For casual Miles Davis fans wary about getting something called “The Complete [Album] Sessions” because it’s $200 for a physical copy and/or 640 MB of hard-drive space: get it. And to give it some perspective, this is coming from the guy who enjoys On the Corner the least of Miles Davis’ four completely different jazz fusion albums released between 1969 and 1972.
Of the 31 songs here, four are the proper album, found on the sixth disc. Four will be assimilated into On the Corner (the opening four songs of the first disc), including the full version of “On the Corner.” And seven will appear on Get Up With It (speaking of albums better than On the Corner…) (the only one that doesn’t is “Honky Tonk”) and then there’s “Ife,” which will appear on Big Fun. Which means we have 15 songs left that is non-album material – 12 of which were unreleased before this, some of which definitely could have – should have – been made into an album of its own. And that would have also been better than On the Corner; I question anyone who says this is for hardcore fans only because each of the highlights in this box set easily outdo (or at least outmatch) every song on On the Corner.
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People who thought On the Corner was too dense for its own good can find solace in some of the sparer songs like “Jabali,” “Peace” or “Mr. Foster.” “Jabali” mostly rests on Michael Henderson’s shoulders while one of the other players occasionally materializes only to disappear back into the ether. “Peace” sounds like Miles Davis merged the ambient Duke Ellington tribute “I Loved Him Dearly” with any of the songs from On the Corner: with wavering flute and rising organs over a still-prominent backbeat. And “Mr. Foster” is probably better than both because Miles Davis’ is at its most yearnful here – a quality that was otherwise absent throughout On the Corner.
On the other end of the spectrum, “Chieftain” is 15 minutes of almost unrelenting syncopation from three percussionists (Al Foster banging on the main beat; a heavy mix of Mtume’s congas filling in the space, and Badal Roy’s tablas, y’know, somewhere in there), Michael Henderson’s bass and Reggie Lucas flayed guitar chords. And “What They Do” is somehow even faster: love the heavy distortion of the bass punctuating the congas during the bridge where it’s revealed that the band survive the preceding plane crash (just to get on another plane).
The best song from On the Corner was “Black Satin” because it abridged the spirit of the album without eschewing melody, and gaining danceability and direction in the process. The Complete On the Corner Sessions offers a few more in “Black Satin”’s vein. There’s “Minnie” (the last song to be recorded of the bunch), which is pure pop that points towards Miles Davis’ 80s outputs, and I’d argue is much better than the source material (Minnie Riperton’s “Loving You”), taking that song’s schmaltzy choruses and treating it as the logical climax and losing the schmaltz; check out the buoying guitar line underneath Miles Davis’ descending trumpet melody. Elsewhere, the sessions provide three different sets of “Big Fun/Holly-Wuud,” including the separating surgery for its single release in 1973 as the box set’s last two songs. And while both are catchy, listening to their full versions blows them out the water because the drums on the non-single versions smack much harder while Miles Davis solos against growling bass notes and guitar chords.
Elsewhere, “The Hen” could have slotted in on A Tribute to Jack Johnson without much issue if David were interested in making that one a double disc enterprise as well. The amount of distortion on the opening chords makes it seem like John McLaughlin wasn’t using enough back then. Again, Davis is on fine form here while Al Foster matches Billy Cobham’s forearm muscles and Michael Henderson plays a small bass melody (love how he disappears into a one-note pulse before oscillating at the 3:20 mark and returning to the melody). And “Hip-Skip” is probably the biggest anomaly on the box set because Miles Davis plays on the organ (though it sounds like a less visceral version of Herbie Hancock’s contribution to “Right Off”).
Lastly, this box set offers a snapshot of Miles Davis’ creative juices during this period that the proper albums don’t give you: with the bass clarinet on “Jabali,” the electric cello in “Ife,” sitar in “Chieftain,” flute on “Peace,” and harmonica in “Red China Blues,” not to mention the tablas and sleighbells and other interesting percussion (or normal drums made to sound interesting), it seemed like he trying to destroy genre barriers with whatever he could get his hands on.
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My review of the original album, and I haven’t changed my mind at all about it:
Obviously, the jazz critics who wrote this off at the time of its release because it was anything but were wrong to do so. But the non-jazz kids who are calling it the best jazz album ever because its production techniques are in common with hip-hop and the persistent drumming is a common trait in rock, electronic and funk (and hip-hop), aren’t right either. To defer to Robert Christgau, “Because the tracks are very short, because Miles plays more organ than trumpet and not much of that, and because the improvisations are rhythmic rather than melodic […] most jazzbos have thrown up their hands at this one. Well, poo on jazzbos. But that’s no reason for rockbos to sing hosanna to the highest–rhythmic improvisations are hardly the equivalent of a big beat and don’t guarantee a good one. I’d like to hear “Black Satin” right now. But the rest I can wait for.” Yeah, “Black Satin”‘s a goodie, the only song here that knows a lot of overdubbing and rhythms aren’t a good substitute for melody. And if the melody weren’t enough, the handclaps trading with sleighbells are hooky enough (and on that note, the record as a whole makes use of interesting sounding drums, either because they’re unconventional to begin with, or cut suddenly so they’re made to sound unconventional).
The rest? It moves such that listening to the album in one sitting isn’t much of an issue. But that’s exactly the problem: you’re sitting down. You can’t dance to this. If this were being played at a concert, everyone would just be bopping their heads out of a sense of obligation – that staying still would be insulting to Davis and they don’t want to be called a bunch of motherfuckers for it. Or, they might shuffle, and if they do, they won’t do it too much for fear of stamping on the person behind them’s foot. There’s not a single moment on the album where you’re going to throw your hands up in the air in an ecstatic blur to catch it, not a single dynamic shift on the album where you might get low and bounce back. If you twirl a girl, you’re an asshole for doing so. If you grind on a girl, it’s because twirling isn’t an option. And if you think these things – head-bopping, shuffling and grinding – constitutes as dance, I don’t want to be there for your wedding day.
A (B+ for the original album and A- for Get Up With It)