Apparently Columbia’s The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions announces the album as “The greatest rock ‘n roll album ever made!” – exclamation mark and all. It’s a daft claim, not because of how declarative it is, but rather because you wouldn’t think of anything by Miles Davis to be described squarely as “rock ‘n roll.” But the thing is, with “Right Off,” Miles Davis was playing rock music. The man had professed his love of Jimi Hendrix both explicitly in interviews and implicitly in McLaughlin’s heaven-reaching guitar playing on both In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, but “Right Off” is even more obvious about it. Billy Cobham channels Buddy Miles instead of Mitch Mitchell; he’s somewhere between In a Silent Way’s Tony William’s steady rhythms and Bitches Brew’s Jack DeJohnette’s organized chaos. Meanwhile, McLaughlin – at Davis’ request – adds a huge amount of distortion to the guitar. Play the opening measures to anyone you know and they’d think they were listening to straight up rock music with a funkier bassist then that genre would ever know. Because seriously, Michael Henderson carries most of A Tribute to Jack Johnson; dig his chromatic climb in triplets in every other measure at the start.
And then, there’s Miles. Having heard A Tribute to Jack Johnson after I heard On the Corner, I naturally assumed there’d be considerably less of him here as a natural progression towards his almost complete absence on that album. Nope: the guy’s on fire here, regardless if he’s blasting out the same two notes over and over again, turning his trumpet into a machine gun (at the 3:45 mark), or just strutting around. Best moment: the stretch from 8:00 to 8:25, where McLaughlin squares off against Davis and Davis concludes with the album’s most melodic line in the last five seconds. I read that Miles Davis was in his physical prime at the time and it sure sounds like it.
But that’s not all! With every release, Davis’s sound was getting further and further away from jazz, and I can’t imagine what people must have thought when they heard Herbie Hancock’s Farfisa solo at the 15:00 mark. It’s not just the fact that it’s a loud and ugly sound (note: “ugliness” is a good thing in this case), it’s also the fact that the sound comes out of absolutely nowhere, following “Right Off”’s quieter stretch. It culminates in Hancock holding a single held chord (at the 15:59 mark), building up tension before the full band returns and Herbie Hancock continually slams out three chords for almost two minutes non-stop and yet, it never gets tired. I love Herbie Hancock’s own jazz fusion work to death, but I think playing on something so unconventional would’ve helped prevented his own albums from dating so much.
Afterwards, the song returns to a variation of its initial theme; Henderson plays a different bass line; McLaughlin plays with more distortion; Cobham smashes his cymbals louder; Hancock and Steve Grossman (sax) replace Davis.
Unfortunately, the second track isn’t nearly as strong.
Essentially, “Yesternow” is two completely distinct pieces. The first is a (really) slowly unraveling ambient piece and the second is more funk-rock-jazz fusion a la “Right Off.” The two parts are connected by Teo Macero pasting part of In a Silent Way’s “Shhh” (starting at the 12:28 mark) with some trumpet lifted straight out of “Right Off”’s quitter section. (If this sounds like an issue to you, it shouldn’t be; one of my favorite things about Miles Davis’s jazz fusion period is his constant referencing to older works. It makes the newer stuff that it’s surrounded by even stranger.) The first half leans a little too heavily on the bass-line taken from James Brown’s “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” and Miles Davis’ trumpet feels at odds with what this section is trying to achieve; it’s much too loud.
I’m more interested in what happens after. The key moment here is at the 18:49 mark, where the band builds up to something and all of it gets tossed out the window for a single note held for the whole measure by Chick Corea. But everyone comes back afterwards like a boomerang with even more aplomb; the groove that’s been teased at for the past few minutes is finally established and Jack DeJohnette takes on a larger role according. Whereas In a Silent Way was revolutionary for featuring multiple keyboardists playing at the same time (among other things) and Bitches Brew was revolutionary for featuring multiple bassists and percussionists playing at the same time (among other things), “Yesternow” is the first time on a Miles Davis record that features two guitarists – John McLaughlin and Sonny Sharrock. The latter adds a fourth dimension to McLaughlin’s riff. Or it might be Chick Corea’s doing. Or it might be Teo Macero’s doing. Or it might be a combination of all three people – fuck if I know.
The song ends with a voiceover by Brock Peters as Jack Johnson over an orchestral ambient piece apparently titled “The Man Nobody Saw” (that I can’t find any information about other than that); “I’m black. They never let me forget it. I’m black all right. I’ll never let them forget it,” perfectly tying back to “Yesternow”’s incorporation of “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
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Anything else? The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions comes with a lot of songs that are a) incorporated into A Tribute to Jack Johnson or b) incorporated into forthcoming albums. Among the rest is one “Sugar Ray,” a stop-start guitar over a upwards-creeping bass-line that might be one of my favoritest things ever by Mr. Davis.
Anyway, if I have anything left to say, it’s that A Tribute to Jack Johnson is clearly better than Bitches Brew or On the Corner, the albums that sandwich it and admittedly, albums that ooze more cool and class. But coolness and classiness don’t mean much of anything at all, do they?