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Corner Stones

Reaching Nirvana With The Electric Miles Davis Of The Complete On The Corner Sessions

Donald Tyson

By Michaelangelo Matos | Posted 9/26/2007

Miles Davis' albums have better backstories than anyone else's. Their lore can often be summarized in a line or two: "Just play scales." Zing--Kind of Blue. "Great tune, Zawinul--now get rid of the chords." Boom--In a Silent Way. "Herbie, put those groceries down!" Bam--A Tribute to Jack Johnson. And of course, the immortal, "I've been listening to Sly, Jimi, and Stockhausen. Let's piss everyone off." Ladies and gentlemen--On the Corner.

On the Corner: 1972, 54 minutes, two sides broken into four pieces of music with eight titles, the tightest album of his electric period, and, along with In a Silent Way (1969, two songs, 37 minutes) and Jack Johnson (1971, two songs, 53 minutes), one of only three single LPs out of 13 total. Everything else was a double, and for a reason: This is where Davis heard the music of the spheres and vowed to contain as much of it as he could, for as long as he could, in a groove. From Silent Way to the molten-lava twofer Agharta and Pangaea--the early and late sets of a 1975 show in Japan that would be Davis' last for six years--Davis took his cues not so much from electric rock and funk as from electricity itself: Ignite a current, keep that current going till it burns out. Which is precisely what Davis did, holing up with a mirror and a straw and making no music, probably because he'd just spent six years exhaling anyone else's lifetime's worth.

On the Corner came at the exact midpoint of this intense period, and while it's the favorite of many electric-Davis freaks, in some ways its compression works against it. You don't go to a tsunami for a quick dip in the pool, no matter how scenic it might be, and the sustained intensity of most of Davis' '70s work is the source of much of its appeal. Unlike Jack Johnson, whose hooky themes were given expansive castings, On the Corner feels rushed, and even when rushing it is the idea, it always needs a little legroom.

That's probably why 2003's Complete Jack Johnson Sessions felt largely unnecessary: It contained sketches for a finished work. And it's why The Complete On the Corner Sessions, the eighth and apparently final deluxe set of Davis' work for Columbia, is the most explosive--and easily the best--of the electric-period boxes. If On the Corner as it was initially released gets a little lost in the proceedings, that's only to be expected.

It's also why Complete Sessions is such a triumph: not for burying its core but by blowing it up, exploding its ideas so effectively. That it betrays its title in doing so is of little real matter. Two of the six CDs date from after 1972, but they fit in perfectly: On the Corner was as much a beginning for Davis as a culmination of what he'd been doing prior, and hearing the songs in the order recorded gives the material a heft it doesn't necessarily gain as part of the albums where it was first released.

Take "Calypso Frelimo" (recorded 1973) and "He Loved Him Madly" (1974), both of which appear on 1974's Get Up With It. On the album, "He Loved Him Madly"--Davis' stark, foreboding, dirgelike tribute to the just-deceased Duke Ellington--leads off the first half, "Frelimo" the second. Both are extremely long (over 32 minutes apiece) and dense; their combined bulk helped make Get Up With It feel lopsided. But occupying disc four of Complete Sessions, they offer something to stretch out on for anyone playing the entire thing in order. (If you're any kind of electric-Davis fan, or just someone who loves rhythm and tonality, hearing it all in one sitting is something you should try.) In the midst of the riffs that go on and on and on in much of the rest of the music, these two tracks sound much less heavy; hearing them as part of a continuum of ideas where pushing further was so prominently in play gave them a focus I'd never quite experienced as a decade-long fan of Get Up With It.

Those kinds of clicking into place are all over this set. It turns out that "On the Corner" and "One on One," between five and six minutes on the album, dig far deeper in their nonedited versions (over 19 and nearly 18 minutes, respectively). Obviously Sly and Jimi and Stockhausen all played their part here, but hearing this stuff is not unlike playing Star Time and finding out just how atomic James Brown's takes were at unedited length. It's also revelatory how sharp much of what went unreleased in any form was--and how playful, which is probably best exemplified during "Hip-Skip," a well-titled 19-minute jittery workout featuring, 12 minutes in, a couple of why-not iterations of the opening bars from the Sesame Street theme song.

It's hard to think of many record reviews as famous as the one On the Corner received in Down Beat, which awarded the album two and a half stars: "Take some chunka-chunka-chunka rhythm, lots of little background percussion diddle-around sounds, some electronic mutations, add simple tune lines that sound a great deal alike and play some `spacey' solos. You've got a `groovin'' formula, and you stick with it interminably to create your `magic.' But is it magic or just repetitious boredom?" Peevish as this description is, it's still pretty apt, down to the choose-sides conclusion. It certainly isn't that reviewer's doing that three and a half decades of rhythm atomization has attuned us to hearing The Complete On the Corner Sessions as being even more path-finding than we knew. Miles Davis, though, certainly had something to do with it. May this music piss off stuffed shirts for generations to come.

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