Remembering the time when Miles Davis assembled “the greatest rock and roll band you have ever heard”
Jazz, the most complex popular music to have ever existed, is just wavy enough to encompass extreme contradictions.
It’s uninhibited noise; it’s smooth lounge. It’s free expressionism; it’s the hallmark of musical discipline. Even when it seems to run parallel with blunt, repeating rock ’n’ roll, jazz goes perpendicular and barrels towards that, too. And while most sane people would insist that any rock fan with an interest in jazz start with Miles Davis, 1971’s classic Jack Johnson isn’t suggested as the icebreaker nearly as often as the universally recognized Kind of Blue or possibly even 1972’s addled, groove-dependent On the Corner. For some, it might not even reach far enough to come off as enough of the Jazz Experience. But its simplicity is not only a virtue, it may be the most accessible record the legend ever made, period.
Jack Johnson’s two tracks offer up both sides of the jazz coin in 25- and 27-minute odysseys — right, I just called them simple. Made to order for a documentary about the titular boxing giant, Davis’ off-the-cuff instincts turned him further towards hard funk, rock, James Brown, and punchy elements you wouldn’t associate with the previous, tonally similar masterpieces In a Silent Way or Bitches Brew. The aptly titled “Right Off” blitzes out the gate with a two-chord guitar swing that wouldn’t be out of place introducing a late-night talk show, a bluesy gallop that’s probably the most obvious rock Davis ever conceived.
This is no accident; the man himself assembled what he termed “the greatest rock and roll band you have ever heard” for these sessions, and if you formed one out of musicians who’ve only stood purely on the edge of rock, that’s probably inarguable. That square-fisted riff comes courtesy of Mahavishnu Orchestra dynamo John McLaughlin, who graces most of Davis’ best albums of this period, before Miles’ own trumpet squawks in with various loop-de-loops and punctuations while Billy Cobham just stomps out the flat-footed drum line with gnawing intensity.
The most movable person on hand is bassist Michael Henderson, doing double duty and walking all over these left-right-left-right-left exhortations, including a couple breathers where Cobham drops out and McLaughlin turns his attention to the wah pedal, warping the groove like smacking wet lips. Around 15 minutes is Herbie Hancock’s big entrance, on a Clavinet-esque buzzsaw keyboard, sounding like an escaped Frankenstein monster from a Stevie Wonder session (these funk signifiers are also by design, as the tune borrows heavily from Sly Stone’s “Sing a Simple Song” while “Yesternow” adapts bass parts from Brown’s “Say It Loud — I’m Black and Proud”).
By the time the theme circles around to itself with bass, wah guitar, and shooting trumpet quacks all firing at the same climactic target, things shift again 18 and a half minutes in, to a whole new McLaughlin boogie and an even harder-hitting Cobham beat. Now we’re in downright Zeppelin territory, and everyone’s content to just let the two rock out for the next 90 seconds before getting reeled back to the start. “Right Off” is just such blatant fun, such a dumbed-down nasty vamp from heady geniuses, that any noob should be able to feel the heart and stomach of it within seconds and stick with it. By the bish-crackling, feedbacking, big-cymbals finish it feels like you sat through a greatest-hits set.
The b-side, of course, is “Yesternow,” spacier by design and with a whole other stellar lineup on a seven-minute middle stretch that includes the recently departed Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette and electric-Miles student extraordinaire Sonny Sharrock, whose own belated solo output circa 1986’s gorgeous Guitar borrows heavily from the seismic genrelessness of these explorations. Henderson’s patient bass thump hammers down an invisible groove as McLaughlin strums blues-psych in waves and the man on the marquee coaxes beautiful, nightfallen negative space out of his trumpet.
Where “Right Off” swings like a dizzy boxer, “Yesternow” creates lyrical jazz out of pure stillness. Cobham limits his playing to shading and accents; the song builds a trance out of anti-propulsion, edging with no beat. You can hear the perfect metallic clink of his sticks on cymbal flesh in each pocket between bass riffs. Henderson stops, starts, the rhythm section limits themselves to astonishing minimalism while Davis’ trumpet slips in and around corners created by say, McLaughlin’s proto-Gang of Four bursts of chord. Of course, Davis is a genius and we’re not, which is why he sneaks in a quick riff he also used in “Right Off” around seven minutes.
The contradiction of this simplicity / complexity dichotomy is made explicit in “Yesternow,” though: Who is the star? Bass man Henderson who provides the recognizable center? Or the master improvisers who manage to avoid dancing on each others’ toes? The sparse sound appears to give each ensemble player their own spotlight every few beats. Your ears dart from a Henderson riff to a Cobham fill to a was-that-Herbie keyboard honk in the dark. Then that spacious whole-other-band dips in and things get spacy for a spell, accelerating and sinking at the same time, shifting roles as Miles turns to accents while the wah guitar ramps up aggressively in double-speed. “Yesternow” is nearly piling up into clattering breakbeats around the 18th minute, where it’s rocking out, pulling intergalactic noises from a sucked straw, and holding a tough groove all at once.
Both tracks are so straight-ahead pummeling their themes to death that they’ve got to be rock and roll, but they’re also rock and roll when actor Brock Peters suddenly speaks at the conclusion of the whole thing: “I’m Jack Johnson, heavyweight champion of the world. I’m black. They never let me forget it. I’m black all right. I’ll never let them forget it.” It’s a funny interjection, and a powerful one, a sudden reminder that the locomotive energy, form grabbing function by the balls, and architectural excellence of this two-sided experience comes from pride itself.
Not content with ruling his jazz kingdom, he needed to make his mark on blues, rock, funk, and psychedelia, too, bringing them all to his dominion and stretching them at the same time, showing them how it’s done. It’s no wonder he identified with Jack Johnson.
VIDEO: Miles Davis on Jack Johnson
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