The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions completes the trifecta Columbia began with similar treatments to In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Five discs, recorded from February 1969 to June 1970, comprising material available on 5 albums and including 34 previously unissued tracks, paints a rich portrait of the time period.
The set does beg the question: If Miles were alive, would he have approved the release of this imperfect material? Since his answer is not forthcoming, it falls to the lengthy list of participants: guitarist John McLaughlin; keyboard players Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett; saxophonists Bennie Maupin and Steve Grossman; bassists Dave Holland, Michael Henderson and Gene Perla; drummers Jack DeJohnette, Billy Cobham, Lenny White and Airto Moreira.
The original Tribute to Jack Johnson seems to have come out of nowhere, a distant heir to the two albums that preceded it. The extra tracks here, some short sketches and some longer editions, do illuminate, but only somewhat. A comparison can be made to deleted scenes on a DVD, tacked onto the end to give a larger vision of what was eventually released. Or perhaps a better analogy is pencil sketches displayed next to a finished painting. Neither is really meant for the public eye but here you have them.
The original release of Jack Johnson is a pastiche of many of these sessions, so releasing the source material does make sense. And since many of the musicians involved would vault into the jazz stratosphere shortly after leaving Davis, hearing them in these informal settings provides a fascinating glimpse into their early development. The player who benefits most from this opportunity is British guitarist John McLaughlin. Without the Davis era, the jump from his debut Extrapolation to the Mahavishnu Orchestra might never have happened.
The disjointed nature of the set, and its moments of repetitiveness are small prices to pay to hear McLaughlin discovering himself over the course of a year. The first disc, six versions of "Willie Nelson" and three of the unreleased "Johnny Bratton" are some of the most avant-garde moments of his career, particularly when he is matched against fellow guitarist Sonny Sharrock. "Archie Moore," a trio piece with only Holland and DeJohnette, is a seedy blues.
Disc two features a funkier, slinkier McLaughlin on five takes of "Go Ahead John" (from Big Fun), two of "Duran," and the unreleased "Sugar Ray" (Davis had boxers on his mind). McLaughlin features oodles of angular strumming and sleazy playing that makes Davis remark after one "Duran," "that's some raunchy sh*t John."
Disc three is comprised of the most recognizable portions of Jack Johnson, including the brash fluttery trumpet of Davis over McLaughlin's heavily stroked chords and instantly recognizable riff on three versions of "Right Off." Also of note is some nifty organ work by Hancock, just walking through the building and pulled in by Davis and Grossman's soprano lines. Filling out the disc are two versions of part two of Jack Johnson, the slower moodier "Yesternow," featuring Billy Cobham, foreshadowing the musical telepathy present a short year later in the Mahavishnu Orchestra. The two takes of "Honky Tonk" feature the triumvirate of Jarrett's electric piano, Hancock's organ and a countrified McLaughlin guitar tone.
The fourth disc begins with another boxer, the perky-themed and upbeat "Ali." Then follows a full version of "Konda," originally released on Directions and featuring the mellow stylings of Davis, Jarrett and McLaughlin over the support of DeJohnette and Airto. The rest of the disc is taken up with four short explorations of "Nem Um Talvez" (all under five minutes) with two different groups, all with Hermeto Pascoal on vocals and the second pair adding the third keyboard of Corea. Also are two versions each of "Little High People" (previously unissued and quite bizarre as three keyboards swirl over each other) and "Little Church" and one of "Selim," recorded three months after the first sessions of the box set.
The fifth and final disc begins with the two part "The Mask," a manic number full of ring modulators, wah pedals and guitar playing to make players like Ray Russell take notice. The set ends with the Jack Johnson album as originally released and, after having spent over five hours fully immersed in the time period that led up to the album, a new appreciation for it is reached.
Helpful notes on what portions of what sessions were edited together for the album elucidate the album's unique vision – A Tribute to Jack Johnson was not a single album created out a brief space of time. Rather, it was a culmination of what Davis had been exploring with his youthful electric companions over the past year before he would veer off into funkier, less experimental work. Jack Johnson may have been an obscure pugilist but his tribute has never been clearer.
This review originally appeared in All About Jazz-New York .