The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions
I have always been the type of listener who wants to know "how?" (or perhaps "why," or at least "what," "when," and "where") when I hear a moving bit of music. In many cases, there is no "how" other than showing up at the studio, or putting in time at the writer’s desk, and not much of significance in the answer to the other questions, but I keep pursuing it. This leads to reading interviews and biographies, trying to find bootlegs, writing these columns and being an addict of archival releases.
The most recent Miles Davis box set, The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions, came out in September. Exercising some rare self-restraint, I resisted its $55 siren call until the circumstances of my life changed to justify accepting it (new day job). For several weeks after the purchase, it has sat near my stereo, a large, black monolith with which I have had to grapple whenever I’ve carved out time for close music listening.
Miles’s first four fusion releases (In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Miles Davis At Fillmore and A Tribute to Jack Johnson) are fascinating, but, for me, not entirely for the genre breakthrough reasons that get reported most often. For my tastes, composition and improvisation are more intriguing musical opponents than jazz and rock, but these four records combine them in audacious ways like few others in history. Jimmy Giuffre once described Teo Macero as a producer "who hears music from the vantage point of a composer," and in the case of these records he, perhaps or perhaps not in conjunction with Miles, had the role of "composing" pieces, with the aid of tape splicing and mixing gear, out of what were primarily improvisations on fragmentary themes and riffs.
Except for the Fillmore release, each of these albums now has its attendant box set, and Macero, frozen out of the process for reasons unknown, has not been pleased. After a month of listening to the Jack Johnson set, I was not entirely surprised to pick up Jazzwise magazine and find Macero calling this "the poorest collection of music ever released" and suggesting that Miles, were he alive, would kill the people who put it out. More than the previous boxes, this set delves deep into the vault, allowing the listener to hear many less than masterful musical passages from these master musicians. Perhaps now we might see listeners making their own Jack Johnsons, much as some Beach Boys cultists (me included) have constructed their own Smiles.
In my first forays into this box, I could see a case being made that Macero should have stayed in control. As the liner notes mention, Miles was drawing inspiration from Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, and at times, he and his jazz-schooled players sound about as convincing jamming on Band of Gypsies-styled riffs as the Experience or the Family Stone would have been trying to play "My Funny Valentine." It’s amusing, but perhaps not much more, to hear one fuzz-toned jam on a ridiculously obtuse chord progression ("Johnny Bratton," disc 1, track 8) that ends with Miles saying, "I couldn’t play nothin’ on that!" and another player, probably saxophonist Steve Grossman, saying "I couldn’t, either."
One thing to be said for this, though, is that it makes the triumphant moments stand out all the more, and Miles’s 4/7/70 session (which arrives at the start of disc 3, and which yielded the bulk of Jack Johnson) is the central triumph here. After a search covering the first two discs, the right rhythm section (John McLaughlin, Michael Henderson and Billy Cobham) clicked into place and the first complete take yielded one of Miles’s all-time most assertive solos. This take appeared almost complete on the original album, although the box set reveals one moment near the end when Cobham gets too wild with a fill and the otherwise monstrous groove falls apart briefly. This isn’t much, but it’s one of those "what" or "why" moments that collectors treasure.
Perhaps a better object of this sort of study is the second side of Jack Johnson, "Yesternow." The sparse groove that starts the side is notable enough, but one of the most arresting moments of the original record comes when the rhythm section locks in a higher gear behind Grossman’s sax solo, before the piece suddenly slams (via Macero’s editing scissors) into an interlude looking back on Silent Way. Revisiting that passage in the box-set context gives a new sense of Miles’s smarts in putting time in with Grossman (the saxophonist seldom sounded comfortable with Miles, but this is one instance where his playing really works) and Teo’s smarts in picking this precise moment to break away from 4/7/70 (the box reveals that the take ambled on for another minute before grinding to a halt).
The second half of "Yesternow" journeys back to 2/18/70 the box set reveals that Miles and band did four takes totaling 30 minutes on that date of a piece titled "Willie Nelson," and Macero took 9 minutes from three of those takes for the original album. Hearing the raw material, it’s not only fun, but intriguing, to hear the musicians searching and discovering, and to uncover Macero constructing new musical phrases in the album edit by jumping from one take to another (the splice is at 18:34 in the album cut), and to note that one of the side’s odder moments (an abrupt pause in the vamp with a single electric piano tone) is Macero’s pick from a long series of spooky passages (disc one, track three) where Miles directed the rhythm section to stop while Chick Corea explored electric keyboard noise. One can also hear Sonny Sharrock beginning to ease into his guitar onslaught just before the tape runs out on one take (disc one, track two).
So in the end, despite the politics and frustrations, this exploration of Miles’s tribute to Jack Johnson works as a tribute to the musicians and, particularly, to editor Macero. $55 yields a few more clues about what, when, where, why and how. Major record labels should always be so useful.