On what would have been his 90th birthday, Freeform Noise takes a look at one of Miles Davis’ most polarizing albums, 1972’s On The Corner.
For jazz fans, the early 1970s marked either some of the best years in the evolution of the form or signaled its downfall from high art to lowbrow pop cultural pandering. In essence, it saw the ultimate and final merging of jazz with then contemporary R&B, rock and funk, elements that, until then, had only been hinted at and tip-toed around. This full immersion, while seen as blasphemous, in essence allowed the music to not only reach a new audience, but allow jazz musicians to push the bounds of what was previously thought possible within a form that was quickly reaching what seemed to be something of an impasse as the free players continued disassembling the very idea of jazz and purists struggled to retain what they saw as the music’s very integrity.
That some of jazz’s biggest names (Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, et. al.) would fully embrace what was viewed as the music of the pop cultural streets came as a devastating blow for those who wished to preserve the form rather than see it expand and grow. But what these individuals seemingly failed to realize was that, in order for the music to continue on in any form, it would require a new sound and feel that would appeal to a younger, more consumer-oriented market. We are currently in the midst of a similar quandary with the continued hybridization of jazz and hip-hop courtesy of artists like Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington and Kendrick Lamar. But rather than causing the music to lose its very integrity, these artists are working to preserve and further the form, much as their forebears did through the collusion of rock and R&B.
No jazz figure personified this notion more so than Miles Davis. Having unleashed a series of albums that showed a greater and greater interest in contemporary pop styles, Davis was persona non grata as the ‘60s exploded into the smoldering wreckage of would become the 1970s. Despite or perhaps because of a career that spanned back to jazz’s previous hackle-raising movement of bebop, Davis was seen as something of an idealized figurehead within jazz. Not only had he played with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, but he’d also assembled several groups which became arguably some of the best ever. From the all-star lineup of Kind of Blue through to his mid-‘60s quartet featuring Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, Davis seemed to have the uncanny ability to play something of a kingmaker within jazz.
When he brought together some of the leading lights of the younger generation of jazz musicians for his Bitches Brew sessions in 1969, he perhaps knowingly had assembled forward-thinking artists who would come to define the future of jazz and further the inchoate idea of jazz fusion cemented by Bitches Brew’s unlikely pairing of jazz and rock. With its release proving not only revolutionary, but incendiary, the onus of topping the experiments laid forth on the album lay solely with Davis.
Opening his mind to the modern sounds of Sly and the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix and, to a lesser extent, James Brown, Davis saw in his future an even more outré sound, one which would land him lightyears ahead of his peers while further ostracizing him from the jazz community. It was in this musically confusing and artistically frustrating environment into which Davis unleashed his most confrontational and, at the time at least, polarizing statement.
Opening with a frenetic blast of clattering percussion, stuttering bass and Davis’ own strangled electrified trumpet wails, On The Corner was, from the start, meant as an unapologetically challenging exploration of this new music’s potential. Droppedseemingly in the middle of a frantic, cacophonous jam session, listeners were afforded no point of reference nor time to acclimate to these harsh new surroundings. Those expecting an extension of the electric jazz fusion on albums like Bitches Brew and Live Evil were confronted with what to purists was the apotheosis of what jazz can and should be. Here was Miles taking his sound to the outer reaches via the increasingly contentious streets of an ever polarizing America, reaching new levels of groove-oriented abstraction.
Essentially the work of tireless cutting and pasting at the hands of producer Teo Macero, the album’s opening suite of “On The Corner”/”New York Girl”/”Thinking of One Thing Doing Another”/”Vote For Miles” flows seamlessly from one to the next, the constant percussion and propulsive rhythms serving as the bridge between each. With no clear delineation between tracks, this nearly twenty-minute amalgam shatters the very notion of accepted performance and composition within a jazz context. Not only were the performances spliced together, but they also featured a number of overdubs that, coupled with the layers of percussion and hypnotically repetitive bass riffs, that resulted in a sort of disorienting, woozy listening experience.
From the onset, the driving force of On the Corner was and is its incessant percussion. With three drum sets manned by Al Foster, Billy Hart and Jack DeJohnette and assorted auxiliary percussion courtesy of Mtume, it’s a constant propulsive clatter that pushes the album forward in a linear fashion rather than that of traditionally structured jazz recordings. In this, Davis was relying on the hypnotic effect of the insistent percussion and undying rhythm coupled with Michael Henderson’s simplified, though wickedly funky, single and double-note grooves to help the listener lose themselves in the music. Here it became clear that the focus was not on the sounds being created, necessarily, but the overall impact the collective whole produced.
It is not until the second track, “Black Satin,” that something resembling a coherent melody arrives. Its schoolyard, almost tauntingly repetitive melody plays to the preceding twenty minutes’ lack of discernible melody; it’s as though Davis were baiting his detractors with a simplistic melody that carried a deliciously barbed and unshakable hook. It’s an unsettling effect that causes a shadow of the theme to remain with the listener long after the track’s frenetic closing moments give way once more to the opening tabla and sitar motif. With Henderson playing the same sparse groove over a static chord throughout, the melody eventually devolves into a series of extended trumpet drones and phrases that run contrary to the increasingly incessant percussion and handclaps that threaten to derail the track. In this, “Black Satin” plays as something of a funhouse mirror representation of rock and funk, both shot through an hallucinogenic prism further altering the perception of reality.
“One and One” again relies on Henderson to establish the static chord groove that will inform the rest of the track. Coupled with a high-hat heavy skittering funk groove, “One and One” is perhaps the most open – or at least far less claustrophobic – track on the album. In between the driving rhythmic figures, individual horns explore long, drawn-out legato phrases, each of which stand in sharp contrast to the preceding, punctuating blasts. With nowhere to go from a melodic standpoint, each “soloist” is free to explore the sound potential of their instrument within this fragmented context. Wholly linear, the track’s primary aim is its rhythmic propulsion and extrapolation of a funk style designed for maximum ass-shaking.
Finally, the mammoth “Helen Butte”/”Mr Freedom X” closer combines all previously established elements to create a highly persuasive final statement. By teasing the melody of “Black Satin” within the tangled mass of percussion, Davis manages a knowing, self-referential allusion that soon devolves into a series of increasingly impressionistic phrases. More so than any other track on the album, “Helen Butte”/”Mr Freedom X” possess an insularity which pushes the whole so far into the future that generations of listeners are still struggling to catch up nearly forty-five years later.
Ultimately, On the Corner has proven so revolutionary and ahead of its time that critics and audiences of the day alike cannot be faulted for initially claiming it to be one of the worst jazz albums of all time. With little in the way of discernible melodic figures or even arrangements, much of the album places its focus squarely within the underlying groove permeating through the rock and R&B worlds. Both Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix come off as clear touchstones for Davis in his approach to pushing the bounds of what is musically possible while still adhering to an unimpeachable groove struck through with the rhythm of the streets. This is not music to be studied and analyzed, parsed or even understood. Rather it is a series of experiential performances designed as wholly immersive listening experiences, asking of the listener only to surrender to the groove. In so doing, an entire world of possibilities begins to open up, leading the way to unimaginable creativity and sonic exploration. In this, On the Corner is a roadmap to the stars and beyond.
Artist: Miles Davis
Album: On the Corner
Release Date: October 11, 1972