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Music Review: Miles Davis – The Complete ‘On The Corner’ Sessions

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Miles Davis is takin' it to the streets.

In late spring of 1972, Davis broke a two-year hiatus from the studio to act upon his most daring idea of his 45-year recording history: to create music that finally is completely absent of any jazz aesthetic and replace it with "street" sensibilities. An idea to jettison most instrumental wankery in favor of moods and heavy grooves (a counter move in 1972 if there ever was one). And, an idea to abandon discernible melody in favor of bass riffs and relentless repeating figures and beats. Songs with no beginning and no end. The end product of this idea became known as On The Corner, one of his most controversial albums of all time. But unlike his other controversial albums, most people even today can't embrace it.

To put this vision into vinyl, Miles enlisted the help of an acquaintance he met three years prior; the premier orchestral conductor for rock stars, Paul Buckmaster. The British cellist, whose arrangements had already by this time figured in prominent records by David Bowie, The Rolling Stones and Elton John, always harbored a love for the avant-garde and jazz. So when he got the call from Miles, he enthusiastically embraced the opportunity. In the process, Buckmaster encouraged Davis to assimilate some of the music theories of Karlheinz Stockhausen, the German composer who pioneered the use of electronic instruments in classical music and formulating alternative song structures. And whether it was conscious or not, Miles moved more toward Ornette Coleman's harmolodics, requiring most of the musicians to play with as little preconceptions as possible and listen closely to each other.

As Buckmaster consolidated his ideas and composed scores, Miles rounded up another stallar set of supporting musicians for the task: John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Lonnie Liston Smith, Jack deJohnette, Billy Hart, Dave Liebman, Bennie Maupin, Al Foster, Michael Henderson, Don Alias and many more.

Just as significant, Indian players were used (Badal Roy, tablas; Khalil Balarishna, electric sitar; Colin Walcott from the band Oregon, sitar). The Indian experimentations actually begun toward the end of 1969 until Miles took a break from the studio a few months later. But now, there were more earnestly employed.

Never before or since had Miles assembled such a massive amount of talent nor had utilized wide array of influences to make a record.

Unfortunately for Buckmaster, his own best laid plans were immediately tossed aside when the recording sessions began for the album on June 1, 1972; the scores he carefully constructed and made copies for the musicians were never really used. Some of the basic ideas he brought to the sessions were used more for starting points, but the musicians , Miles and producer Teo Macero took them to places he never intended.

Instead, the band recorded his sketches with only a few members getting a little rehearsal and most getting virtually none at all. This was how Miles got spontaneity out of his players, much as he had done for most of his notable records going back to Kind Of Blue.

There were two primary sessions where all the basic tracks for On The Corner were recorded; "On The Corner" was recorded on June 1 and "Black Satin" was put to tape on June 6. These two megatunes were later broken up into the four, discrete tracks that make up the final release (two of them were further broken down further into arbitrarily defined songs within the track with no identifiable start and stop points).

The unedited master of "On The Corner" is one of the rare spots on the album where a soloist aside from Miles emerges from the ensemble; McLaughlin sounds more like his old, Jack Johnson self instead of the more studied, Mahavishnu version. The album version, called "On The Corner/New York Girl/Thinkin' Of One Thing And Doing Another/Votes For Miles" is not that much changed from the raw version.miles_vienna1973

But there is a previously unreleased nugget from that session, though; "On The Corner (take 4)" sounds like a different tune altogether from the other versions of "On The Corner." Instead of the quicker double-time of the twenty-minute version that ended up on the album, this five-minute rendition goes at a slower pace and McLaughlin's menacing guitar fronts an un-worldy percussion section full of Indian instruments, conventional percussion and drums (either Hart or deJohnette, or both). Beside a sitar and Yamaha organ bleating out dark chords lies Henderson's rock-solid bass vamps at the center. Miles himself lays out. "Take 4" is a little bit light on the cerebral side, but it's one of the best straight groovers on the whole box set. With Henderson and McLaughlin leading the way of this jam, it's marks a brief glimpse back to 1970's Jack Johnson.

The centerpiece track of both the original album and the box set is "Black Satin." In a collection consisting of hours upon hours of cyclical grooves and two-note riffs, "Black Satin" is beautifully complex, mysterious, and downright funky. Despite it being derivative of the "On The Corner" track that spawned many of the other tracks of the album, "Satin" stands apart because of the heavy editing and dubbing that had been largely avoided for the other selections and possesses a catchy, recognizable theme. The rhythm is heavily multi-layered and the whistles and almost-random hand claps add a "street" element to what is a free-form funk tune. Macero made heavy use of tape edits that predate the sampling and beats that underpins techno, drum 'n' bass, and dance music many years later. For all these reasons, "Black Satin" remains Miles' most successful expression of his genius in the last two decades of his life.

As Sony has done with the prior Complete Sessions Miles releases (especially Bitches Brew), tracks not really related to the original release are thrown in because they were taped around the same time frame. Truthfully, this collection could more accurately be called The Complete 'On The Corner' and 'Get Up With It' Sessions, because all the songs from that 1974 release are represented here, too. Even the odds-and-ends collection of early fusion songs, Big Fun, is represented here, via the twenty-one minute epic, "Ife."

"Ife" is nominally credited to Miles, but according to Buckmaster, the main melodic line and the chord progression were his; Henderson supplied the bass line. Buckmaster also plays electric cello on it. Although it's too long, by about six or seven minutes, there is enough going on musically to make it more interesting compared to must of the other tracks recorded in this period. Recorded six days after "Black Satin," it's not entirely clear why it didn't make it on the On The Corner album, but it was regularly in Miles' concert rotation for the next few years. Liebman also chose to cover it in his On The Corner tribute CD released earlier this year.

"Rated X" is not even a song, but a seven-minute jungle groove that's particularly nasty. The innovative aspect of it is how the percussion starts and stops at random, like as if someone errantly mixed it out of the track in spots. Intentionally or not, the rhythm coming in and out in that manner was what Buckmaster had intended for the On The Corner sessions. Miles doesn't play trumpet but provide some eery organ chords made tightly packed by tape loops created by Macero. That seems like a goof until you consider it anticipated techno, or electro-dub and sampling by some fifteen or so years.

One more track to note is "What They Do," which doesn't appear to show up in any previous releases, and is notable in the that it's more rock-oriented than funk-oriented. It seems to be played by Miles' '73-'75 band of Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas on guitars, Henderson on bass, Mtume on percussion, and Foster on drums. I'm guessing that it's Cosey with the wah-wah freak-outs, but Miles is soloing right along with his wah-wah trumpet. A decidedly more "live" feel than other studio tracks of that time, it reminds of why, after On The Corner until his retirement in 1975, Miles' best records were the live ones.

Aside from these tracks and the oddly commercial "Red China Blues" and "Minnie," there are few tunes that distinguish themselves from each other because the long, repetitive grooves and lack of melodic structures that start to numb the listener's ears about halfway through at the twelve minute mark.

Ultimately after all these years, On The Corner, as described by Davis biographer Paul Tingen, "continues to be challenging listening. The absence of musical structures, harmonic development, and melodic content poses genuine problems." Unlike thirty-five years ago, there are now a lot of critics who have praised On The Corner for being forward-looking, fresh, and funky. But it may take another thirty-five years before it reaches the acceptance levels of its fusion predecessors like In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew.

As for this six-disc collection, a hundred and twenty bucks is a lot to give up for some mostly impenetrable music. To be sure, there are a few fanatics of Miles' mid-fusion period out there who will find plenty of puzzle pieces with which to complete the picture. Like Corky McCoy's notorious album cover of the original release, whether the picture itself is a masterpiece, an inferior sketch or a mixture of both is in the ear of the listener. One thing is for certain, though: it's not a forgery, it's very much an original.

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About Pico

  • El Bicho

    I don’t see what’s wrong with people. Maybe it’s an advantage of hearing it and the music it influenced, what 35 years after the fact, but I was hooked from the first track. That bass line was wicked.

    Still waiting for you to pick out some albums.

  • Glen Boyd

    Great review Pico. You obviously have delved very deeply into Miles and into this record. The only Miles that I own is the boxed version of Kind Of Blue, that features all the sessions and outtakes with Coltrane. Kind of similiar to this one I’d imagine…

    I’ve always respected the crap outta him, and consider myself fortunate that I was even able to see him in concert before he left us.

    But I just always figured that particular record (Blue) was one which cut so deep, what was really the point of needing anything else (well except for maybe Bitches Brew I suppose…but thats fodder for another discussion completely).

    Anyway, lest I babble any further…I definitely need to give On The Corner another listen.

    Great review.


  • Connie Phillips

    Congrats! This article has been forwarded to the websites and

  • Ray Ellis

    This is, without doubt, one of the most insightful music reviews–and certainly the best Miles Davis review I’ve seen on Blogcritics.

  • Mark Saleski

    great review pico. funny that he had Badal Roy on these sessions…Roy played tablas for Ornette when i saw him in boston.

    gand, i’ve gotta get this. i could never figure out why people thought it was so difficult (and yea, i know, i hear things “differently”)

    and glen, you really do need more Miles. don’t know if i’d start with this one though….maybe In A Silent Way, and then Bitches Brew

  • Pico

    Always nice to get compliments, especially coming from those who regularly run circles around me both in terms of writing and musical knowledge. Thanks very much!

    Glen, IMHO I think your introduction to the fusion eara of Miles should be the Complete ‘In A Silent Way’ Sessions. It’s only 3 CD’s instead of six, and there isn’t a single dud track on there. It’s also like history lesson into the beginnings of fusion. And you’re in luck, ’cause somebody already reviewed it here! clicky clicky

    Mark, I think that for me, the difficult listen part were those relentless rhythms and pulsing bass lines that were fine, sometimes brilliant, but got monotonous after a while. There was no reason for “Calypso Frelimo” and “He Loved Him Madly,” for example, to go on for more than half an hour a piece.

    On the other hand, a twenty-plus minute song like “Right Off” is fine at it’s length because there were a lot of changes going on to hold my interest the whole way through. But the long songs in this collection didn’t really give me any compelling reason to keep listening beyond a certain point; most of the time nothing more was happening at the 15 minute mark than it did at the 3 minute mark. This is why all the songs I chose to highlight, except for “Ife,” runs under ten minutes. It’s also why I think Bill Laswell did such a great job with some of these tunes on his Panthalassa remix; he chopped down the lengths to digestible sizes.

    Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of great moments in this compilation. There’s also some long stretches where not much is going on. Such is the trade off you get sometimes with a mad genius like Miles Davis.

  • Tom Johnson

    Really looking forward to hearing this – I’m another of those few who love On the Corner. Unfortunately, this one’s gonna have to go on my Christmas list. Seriously, what are they thinking with that $120 price tag? (And that’s on sale – the MSRP is $139.98!) $20 a disc?! I realize there’s the book and that box, but they’re really stretching things with that price. The Cellar Door Sessions, also 6 discs, is $61.99 on Amazon right now (and Glen, this is where I’d recommend you jump in – very, very exciting stuff, and a lot of it.) Hell, the 20 disc Complete Montreux box is “only” $160 (I really, really wish the contents of this box had been broken out for sale as individual shows.) I really hope Amazon drops this price significantly over the next few months.

  • Pico


    I’ll stand behind The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions as the recommended jumping in point, but I do love The Cellar Door Sessions, too. Hearing Jarrett getting wiggy on an electric piano is worth the price of admission alone.

  • Dave

    Very nice review.

    I’ve had On The Corner for several years and have yet to listen to it all the way through in one sitting. It’s too repetetive for foreground listening and too intense for background listening, so I usually just pick a track and listen to that. I find Get Up With It a more pleasing collection of tracks from roughly the same period. That said, I just know I’ll end up buying this box — I can’t help myself. A common complaint particularly about the Jack Johnson box is that it’s too repetetive. Does anyone really want to hear 6 consecutive takes of Willie Nelson and 5 Go Ahead Johns in a row? I like to listen to this box on my MP3 player or disc changer in shuffle mode.

    An aside: Collin Walcott wasn’t an Indian; he was an American who played Indian instruments (sitar, tabla). I found it interesting that when he died and Oregon replaced him with an actual Indian musician (Trilok Gurtu), Oregon’s music during that period had *less* of an Eastern feel to it.

    Tom, et al: These Miles boxes tend to come way down in price over a few months. I recall the Cellar Door box selling for upwards of $100 when it first came out.

  • Pico

    Thanks, Dave. An insightful take on Miles’ releases of that period.

    I share your complaint about The Complete Jack Johnson; fortunately, this box set doesn’t have many redundant takes on it. I was also pleased to discover that the previously unreleased tracks were mostly good.

    Get Up With It was never among my favorite Miles fusion records, but I gained a better appreciation for it in preparing for this review. I still think that most of the songs are too damned long, though!

    I had meant to say “Indian instrumental players” instead of “Indian players” but I missed that omission. Good catch.

    In all, you seem to be one who will find it worthwhile picking up this set, even if you might wait for the price to come down first.