Miles Davis: On The Corner

Many commentators and critics have noted that the numerous style changes throughout the career of Miles Davis have, in effect, drawn lines in the sand with each change that some have not been willing to cross. For some, it was the formation of the “Second Great Quintet” with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. For others, such as trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, it was the release of the jazz-rock blockbuster Bitches Brew. Some point to the simpler pop-oriented music Miles made after his comeback in the 1980’s. But for many, it was in the fall of 1972, when Miles Davis released On The Corner, the most controversial release of his career.

Miles had been concerned about the lack of interest in jazz by young black people and sought a way to connect with them. Previous albums like Bitches Brew, Live-Evil, and Tribute To Jack Johnson explored the blending of jazz, rock, and funk and demonstrated the influence of Sly Stone, James Brown, and Jimi Hendrix on Miles. On The Corner took those influences and turned them into dense, churning layers of prototypical acid jazz and jungle funk, with added elements of African, Indian, and Latin music, as well as contemporary Classical and electronic music techniques. Miles expanded his definition of “melody” and advanced the idea that melody could be a bass groove, drum pattern, or electronically processed sound. The songs recorded for On The Corner, such as “Black Satin,” “Vote For Miles,” and “Mr. Freedom X” were strung together in long suites, which was the way Miles had performing songs live for years. He had become acquainted with British composer Paul Buckmaster, who plays electric cello on the album. Buckmaster introduced Miles to the music of contemporary European composers like Witold Lutoslawksi and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Coupled with producer Teo Macero’s background in Musique concrète and experience in tape manipulation from Miles’ previous albums, On The Corner utilized tape loops and repetitive drum and bass grooves to the extreme, while snippets of horn and guitar licks taken from long studio jams were layered on top. In his autobiography, Miles stated:

“I had always written in a circular way and through Stockhausen I could see that I didn’t want to ever play again from eight bars to eight bars, because I never end songs: they just keep going on. Through Stockhausen I understood music as a process of elimination and addition.”

Despite Miles’ intention of connecting with young blacks, the album was critical and commercial failure. Jazz purists cried sell-out, jazz critics dismissed the album as aimless noise, and popular music fans either ignored it (since it was marketed as a jazz album) or didn’t know what to make of it. Miles also originally released the album without any notes or musician credits, leaving anonymous the work of sidemen including Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, and Dave Liebman, among others. Miles’ own trumpet playing featured the increasing (sometimes constant) use of a wah-wah pedal. He also began playing organ and keyboards almost as much as trumpet on some cuts.

The "Complete On The Corner Sessions"

Although the album was dismissed on its release, it has slowly and steadily been gaining respect among musicians and today is widely hailed as one of the forerunners of contemporary styles such as hip-hop, trance, techno, drums & bass, house, and even ambient music. It is now highly regarded and is regularly referred to by dozens of leading electronic, hip-hop, and alternative musicians, ranging from Jah Wobble and DJ Spooky to Radiohead and Brian Eno. In 2007, Sony/Columbia released a 6 cd set, the Complete On The Corner Sessions, which featured hours of unreleased tracks, as well as cuts from Miles subsequent studio albums Big Fun and Get Up With It. The experiments in this direction continued for the next 3 years until Miles took a 5 year hiatus from playing in 1975 and featured a core band that included Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas on guitar, Dave Liebman on saxophones, Michael Henderson on bass, Al Foster on drums, and Mtume on percussion. The music that Miles created during this period has been revisited in albums by trumpeter/composer Mark Isham and the Yo Miles! group led by Leo Wadada Smith and Henry Kaiser. The music from this period has also been remixed by bassist/producer Bill LaswellDJ Krush and Divinyls drummer Charley Drayton.

The music of Miles Davis, like Stravinsky, Charles Ives, and Charlie Parker, was often “ahead of its time”. Marcus Miller, who played bass with Miles in the 80’s and produced some of his albums recounts:

“I remember a story about someone walking up to Miles and saying, ‘Man, I could get with you back in the ’50s, but I can’t get with what you’re doing now.’ And Miles said, ‘Well, you want me to wait for you?’”

Thirty years later, people are finally catching up. (Buy it here.)

Suggested Reading:

Paul Tingen. Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations Of Miles Davis, 1967–1991.