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Miles Davis: Miles Davis Boxes: Jack Johnson and At The Blackhawk

Doug Collette By

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During the course of his career, Miles Davis redefined jazz repeatedly, and these two box sets in their own respective ways...
If Legacy's ongoing Miles Davis reissue program has proved anything, it’s that there’s never too much of the man’s music. And that goes for scholars as well as fans, because the insight offered into the man with the horn’s creative process is an invaluable tool for understanding not just how Miles worked with musicians and producers, but also how jazz in general functions as a living breathing entity unto itself. The box set packages are of course infinitely interesting because there is so much more music to savor and The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions all the more so because, unlike the Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way boxes, each of which kept the "unreleased" music apart from the "official recordings," this set derives its power from enlarging upon the music we already know.

To be specific, each of the five Johnson discs functions as its own album, with its own distinct character, the first CD a rollicking romp, the second a slightly more reflective but no less atmospheric piece of work. And the beauty of the Bob Belden production of the set is that each disc grows directly out of the previously release recordings, such as the title track itself, so that what you end up experiencing is an enlarged, alternate version of A Tribute to Jack Johnson. The listening experience thus becomes a much deeper and more satisfying sensation as well.

It’s round about track five of the second disc, for instance, that you see more clearly how Miles was influenced by Hendrix and Sly Stone, as a means to make music less for the head and more for the body. Davis deliberately transmuted the rhythmic approach of the latter as bedrock for the visceral attack of the former. And even though John McLaughlin could never really play with Jimi's abandon, his biting way of electric comping imparted a distinction to Miles’ new music: it’s arguable Miles Davis ever gave another musician more free reign than he proffered the British guitarist. Which isn’t to say Davis himself is not prominent throughout this set: he plays with as much muscle as he ever displayed live or in the studio.

Miles was once quoted as saying he could put together the greatest rock and roll band in the world—what he didn’t say was hat he would be leading that band with as much vigor as imagination. And in combination with Mclaughlin, who displays the more visceral tone mentioned above—he never played this way so convincingly with Mahavishnu—as well as guests including Herbie Hancock reeling off long lines from a Farfisa organ he’s never played before, it’s no wonder one album derived from these sessions was titled Big Fun.

And speaking of new music, one of the downfalls of these otherwise supremely packaged, researched and annotated box sets is that, in rediscovering the source of so much of Miles’ stuff, you realize how albums culled from this same material were contrived during the jazz icon’s hiatus from performing and recording. Would it have made more sense from an academic, if not a consumer-friendly stance, to effectively render such albums as Big Fun and Water Babies null and void since the man himself didn’t actually conceive of them as they were released? And the listening sensation may be markedly different for the completist than the casual fan, which could conceivably find the repetition of many of the Jack Johnson tracks redundant. On the other hand, taking note of the production techniques employed by Teo Macero, is to elevate one’s fascination with how these recordings were put together as much as how the musicians recorded them.

The Blackhawk Complete represents quite a different set of circumstances, no doubt because of the fundamental difference between the studio and stage environment. Notable for being the very first ever live recordings Miles Davis did with his combo in a club, The Blackhawk is comprised of well-known tunes long-played by musicians familiar with each other generates rediscovery of the material and each other’s musicianship in these 1961 recordings of Miles Davis in San Francisco. If it’s true that at the time, the world of jazz was a culture far-removed from the mainstream, it’s also true that, now as much as then, Miles Davis and his hand-picked brethren had the ability to transport the listener.

In that light, the power of this music, so fastidiously remastered it sounds live in your living room—or, if you use your imagination, puts you in the middle of the bandstand!—has only gained in that power over the years: before you know it, the perpetual motion of this quintet has brought you into their world as deeply as they themselves are immersed in their music. Perhaps what’s most remarkable is that this sensation recurs throughout the span of these four cd’s, even as the group explores a somewhat standard book, including “No Blues,” “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “’Round Midnight,” and “Someday My Prince will Come.”

The most significant factor that distinguished this band of Davis from its peers was the common sense of adventure, displayed individually and collectively. Instead of merely taking turns soloing, while the rest of the band comped behind, any one of the quintet—pianist Wynton Kelly, drummer Jimmy Cobb, saxophonist Hank Mobley bassist Paul Chambers—could lead in a direction worth exploring, while his comrades were willing and able to follow him until and unless someone came up with a better idea. And Miles himself was willing and able to determine what was a better idea in terms of steering in a new direction or simply cutting off the travel to begin again, as with the restatement of themes. throughout which his horn playing is as understated as it is authoritative.

Blackhawk Complete, much like the sequencing of Jack Johnson, depicts the progression of the music within and between the sets in such a way as to practically define the stages of musical dynamics. Miles and the quintet take a fairly conventional approach as they warm up in the first set and, through the producers’ desire to present the sets complete on disc without interruption (combined with the constraints of time on a single CD) places the corresponding relaxation of the third set right next to it. This juxtaposition only makes the second sets intensity that much more noticeable because it’s here the musicians, having established the terms of their dialogue, engage in that supermusical means of communication verging on telepathy. Each phase, in its own way, however, is absolutely sublime.

During the course of his career, Miles Davis redefined jazz repeatedly and these two box sets in their own respective ways, the joyous visceral wallop of Jack Johnson and the delicate camaraderie of the Blackhawk, comprehensively capture the process.


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