Jack Johnson: Soundtrack to a Legend The Barbican London, UK May 30, 2005 Drummer Jack DeJohnette was a driving force in helping to take Miles Davis's music into interesting realms in the 1970s, providing a fluid yet powerful backbone that somehow combined funk, free jazz and rock on such overdriven masterpieces as 1970's Live Evil. Thus, though DeJohnette is not credited as playing on Miles's album A Tribute to Jack Johnson, his presence here tonight lends a certain authenticity to the project in hand: live accompaniment for a rare screening of William Cayton's legendary 1971 documentary charting the life of the first black heavyweight boxing champion of the world, for which Miles provided the original soundtrack. This one-off performance sees DeJohnette teamed up with four of the British scene's hottest young musicians - saxophonist Jason Yarde; trumpeter and multi-instrumentalist Byron Wallen; David Okumu on guitar; and Neville Malcolm holding down the bass - playing the results of three days' intensive wood-shedding in London. Of course, much has already been made of how Miles's enthusiasm for boxing and admiration for the flamboyant and indefatigable Jack Johnson helped provoke some of his punchiest playing and led to the creation of a crunching jazz-rock masterpiece. With all this history behind them, DeJohnette and his collaborators wisely choose not to attempt to recreate Miles's classic themes, but rather to take them as a jumping off point, the essential spark of inspiration from which to push further in re-imagining and augmenting Miles's canonical work. In fact, for the most part, this band respectfully drops out for the sections of the film in which Miles's pieces come to the fore, often picking up the threads and moving the music forward as the recording fades out. So powerful is the influence of these original jams, however, that the newer interpretations mostly maintain the gritty, open-ended, rock inflected feel of the originals.
But there's more to it than simply jamming for 90 minutes; throughout the film, there are a whole range of interesting arrangements, designed specifically to complement the action. Most obviously, DeJohnette has a nice line in tumbling drum rolls to accompany the plentiful fight footage, a technique that helps to emphasise the devastating effect of a heavyweight attack, with a cymbal crash backing up each stinging jab, the percussive barrage building to a crescendo as Johnson's opponents invariably hit the canvas.
Elsewhere, the band launches into a galloping hard-bop sprint for some horse racing footage, and a crashing, free-jazz cacophony for a motor-racing sequence. Most satisfyingly, Neville Malcolm kicks off a brief but very deep modal stomper on the double bass to back up a short sequence featuring Johnson playing his own 'seven foot bass fiddle.' While these interpretations are fairly obvious and irresistible, at the other extreme, the band also understands the use of restraint - lapsing into chilly silence when the screen carries the eerie images of Klansmen burning crosses in the Deep South night.
The point is that it works: the soundtrack performance moves the action along at an exhilarating pace. It doesn't even seem to matter that the odd line of commentary gets lost - the film manages to maintain a dramatic tension thanks to the inventive and entirely apt improvising taking place. As a piece of cinema, the film is already an adrenalin fuelled, hallucinatory oddity: by turns a documentary, a dramatisation, a history lesson, a biography, a sports flick and a great mythologising of an African American hero; it rarely stays in one place long enough to be pinned down. With this new soundtrack to pep it up even more, the story just flies by, making its inexorable way towards the poignant deflation of Johnson's legend, as old age and poverty take hold and the spotlight moves on to newer heroes for different times.