When the Miles Davis
album On the Corner
(Columbia, 1972) was released, Davis had already begun to engage in electronic instrumentation and jazz fusion with soon to be revered recordings: In A Silent Way
(Columbia, 1969), Bitch's Brew
(Columbia, 1970) and Jack Johnson
(Columbia, 1971). On the Corner
, however, was so experimental and funky that it incurred the wrath of many critics and sales were minimal. Still, in the ensuing decades, it has come to be regarded as a pioneering work that anticipated and influenced not only the subsequent development of jazz but also hip-hop, jungle, post-rock, and other styles that have defined public taste and topped the popular music charts. On the album, Davis played electric organ more than trumpet, used musicians like Chick Corea
, Herbie Hancock
, Don Alias
, and John McLaughlin
curiously without mentioning their names, and experimented with tape-splicing and electronic effects he picked up from avant-garde classical composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. What initially appeared to be Davis' downfall proved to possess innovative power. On a larger cultural plane, the album embodied the flowering of the hippie era with its psychedelics and radical lifestyle, and especially in Davis' own thoughts, the freeing of African American youth from entrenched traditions in music and lifestyle. Dave Liebman
was the saxophonist on that controversial album. A young upstart at the time, Liebman found his two year tenure in Davis' band to be just the stimulus he needed to jump start his career and, after a stint with Elvin Jones
, form his own iconic groups. Forty-plus years later, in 2015, one of Liebman's admirers, fellow saxophonist Jeff Coffin
, was inspired to invite him to Nashville to revisit On the Corner
with musicians especially capable of capturing the essence of that recording. Liebman had already recorded a version with an ensemble of his own, Back on the Corner
(Shrapnel, 2007; Mascot, 2015). Now in a period of his career where he was increasingly interacting with musicians beyond his inner circle, he found the invitation appealing. The result, just now released four years after it was recorded, is a tantalizing combination of the ingredients of the Davis album with Liebman's own well-honed but always expanding musical approach and vocabulary.
Liebman provided arrangements of two songs from the Davis album: "On the Corner" and "Black Satin," as well as Weather Report
founder Joe Zawinul
's "In a Silent Way" and several originals. Coffin recruited the additional musicians: Victor Wooten
on electric bass, Chris Walters
on keyboards, James DaSilva
on guitar, and Chester Thompson
on drums, all of whom demonstrate their resilience in adapting to the requirements of the electric funk genre. It was a live gig in a packed house at the sizeable Nashville 3rd and Lindsley Bar. The recording quality is especially good, with the stereo spatial separation that Davis was looking for as well. As far as we know, despite the fact that digital technology makes it easy to splice and modify sounds, there was no use of control room gadgetry to revise the original live recording.
The album begins with a short talk by Liebman reflecting casually on Davis' career and providing an overview of the program. (One wishes he said more about the Davis "Corners" recording date.) Then, "In a Silent Way" finds Liebman on wood flute and soprano saxophone accompanied by Coffin's tenor sax. It's a slow paced modal melody almost empty, like silence. Throughout the album you're going to hear carefully articulated modal and chromatic melodic improvising that lends an impressionistic beauty deliberately omitted in Davis' recording.
"On the Corner," however, adheres closely to the sound of Davis' "On the Corner" track. It's almost free jazz except for a discernable melody and key, with sounds characteristic of fusion. Liebman offers an animalistic "Rite of Spring"-like improvisation on soprano saxophone complemented by Coffin's electronic saxophone. It is sheer funk with a touch of the blues characteristic of acid rock. A repetitive grunge motif on bass guitar is reminiscent of Jaco Pastorius
' tenure in Weather Report and builds up to simultaneous improvising by the whole group.
Wili (co-written by Davis and Liebman)" harks back to the feeling of "In a Silent Way," with Liebman on wood flute providing sound imagery of ethereal night. There is interesting synthesizer work on keyboards and guitar and a lovely dialogue between wood flute and soprano saxophone. Walters' keyboards and DaSilva's guitar delve into the "night" idea further, giving an impressionist flavor which Liebman likes for ballads.
A "Bass Interlude" affords a parody of the Nashville country and western sound, and like the tracks on Davis' album, segues directly without pause into "Black Satin," in a version nothing like Davis' track. It is far less chaotic! The melodic motif predominates and Liebman does one of his magnificent soprano saxophone solos. A subdued postlude takes the melody at a snail's pace out into the night. Davis was called "Prince of Darkness" for a variety of reasons, but his music exemplified at some depth the nightshades that make jazz so haunting, as does this tune.
The album moves on to several originals. "Selim," a bluesy meditation begins with what might be the only acoustic piano segment, and the whole piece seems pre-fusion. A "Guitar Interlude" by DaSilva also provides a mainstream solo going back to Herb Ellis
, et al. It ends though with a touch of fusion/synthesizer accompaniment leading up to "Ife" which provides a perfect foil for another iconic Liebman soprano saxophone solo.
If rappers could be drummers, Chester Thompson's "Drum Interlude" would exemplify their pounding rhythmic rants. It is followed seamlessly by "Mojo,"; which as the name suggests creates an accelerating magic spell. As the pace picks up the effect is that of a train-like version of Ravel's "Bolero." Surprisingly, the "funk" on this album harks back to Charlie Parker
, who found much inspiration in Ravel and Stravinsky. A doctoral thesis could be written about the premise, "without bebop, no funk."
The album concludes with "Jean Pierre," a Motown-ish vamp that could have provided a backdrop for Boyz 2 Men. Taken as a whole, this album provides a healthy dose of jazz, rock, fusion, and funk all put together by a group of outstanding musicians who know exactly what they are doing and having great fun "on the corner."