'Round Every Corner

Miles' misunderstood masterwork versus the world

Every great artist has a dis-credit on his or her résumé —Lord Laurence Olivier has Inchon, Neil Young has that stinkin' "rockabilly" album, and Miles Davis' On the Corner is probably the single most reviled album in his colossal catalog.

On the Corner, released in 1972, is the album critics and (former) fans chiefly point to as the primo example of Davis' spiritual bankruptcy. Late, great, rock critic Lester Bangs, in fact, referred to Corner — alternately — as a "great watershed" and "the very worst album he ever did." During a DownBeat magazine "blindfold test," jazz saxophone icon Stan Getz said it was "worthless."

So call it new perspective, coincidence, or historical revisionism, but the time has come for On the Corner to be reassessed in the context of the mega-expanded, six-CD edition The Complete on the Corner Sessions (Columbia/Legacy).

Anyone aware of Davis' history knows that in the mid- to late 1960s, he became enamored of the flexible funk of Sly and the Family Stone and the incendiary rock/blues/jazz synthesis of Jimi Hendrix. (All three men possibly shared the same lover — Miles' wife, Betty Davis, though that's a story for a different day). When Led Zeppelin played at the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival, Davis channeled this inspiration, along with embracing electric instrumentation into the classic albums In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. While on a trip to England in 1969, Davis met Paul Buckmaster, cellist with U.K. classical-rock fusion combo Third Ear Band and arranger for the likes of the Rolling Stones and Elton John. Not only did Buckmaster contribute electric cello to the sessions but he also exposed Miles to classical composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.

In retrospect, it's not hard to understand the jazz sphere being flummoxed by what Miles and company went and laid down. Concepts of melodic development were jettisoned in favor of dark, dense, high-energy grooves that resemble (slightly) slowed-down drum 'n' bass tracks and the turbulent aspects of Indian raga. Davis' trumpet was mostly amplified with lots of wah-wah pedal (in fact, too much sometimes). Much of the soloing from the other participants — including John McLaughlin, Lonnie Liston Smith, Herbie Hancock, and Dave Liebman — is slinky, swampy, blues- and funk-drenched in all the wrong ways.

But Miles' trumpet retains its trademarked heart-rending lyricism and focused passion — listen to the quiet ache of "Ife," the crackle of "Red China Blues," or just consider how much his wah-wahed horn sometimes resembles a human cry. Much of OTC sounds like music that has no beginning or end, and much of it sounds the same until you really listen. Take a few months off and wade into it.

 
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