A bit of background: Jack Johnson was the world heavyweight boxing champion from 1908-1915. Miles felt an affinity toward Johnson; not only because Miles himself boxed, but because of the racial issues of being a Black man in America both men faced. Director William Clayton made a documentary movie about Johnson's life. A Tribute To Jack Johnson is the soundtrack to the film. The album was released in the summer of 1971.
A Tribute To Jack Johnson was a continuation of Miles' musical direction away from more traditional jazz forms. The densely layered music of Bitches Brew, recorded in August of 1969, was stripped down and became funkier and more groove oriented. The music also incorporated more elements of rock with the guitar work of John McLaughlin. For listeners whose only Miles Davis recording is Kind Of Blue and want to hear some "electric Miles," The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions may be the starting point to work your way backward, as well as forward, through the Miles Davis catalog.
Disc One: February-March 1970
Disc One begins with five takes of the song "Willie Nelson," which was released on the Directions album. The song is named after the country singer. Miles loved Willie's singing; he thought that his behind-the-beat phrasing resembled the way that he played trumpet. Although the various takes of "Willie Nelson" have differences in tempo and the amount of time Miles and the other soloists play, the real evolution of the piece is shown in Jack DeJohnette's drumming. He continuously increases the complexity of his patterns. What started out as simple timekeeping on the early takes later becomes highly syncopated and intensely propulsive with constant rhythmic variations.
The unedited takes also reveal guitarist Sonny Sharrock's presence on the sessions. His appearance along with John McLaughlin marks the first time that Miles used two guitar players. Pianist Chick Corea uses an Echoplex (a tape driven delay) on his electric piano, and Sharrock uses one on his guitar as well. At times it is difficult to distinguish between the two of them. This may have factored in Sharrock’s playing on the track being questioned at one time.
Along with Jack Johnson, the box set contains a series of tracks that are named after other boxers. The first is "Johnny Bratton." The first take has shades of the Lifetime version of McLaughlin's "One Word" (from Turn It Over ), in part due to McLaughlin's chord voicings and DeJohnette sounding [a little] like Tony Williams. The second take sounds like a band of teenagers practicing in the basement on Saturday morning. Miles at the end of the take says, "I couldn't even play on that deal." The third take has a slower tempo and a funkier feel, which gives Miles something to sink his teeth into. However, the repetitive pattern starts to wear after awhile.
The last track, named after boxer Archie Moore, is an unexpected surprise featuring John McLaughlin playing a straight-up blues! McLaughlin may play bluesy sometimes, but it's rare that you hear him play like this. The take has no horns: just guitar, bass, and drums. John is on this one like white on rice. This is a real treat for McLaughlin fans!
Disc Two: March 1970
The unedited takes of the song "Go Ahead John" are the centerpiece of Disc Two. Miles' producer, Teo Macero, had free reign in editing his music. One of the most commonly cited examples of the excessive use of that freedom is his post-production work on "Go Ahead John," where he used an electronic switcher that moved tracks around like an extreme panning effect and a device that created the illusion of instruments playing together. Despite the technology, Miles fans tend to agree that the effects were used well past the point of annoyance, especially when listened to with headphones. The unaltered takes are presented for the first time in the box set. The final version is not included, but it is available on the Big Fun CD.
The first take has Miles soloing over a solo blues progression, as only he can. Miles is the master of doing so much with so little. The delay effect on the final version sounds like there are two trumpets playing together, so hearing the original trumpet part will make Miles fans very happy.
The switching effect makes Jack DeJohnette sound like two drummers. The unaltered takes reveal DeJohnette's forceful and wickedly syncopated drumming. The box set's remastering makes the drums sound thunderous. The real shame of this piece is not Teo's use of the switcher on the drums, but that the drums were not recorded in stereo in the first place. The extreme switching effect has also been removed from the take that contains McLaughlin's highly distorted guitar solo, but does not differ much from the final version.
Another highlight is the "part 1 remake," which has Johnny Mac playing over the same slow blues as Miles did on "part 1." Hearing him out of his element is a revelation. This track differs from his playing on "Archie Moore." Instead of straight-ahead blues riffing, we hear more of McLaughlin's personal style, which had a raw quality at that time. His extreme string bending, his double-stops, and his picking attack all foreshadow the time when he kicks his chops up a notch or two and refines these licks in the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Miles also takes a solo, which is just as smooth as the first take version. Miles and the blues...was there ever a better match made in heaven?
Two more of the boxer named tracks round out Disc Two: "Duran" and "Sugar Ray." The two takes named for Roberto Duran are funk grooves that you can almost dance to. Miles thought that he might have had a hit record had it been released at the time. Billy Cobham is in the drummer's seat and he stays in the pocket. McLaughlin overdubs lead guitar on the first take that Miles obviously likes, saying at the end, "That's some raunchy shit, John." The second version was released on the Directions album in 1981, adding Wayne Shorter and Bennie Maupin on horns. It's the same groove, but with more intensity and drive than the first version. McLaughlin and Cobham play off of each other as if they were already telepathically linked: a sign of things to come.
It doesn't matter whether the "Sugar Ray" track is named for "Robinson" or "Leonard" because the tune is lame and totally forgettable.
Disc Three: April-May 1970
Disc Three contains the April 7th session that produced most of the A Tribute To Jack Johnson album. The original liner notes mistakenly listed two sessions, one as November 11, 1970. As with "Go Ahead John," it is a pleasure to hear the unedited takes. Other than saxophonist Steve Grossman, Miles used musicians who weren't part of his touring band. Billy Cobham, later to team with McLaughlin in the Mahavishnu Orchestra, again sits in the drummer's seat. Michael Henderson, then playing bass with Stevie Wonder, would later become a member of Miles' band. Herbie Hancock makes an extended cameo appearance at the session, playing organ. John McLaughlin was still a member of the Tony Williams Lifetime (and not yet a disciple of Sri Chinmoy). Given the number of sessions he did with Miles and how guitar-dominant the music on the box set is, it's interesting to note that McLaughlin was never officially a member of any of Miles' bands.
Miles wanted the music to reflect the movements, footwork, jabs, and punches of a boxer. The Cobham/Henderson rhythm section lays down a solid foundation with a steady groove that is still agile enough to swing. The distorted guitar comping of McLaughlin combines the power of rock with jazz chord voicings that lay the harmonic foundation for Miles and Grossman to improvise over.
The first of the two tracks on the original Jack Johnson is "Right Off." The title comes from Miles taking a jab at the Lifetime song "Right On," from their Turn It Over album. The session was loosely structured and very spontaneous: the main body of the piece starts out with a bored McLaughlin messing around in the studio and the others joining in. And at one point, Herbie Hancock unexpectedly drops in and is enlisted to play organ. The highlight of the piece is Miles' upper register playing, which fans regard as some of his finest. The takes for this track also show that Teo edited out much of Herbie's playing.
The second track is "Yesternow," named by James Finney, Miles' hairdresser. A third of "Yesternow" comes from "new take 4," based on a slowed-down version of the bass line from James Brown's "Say It Loud, I'm Black And I'm Proud." The remainder comes from other sessions edited together by Teo.
Disc Three also includes two takes of the song "Honky Tonk," which have Keith Jarrett making his studio debut with Miles. Although the structure of the tune is very repetitive, the solos on the second take, especially Miles', make this one worth sitting through. It ends with a satisfied Miles saying, "Teo, play some of that one."
Disc Four: May-June 1970
Depending on your taste, Disc Four will be a hit or miss affair. The music starts shifting from being guitar-dominant to keyboard-rich. Jarrett plays his electric piano with a lot of distortion and sometimes overwhelms the music, particularly on one the two takes of "Ali." But when he turns it down, as he does on the tune "Konda," you finally hear how beautiful his playing can be. However, these pieces are either overly long or don't seem to have a sense of direction.
The two takes of "Little High People" show the interaction between Jarrett and Chick Corea [both were in Miles' band for a short period] and the contrasts in their comping and solo styles. Also of note is the use by Miles of a device that adds a sub-octave to the tone of his trumpet on these tracks.
The rest of the fourth CD contains different takes of "Nem Um Talvez" ("Not Even A Maybe") and "Selim" ("Miles" spelled backward); both written and arranged by Brazilian musician Hermeto Pascoal. Also included are two takes of "Little Church," by Miles. They were originally released on the Live-Evil album. One hopes that the reason they are presented here, besides being part of this box sets recording chronology, is so they won't be included on a future Cellar Door/Live-Evil box set. Your mileage will vary regarding your enjoyment of these pieces.
Disc Five: June 1970 and original release
Chick Corea and Dave Holland had been playing some free music onstage in Miles' band. They left Miles at the end of August to form the free music group Circle with drummer Barry Altschul. The two versions of "The Mask" which start off Disc Five serve as a sample of their influence. The first version sounds like free music on steroids. There is some ferocious playing happening on this track, everyone seemingly soloing at the same time. You wish that there were more takes of this piece, although it did become part of the band's live set. This is The Shit!!
The second version of "The Mask" is entirely different. Holland walks a bass line to an insistent mid-tempo DeJohnette rim-shot/high hat pattern throughout the piece. The other musicians create a layer of sonic effects from the combinations of wah-wah, echoplexes, organ, etc. Miles and Grossman take solos over the sounds, the others follow in turn. Although the vamp is repetitive (and a bit long), it is never boring.
The last two tracks are the final versions of "Right Off" and "Yesternow" from A Tribute To Jack Johnson. The box set's remastering sounds great. Hiss is at a minimum. The sound is more alive and open. The recording has more detail and the disc playback is louder than the Sony Legacy reissue.
Teo's editing of these tracks almost shares co-billing with the music itself. For "Right Off," there is a section of an unaccompanied Miles solo recorded in November '69 that is used once on this track and twice in "Yesternow." "Yesternow" also includes edits of various "Willie Nelson" takes from the first disc, together with an excerpt of "Shhh/Peaceful" (from In A Silent Way ). Not only did Teo edit together different takes of music, he edited together entirely different band personnel. The box set comes with documentation that lists session dates and personnel, session takes that were edited together, and the timing where those edits occur.
The last section of "Yesternow" is an edit of an orchestral piece called "The Man Nobody Saw" and features a narration by actor Brock Peters playing Jack Johnson: "...I'm Black. They never let me forget it. I'm Black alright. I'll never let them forget it." And neither did Miles.
Peter Losin's Miles Ahead: A Miles Davis Website
A recommended book on Miles is Paul Tingen's Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967 - 1991. For more information, visit www.miles-beyond.com .
Miles Davis - Trumpet; John McLaughlin, Sonny Sharrock - Guitar; Michael Henderson, Dave Holland, Ron Carter, Gene Perla - Bass; Billy Cobham, Jack DeJohnette - Drums; Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock - Keyboards; Steve Grossman, Wayne Shorter - Saxophone; Bennie Maupin - Bass Clarinet; Airto- Percussion; Hermeto Pascoal - Vocals
Willie Nelson / [take 2], Willie Nelson / [take 3], Willie Nelson / [insert 1], Willie Nelson / [insert 2], Willie Nelson / [remake take 1], Willie Nelson / [remake take 2], Johnny Bratton / [take 4], Johnny Bratton / [insert 1], Johnny Bratton / [insert 2], Archie Moore / [take 1]
Go Ahead John / [part 1], Go Ahead John / [part 2a], Go Ahead John / [part 2b], Go Ahead John / [part 2c], Go Ahead John / [part 1 remake], Duran / [take 4], Duran / [take 6], Sugar Ray
Right Off / [take 10], Right Off / [take 10a], Right Off / [take 11], Right Off / [take 12], Yesternow / [take 16], Yesternow / [new take 4], Honky Tonk / [take 2], Honky Tonk / [take 5]
Ali / [take 3], Ali / [take 4], Konda, Nem Um Talvez / [take 17], Nem Um Talvez / [take 19], Little High People / [take 7], Little High People / [take 8], Nem Um Talvez / [take 3], Nem Um Talvez / [take 4a], Selim / [take 4b], Little Church / [take 7], Little Church / [take 10]
The Mask / [part 1], The Mask / [part 2], Right Off, Yesternow
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