On The Corner
For Miles Davis fans, a cycle is complete. The Complete On The Corner Sessions has arrived, and the word is that this may be the last of Sonys Miles boxes.
Miles filled up a lot of tape reels with his search for new horizons in improvisation. The thrill (and the exasperation) of these boxes comes in hearing most of these reels in succession, with many of the duds left in.
Miles mentioned in 1972 that On The Corner was his attempt to reach the young black audience of his era. Judging from its sales figures, it doesnt seem to have succeeded. Instead it reached fans of many dance, rap and instrumental rock subgenres that began emerging 20 years later.
As a result, this new box set has earned mostly laudatory reviews. Another reason may be that only the crankiest of cranks feel the need to dishonor the dead when this sort of box appears. Since this box has prompted much celebration, I am a bit more comfortable in offering a few skeptical comments.
Dave Liebman, one of Miless saxophonists in this era, offered a sharp description of the bands methods in his notes to a reissue of Dark Magus, one of its concert recordings. However, one sentence (there was scant interaction between rhythm section members or as a unit in relation to the soloist) explains why I have trouble getting into some of its music. Most tracks cycle constantly, presenting abrasive sonic environments but rarely producing something in the twelfth minute not heard in the first.
Miless solos consist of exclamations, mixed with little-boy-lost musing, but rarely coherent phrases. The saxophonists (Liebman, Carlos Garnett, Sonny Fortune) sound as though they are trying to figure out how much jazz they can sneak into the proceedings. The guitarists (with Bitches Brew holdover John McLaughlin and the anomalously mild-mannered David Creamer appearing on disc one while Reggie Lucass rhythm and Pete Cosey and Dominique Gaumonts post-Hendrix styles dominate the remainder), like the band as a whole, deal in sound more than notes, which must have something to do with why all of those remixers enjoy this stuff.
Miles was reportedly not in good shape for much of this era. It is evident in his playing. Perhaps the best thing to say about this music is that it reflects what must have been in his head all too well. It is a dark vision.
There is much good music on this box. The original side one On The Corner suite itself, with its brash opening groove, its descent into spacy melancholy when Miles enters, its resurgence and finally its fade into sitar and tabla drones, is the sort of preplanned-sounding improvisation that could only happen under Miless watch. Rated X, with its shrill organ on top of incongruous funk, presents Miless vision with so little compromise that one cant help admiring its perversity. Some of the unreleased tracks (One And One (Unedited Master), The Hen) have a power exceeding much of what appeared on the original albums.
In spite of my reservations about this music, I have spent much time with it. Miless records from that era sit on my shelf, glowering. Perhaps even more than reaching 70s blacks or 90s college-rock whites, I suspect that this is precisely what Miles had in mind.