Thirty Years Later, Another Look at Miles Davis' On the Corner

We’re not in Kind of Blue Land anymore, Dorothy.

Miles Davis intended his 1972 album, On the Corner, to be his commercial breakthrough. The jazz legend was hoping to capture the imaginations of the young African Americans who were breaking sweats, busting moves, and tripping out to James Brown, Sly & the Family Stone, and Jimi Hendrix. How odd, then, that On the Corner turned out to be one of the most rhythmically innovative, atmospherically menacing, and uncompromisingly psychedelic works ever to get filed in record-store jazz sections. Stranger still, Davis was going through a heavy Karlheinz Stockhausen phase right before the On the Corner sessions. How Davis thought that this avant-gardist's rarefied electronic abstractions would spur him to compose accessible songs remains a mystery as baffling as Davis' later decision to cover Michael Jackson's "Human Nature." Whereas previous Miles milestones, such as In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, subtly shadowboxed with jazz, rock, and funk, On the Corner dealt with those genres with the potent finesse of Muhammad Ali until they combusted into something alien and novel.

The original album proper appears to start in medias res, with the side-long suite "On the Corner/New York Girl/Thinkin' of One Thing and Doin' Another/Vote for Miles," immediately seething and writhing with a new strain of acidic funk rock, occasionally embellished with tangy sitar and tabla. Producer Teo Macero had the brilliant foresight to record everything during Davis' groups' epic studio dates of the '60s and '70s, and then sift through the tapes to splice together the most molten moments. Macero's innovative technique—with crucial input from Davis—mirrored that of Jamaican dub and predated techno and house's obsession with remixing and editing by nearly two decades. Many of the musicians (including Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea) who played on the LP didn't recognize the finished product from their memories of the parts they'd laid down, such was the degree of Macero's production sorcery.

The new Complete On the Corner Sessions six-disc boxed set (released Tuesday on Sony Legacy) contains every minute of tape from the On the Corner sessions. With 12 previously unreleased tracks, plus five more that have never been issued in full, it totals more than two hours of unheard music.

While Davis entertained hopes of mass popularity, On the Corner is more likely to set people on edge, not loosen 'em up nor induce bonhomie. On the Corner is a white-knuckle cab ride in Manhattan or Boston, the polar opposite of a carefree, good-time soundtrack. Check out "Black Satin," which epitomizes this pressure-cooker aura. Shaken bell trees, snap-to-it hand claps, humid tabla thumping, searing sitar drones, acrid organ and guitar stabs, and a rhythm that foreshadows drum and bass' convolutions coalesce into a disorienting, sensory-overload journey to the dark side. Over it all swoops Davis' menacingly festive trumpet motif. Dude sincerely wanted to get the youth dancing, but he ended up alienating many of them (and jazz purists, too). "One and One" intensifies the intensity as well, with Henderson's squawking bass bobbing and weaving around Badal Roy's tablas, Mtume's congas, and Billy Hart and DeJohnette's savage, precise drum calculus.

Party? Hardly. Even the most badass pimp would have trepidation struttin' to On the Corner. But in its relentless, cutthroat way, the album is utterly thrilling. Most funk wants to sex you up; the funk twitching within On the Corner's grooves seemingly desires to fuck you up, both physically and mentally.

There's not a scintilla of sentimentality or romance within the original album's 55 minutes. If you believe Davis was one of the coldest motherfuckers ever to plug in, then On the Corner is the most accurate, explicit aural rendering of his personality. We're not in Kind of Blue Land (or even Bitches Brewville) anymore, Dorothy.

Besides encompassing the original 1972 album and alternate takes of cuts from it, this beast of a box set also includes material recorded during the Big Fun and Get Up With It sessions. For obsessive fans of Davis' electric period, and those curious to know why it's so fervently worshiped, Complete On the Corner Sessions is a compelling examination of the trumpeter/keyboardist's teeming inventiveness and Macero's deft manipulations of his charge's world-class bands. The contents consist of sessions from 1972 to 1975, when Davis was on a torrid creative roll, employed several jazz-fusion titans, had Columbia's deep pockets funding him, and, one speculates, had access to the country's finest drugs.

All of these factors converged in a perfect mix of aesthetic serendipity and resulted in a slew of Davis albums that continue to sound ahead of and out of their time. The nearly 400 minutes of sonic trailblazing here will sate hard-core Miles-philes who wish to know the mutational evolution of every improvisation the man and his elite troops executed during this most fertile, febrile period.

I first heard On the Corner more than 25 years ago, and since then, the LP has exerted an irresistible pull. It's one of those rare records I can listen to every day without tiring of it or ceasing to detect in it new, fascinating details. No other album sounds like On the Corner, though many groups have striven to replicate its uniquely frenetic, splenetic, and hypnotic power. Scorned by many establishment jazz critics upon its 1972 release, On the Corner has proved to be a massively influential work among drum-and-bass, IDM, and psychedelic- and post-rock artists. Conservative blowhards like Stanley Crouch decried it as commercial pandering (the LP actually sold relatively poorly); but regardless of Davis' motivations, On the Corner remains one of his crowning achievements in a career abounding with them, a work that's destined to be seminal for the ages.

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