Miles of Sound

The Complete On the Corner Sessions documents one of jazz's most controversial albums.

There's only one thing freakier than On the Corner: Miles' shades.
There's only one thing freakier than On the Corner: Miles' shades.
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 OTC 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 appears to pick up mid-jam, 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' epic studio dates of the '60s and '70s, then sift through the tapes, splicing together the most molten moments. Macero's innovative technique (with crucial input from Miles) mirrored that of Jamaican dub and predated techno and house's obsession with remixing and editing by nearly two decades. Such was the degree of Macero's studio sorcery that many of OTC's musicians (including Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Jack DeJohnette, Pete Cosey, Michael Henderson, and Dave Liebman) didn't recognize the finished product based on their memories of the parts they'd laid down. As much craft and cunning were demonstrated after the players left the studio as during the group's real-time interactions.

While Miles entertained hopes of mass popularity, On the Corner is more likely to set people on edge, not loosen 'em up or induce bonhomie. OTC 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 handclaps, humid tabla thumping, searing sitar drones, acrid organ and guitar stabs, and a rhythm that foreshadows drum & bass' convolutions -- all coalesce into a disorienting, sensory-overload journey to the dark side. Over this sound swoops Miles' menacingly festive trumpet motif. Dude sincerely wanted to get the youth dancing, but he ended up alienating many of 'em (and jazz purists too).

"One and One" ramps up 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 drum calculus. Party? Hardly. Even the most badass pimp would feel trepidation struttin' to On the Corner. But in its relentless, cutthroat way, OTC 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 Miles was one of the coldest motherfuckers ever to plug in, On the Corner is the most accurate, explicit aural rendering of his personality (along with Get Up With It's "Rated X," which is included here). We're not in Kind of Blue Land -- or even Bitches Brewville -- anymore, Dorothy.

Twelve previously unreleased tracks and five more that have never been issued in full -- totaling more than two hours of unheard music -- are contained within this six-disc boxed set. Besides encompassing the original 1972 album and its alternate takes, this beast also includes material recorded during the Big Fun and Get Up With It sessions (excellent, expansive fusion albums in their own right).

For obsessive fans of Miles' electric period and those curious to know why it's so fervently worshiped, Complete On the Corner Sessions (augmented with a lavish 120-page booklet) 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 Miles 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 these factors converged in a perfect mix of aesthetic serendipity and resulted in a slew of Miles 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 or ceasing to detect 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 & bass, IDM, and psychedelic- and post-rock artists. Conservative blowhards like Stanley Crouch decried it as commercial pandering (the LP actually didn't sell well); but regardless of Miles' 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.