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For the Artists: Critical Writing, Volume 2

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Miles' music of the 1970s is not just a rejection of beauty, but a beautiful embrace of the rejected. —Greg Masters
Miles Davis: The Complete On the Corner Sessions Sony-Legacy Music, October 2007

"There is no architecture and no build-up. Just a vivid, uninterrupted succession of colors, rhythms and moods."

—Arnold Schoenberg, describing his Five Pieces for Orchestra in a letter to Richard Strauss, 1909, quoted in The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007)


The music Miles Davis forged in the first half of the 1970s, his so-called "electric period," is not jazz. In a determined effort to keep his sound fresh, he took the audacious step of leaving behind all the frameworks of the art form which had made him a recognized and venerated figure throughout the world. In an effort to open himself up to new ideas and to expand his audience, his new sound maintains elements of the jazz style he'd evolved for the previous 30 years, while appropriating styles of music outside the jazz repertoire, namely the propulsive dance groove of 70s funk (particularly James Brown and Sly Stone), the raucous, rough-edged, electro-charged brashness of Jimi Hendrix, the metallic sparkle of India's Ravi Shankar, the European classical avant-garde methods of Karlheinz Stockhausen, as well as the traditions of jazz going back to Dixieland and ragtime. It's also indebted to the free playing of Albert Ayler and late John Coltrane with Pharoah Sanders.

And what does this add up to? All I know is that the music manages to expresses feelings I've yet to find in any other art form. Complex, raw, primal feelings splayed and made tangible.

The music Miles made in these years—particularly with the scorching electric guitars of Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas, grounded in the steady, incantory pulse of Al Foster's 4/4 rhythm on drums and Michael Henderson's unswerving definition of tempo and key via electric bass—defined an organic, body-centered response to nature. Bird calls and the sound of wind through the trees is as much a part of the pastiche as is the dance of the inner psyche. We've heard these sounds on walks through the woods.

But the music is—despite the assault of its unfamiliar gestures and its straying beyond bar measures—rooted in blues. The whole thing is still a child of the body and spirit-form called blues. Miles was clearly intending to move his music out of the elite confines of the music hall and into the street, or at least onto the radio.

Miles' generosity of spirit, his openness to influences from outside the expected, his need to dig deep into emotional recesses never before expressed so vividly, make it seem that the music is contemporary. To these ears it is not at all dated or relegated to a nostalgic dip into the past. It was so far ahead of its time that we're still catching up to it nearly 40 years later.

The Complete On the Corner Sessions (Sony-Legacy Music, 2007) is the eighth and final set in a series of Miles Davis boxes. This six-CD package includes six-plus hours of music, including 12 previously unissued tracks, plus five tracks previously unissued in full. The package contains a 120-page booklet with liner notes and essays by musician/co-producer Bob Belden (Michael Cuscuna is the other co-producer), journalist Tom Terrell and arranger/musician Paul Buckmaster.

The Complete On the Corner Sessions is an inaccurate and misleading title in an academic sense. The tracks he recorded at Columbia Studio B over the course of 16 sessions presented in this set from March 9, 1972 to May 5, 1975 offer up at least two very different artistic intentions. The first is the material realized for what would be released as On the Corner in July 1972 —the "extended grooves," as bassist Michael Henderson explains in the liner notes. This is a singular event in the Miles chronology, although it can be seen as an extension of the sound he had developed in 1970 in an ensemble that included Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, Michael Henderson, Gary Bartz, John McLaughlin and Airto Moreira (represented on The Cellar Door Sessions, released as a six-CD box set in 2005).

Other tracks collected here, particularly those assembled on Get Up With It (released November 1974), are another matter. Following the June 1972 sessions that resulted in On the Corner, Miles moved the ensemble sound away from an insistence on a churning, full-speed-ahead jam on one chord. On a handful of sessions over the next few years, orchestral colors are explored and there's room for chord changes and melodies. Perhaps it's quibbling, but I'm more comfortable with distinguishing each of the original LPs as distinct periods, or moments, in Miles' continuous evolution.

The new solo

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