elsewhere in the box. Disc 3 has the main components of “Right Off” and “Yesternow”, both informal studio jams whose best moments indeed are on the proper album edits. Disc 1 has a few takes of “Willie Nelson”, which became the funk bloc of “Yesternow”. The individual versions of “Willie Nelson” are based on one of two electric basslines from Dave Holland, both in minor-seventh keys. Repetitive as the “Willie Nelson” sequence might be (it takes up a large portion of Disc 1), it contains lots of exciting Sharrock guitar noise and some strange ring-modulated electric piano from Chick Corea. The “remake” takes of “Willie Nelson” in the middle of Disc 1 are groovier and less experimental.
Most of the remaining music is dense, vamp-based workouts that aim for the gut, and that would be boring as sin were it not for the players involved. At its best, you get something like the second take of “Duran”, with its catchy bassline, staccato trumpet hook, and growling guitar. Toward the end, soprano sax (Shorter) and bass clarinet (Maupin) entwine above the pre-Mahavishnu guitar and drums of McLaughlin and Billy Cobham. Or there’s “Go Ahead John”, which (like “Willie Nelson”) is actually two different pieces under the same title. One is an elongated slow blues with classic Miles improv; the other is a nervy backbeat jam. In “Part 2C” (Disc 2, track 4), DeJohnette tears up the pocket under Holland’s spaced-out bass notes and McLaughlin’s interstellar wankery. All of the “Go Ahead John” components were mixed into a lengthy master that appeared on the Big Fun album.
Keith Jarrett comes aboard for a few cool pieces, including the stuttering “Honky Tonk” that surfaced on Get Up With It. Jarrett’s overdriven electric piano supplies a stream of ideas, while McLaughlin has his amp sweetly cranked and Miles experiments with an octave effect on his trumpet. Though “Honky Tonk” seems to be rhythmically imprecise at times, this actually adds to its gritty feel, and the alternate take is good, too. From the same May 1970 session, “Ali” blends reggae with a funk bassline and mysterious phrases from Miles. Both takes of “Ali” were previously unreleased until now.
Jarrett features well in “Konda”, a waltzing sort of electric folk tune also flavored by McLaughlin’s Irish strumming. Miles again uses the octave effect to double his trumpet signal; transposing his sound to a lower register magnifies its fragility, even though it is sonically stronger. “Konda” wanders a bit, yet Jarrett and Davis are very alluring.
“The Mask pt. 1” is a free thrash for Jarrett, Holland, and DeJohnette, while “The Mask pt. 2” is something else entirely. The bass plays a slow walking line with lots of diminished and augmented scale fragments - bordering on atonal, yet everyone seems to adopt F-sharp as the lenient tonic. Cobham throws in a sneaky drum pattern, while guitar and electric piano provide strange noises. Solos come from Davis (who uncannily centers the weird harmonies), Grossman, and McLaughlin. Somewhere in the middle, percussionist Airto Moriera vocalizes alien phonetics that fit perfectly into the weirdo atmosphere. Previously unreleased, “The Mask pt.2” is a major highlight, and I’ve never heard anything like it.
Several tracks on Disc 4 come from studio meetings with Brazilian vocalist Hermeto Pascoal. A couple of these floating folk-dirges wound up on the half-live, half-studio Live/Evil record. They’re mood vignettes, nothing more or less.
On top of the good stuff, there’s about an hour’s worth of disposable tracks - does anyone need McLaughlin’s blues noodling on “Archie Moore”? Or the “Johnny Bratton” basement jams, or the neurotic “Sugar Ray”? On the other hand, Jack Johnson aside (which I deem essential anyway), at least two discs worth of Miles’ strongest fusion work is here. I think it would be a good idea to release a sampler of the better bonus material, because none of it appeared on the individual Jack Johnson remaster that followed the box set. Maybe Columbia listened to some of those brats who complain about bonus tracks “ruining” reissues. Well, in this case, they have no idea what they’re missing.
Patchy moments aside, the bonus material expands our view of Miles’ 1970 concerns. Miles found electric guitar to be an exciting substitute for electric piano, even though McLaughlin would depart, and even though Jarrett was about to dominate the sound of Miles’ working band with organ and electric piano. Yet echoes of Hendrix are all over the music, and again, one can’t underestimate the effect of Sly Stone’s funk-pop on Miles’ thinking. Noticeably, traditional composition is abandoned. I barely mention melodies or chord changes because there aren’t many of either. The identity of any “tune” rests in its bass and rhythm hooks, and any melodies that Davis plays sound incidental in the context of what are essentially jam sessions with superior players. In fact, the main shuffle vamp of “Right Off” was born when the rhythm section was killing time while Miles was in the control room. Likewise, a lot of the other music is left up to the creative discretion of the players, for which Miles shared compositional credit. Not.
As for the remastered sound of the box, I wonder if the reason we hear little distorted bits here and there is because the bass levels are cranked so LOUD. Or maybe that’s the way it sounded in the first place. I’d hate to think that these particular engineers have fallen prey to the High Compression School of Mastering. Nevertheless, most everything sounds good. The repetitive nature of the music is echoed in the three (!) largely redundant booklet essays by Bill Milkowski, wherein the “proto punk” adjective gets a little tired. Wild Bill digs Miles, worships McLaughlin, and loves the bloody hell out of this music, don’t ya know. I’m pretty sure I do too.