Miles Davis, “On the Corner” (1972, Columbia Records)
The year is 1972. Miles Davis is a few years into his “electric period,” in which he abandoned the traditional instrumentation and tones of jazz in favor of new technological elements. With his first three electric albums (“In A Silent Way,” (1969) “Bitches Brew,” (1970) and “A Tribute to Jack Johnson” (1971)), Miles successfully bridged the gap between jazz and rock, opening the gates for a new musical movement. Mile’s musical exploration presented on these three albums firmly divided (and still divides) his audience into two camps: those who felt they had been abandoned by Miles or who were jazz purists, and those who were ready to begin exploring a new frontier along with him. Mile’s fourth electric studio album, “On the Corner,” (1972) is more firmly rooted in the feel and groove of rock than its predecessors, though it still retains the experimental and exploratory elements of them.
Another common thread between these albums together is Mile’s collaboration with Teo Macero. Macero had a long standing relationship with Miles as his producer at Columbia, even producing the prolific “Kind of Blue,” (1959) but with “In A Silent Way” his role became much more integral to the album and the music-making process as a whole. These first electric albums were recorded in a very loose and free manner, a recording session usually being a jam with little or no pre-determined direction, or direction being given on the spot by Miles. Macero took the raw recordings of these jams (along with a few overdubs) and pieced together the album from them during the editing process. Macero’s contributions further demonstrate how much Miles wanted to move on from the past with his electric work; he was breaking every convention of jazz he could, and using the studio as one means to that end. The recording process used on “On the Corner” is evident because the album has two main sections (these are split into individual tracks, but they flow continuously) that are each over 20 minutes, while the editing process is slightly less apparent and subtler. Macero skillfully plucks bits and fragments of melody and texture from the unedited jams and fits them together like a jigsaw puzzle to create something totally different, yet still related.
Each of the main sections (“On the Corner/New York Girl/Thinkin’ One Thing and Doin’ Another/Vote for Miles” and “Helen Butte/Mr. Freedom X”) has a groove between the bass and drums that remains consistent throughout the majority of the piece. While the dynamic, intensity, or color of this groove may fluctuate, it provides the heart beat of the music: a consistent pulse that feeds energy to the rest of the band and gives them room to play freely. The rest of the band takes advantage of this freedom, as they are able to focus more on creating textures than the harmony or playing licks.
The opening title track begins with an abrupt cut, slamming the listener into a jam that has been going on for an undetermined amount of time. The opening sets the tone for the rest of the album; it is in your face and doesn’t hold any punches. A soprano sax is heard in the distance and eventually it takes the forefront, along with the occasional single chirp from a synthesizer or an interjecting guitar riff. All of this sits on top of the continuous bass and drum groove with other percussion and rhythm guitars backing them up. It is as if someone went into a jungle or rainforest, recorded the natural environmental sounds, and somehow electrified and distorted them. The last track, “Mr. Freedom X,” exemplifies this natural element, but in a more literal way. The song opens with only various percussion instruments playing together in an inter-locking way, and this serves as one of the main components of the track. The way the drums interact and seem to communicate is reminiscent of African tribal music.
“On the Corner” is a testament to Miles Davis’s ability to consistently reinvent himself and change with popular music so that he always remained relevant (even the album art is aimed at a younger audience with its cartoon style). A transformation that began with “In A Silent Way” is completed with “On the Corner,” and the final product is a unique blend of rhythmically driven groove based rock and post-bop jazz improvisation.