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Oct 11 2017

The most hated album in jazz: Miles Davis’ On The Corner

Miles Davis & Band Live 1972 (beardedgentlemenmusic.com)

Miles Davis & Band Live 1972/73

Introduction

Miles Davis and funk: I had read somewhere that On The Corner offered just that. On father’s day my eldest son gave the album to me on cd. Very, very happy with it!

The most hated album in jazz

On The Corner was savagely butchered by critics ánd musicians (even by musicians who played on the actual album):

  • Stan Getz (saxophone-player):
    “that music is worthless. It means nothing; there is no form, no content, and it barely swings”;
  • Jon Brown (Jazz Journal):
    “it sounds merely as if the band had selected a chord and decided to worry hell out of it for three-quarters of an hour” and “I’d like to think that nobody could be so easily pleased as to dig this record to any extent”;
  • Eugene Chadbourne (jazz magazine CODA):
    “pure arrogance”;
  • Bill Coleman (critic, biographer Miles Davis in 1974):
    “an insult to the intellect of the people”;
  • Dave Liebman (saxophone-player on On The Corner):
    “I didn’t think much of it” and “the music appeared to be pretty chaotic and disorganized”;
  • Paul Buckmaster (initial structurist On The Corner):
    “It was my least favourite Miles album”;
  • Downbeat magazine:
    “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?”.
Miles Davis Logo (milesdavis.com)

Miles Davis Logo

Within the jazz community in particular, Miles Davis was mercilessly and ruthlessly handled. The album was completely misunderstood. Just as Bob Dylan was called Judas when he started making music using electric instruments, Miles Davis was blamed for being a “sell out”. Of course, it was clear for many that Miles Davis was being extremely innovative (like using a wah-wah pedals for his trumpet) and helped bring about completely new genres of music, like jazz-rock and fusion. But the rigid jazz-audiences would have nothing to do with it. On The Corner‘s critique was so devastating, because it “proved”, beyond the shadow of doubt, that Miles Davis was no longer the king of jazz, but just a fallen icon.

The fact that On The Corner was one of least accessible albums and sold very poorly indeed, did nothing to diminish the audience’ view. By the way, the album was equally misunderstood by other audiences.

Leading up to On The Corner

Miles Davis - On The Corner - Ad (thenewperfectioncollection.com)

Miles Davis – On The Corner – Ad

At the end of the 1960’s Miles Davis had let go of the “pure” jazz and released music that was more rock and funk oriented, like In A Silent Way (1969), Bitches Brew (1970) and Jack Johnson (1971). As a consequence Davis received heavy criticism from the jazz-community. He was squandering his talents and selling his soul to modern/commercial trends. Other musicians stepped in to defend Davis and claimed that “jazz has always used the rhythm of the time, whatever people danced to”.

Did the controversy and underwhelming sales have any impact on Davis or his musical direction? Far from it. According to bass player Henderson the attitude of Davis and his band was: “We didn’t give a shit what the critics said. People are gonna like what they like, but if you don’t like it, respect it. Respect that I have the right to do what I do. Because with or without you, we’re going to do it anyway”.

His next step would even further the estrangement between Davis and his initial (jazz) audience. Early 1972 Miles Davis started contemplating his next move. He wanted to (re)connect to the young black audience, which had left jazz for rock, soul and funk. Sly And The Family Stone and James Brown were their idols. In an interview with (English magazine) Melody Maker Davis stated:

I don’t care who buys the record so long as they get to the Black people so I will be remembered when I die. I’m not playing for any white people, man. I wanna hear a black guy say ‘Yeah, I dig Miles Davis’.

Karlheinz Stockhausen, the well-known German composer of electronic music, also influenced the new direction:

I had always written in a circular way and through Stockhausen I could see that I didn’t want to ever play again from eight bars to eight bars, because I never end songs: they just keep going on. Through Stockhausen I understood music as a process of elimination and addition.

Miles Davis – Miles, The autobiography, 1989

Miles Davis - On The Corner - Back cover cd (amazon.com)

Miles Davis – On The Corner – Back cover cd

In the same autobiography Davis called On The Corner “Stockhausen plus funk plus Ornette Coleman”.

According to the information on milesdavis.com On The Corner is the result of in-studio jamming. Musical structures by Paul Buckmaster (an English cellist), which were based on funk rhythms and abstractions of contemporary musical pieces, were intended for use as guidelines during the recording. While playing, these were immediately discarded and, instead, music was jammed on.

The album contains 4 pieces of music, recorded during 3 sessions.

June 1st, 1972

Musicians
Miles Davis (trumpet), Dave Liebman (soprano saxophone), John McLaughlin (electric guitar), Chick Corea (electric piano), Herbie Hancock (electric piano), Harold I. Williams (organ, synthesizer), Collin Walcott (electric sitar), Michael Henderson (electric bass), Jack DeJohnette (drums), Billy Hart (drums), Al Foster (drums) & Badal Roy (tabla).

Songs on the album
This day’s recordings were used on Medley: On the Corner/New York Girl/Thinkin’ One Thing And Doin’ Another/Vote For Miles

 

June 6th, 1972 & July 7th, 1972

Musicians
Miles Davis (trumpet), Carlos Garnett (soprano saxophone on song 2, tenor saxophone on song 4), Bennie Maupin (bass clarinet on song 2), David Creamer (electric guitar); Herbie Hancock (electric piano, synthesizer), Chick Corea (electric piano), Harold I. Williams (organ, synthesizer), Collin Walcott (electric sitar on songs 3 and 4), Khalil Balakrishna (electric sitar on song 2), Michael Henderson (electric bas), Jack DeJohnette (drums), Billy Hart (drums), Al Foster (drums) & Badal Roy (tabla, handclaps).

Songs on the album
Recordings made on these two days were used for the songs Black Satin (2), One And One (3) en Medley: Helen Butte/Mr. Freedom X (4) on the album.

Production

Davis’ regular producer Teo Macero put the album together based on the complete recordings of all three sessions. He did so by cutting and pasting various pieces of music, a way of editing he had pioneered for In A Silent Way.

Release

Miles Davis - On The Corner (amazon.com)

Miles Davis – On The Corner

On October 11th, 1972, On The Corner was released. It would turn out to be the worst selling album of Davis’ career. The cover is made up of a drawing by cartoonist Corky McCoy, which contains a number of caricatures: prostitutes, gays, activists, bums and drug dealers.

The back cover also contains a drawing, on which, next to the caricatures, a trumpet, connected to a cord and plug, is visible. Teasing the critics?

The cover doesn’t mention musicians, and (consequently) no instruments, used on the album. Later on, Davis stated it was a deliberate move: “I didn’t put those names on On the Corner specially for that reason, so now the critics have to say, ‘What’s this instrument, and what’s this?’… I’m not even gonna put my picture on albums anymore. Pictures are dead, man. You close your eyes and you’re there”.

(re)Valuation

Miles Davis - On The Corner - Back cover (macrocefaliamusical.com)

Miles Davis – On The Corner – Back cover

For years On The Corner was the wallflower within jazz-musician Davis’ body of work. But was Miles Davis still a jazz-musician, as everyone assumed? His music hadn’t been “pure” jazz for a considerable amount of time. He witnessed (and many-times started or influenced) the birth of a great number of important (jazz) music innovations/genres, like cool-jazz, hard-bop, post-bop and jazz-fusion. For the majority of his listeners the combination of African music, Indian music, funk en free jazz was too much to stomach. Miles Davis changed too much. His followers couldn’t keep anymore, and thus he fell from/was pushed off his pedestal.

Over the course of time opinion(s) on the album changed significantly. Nowadays, On The Corner is viewed as an important innovative piece of musical art, which has been indispensable for the development of funk, jazz, post-punk, electronica and hip-hop that came after. At the time of the album’s re-release (in 2000) and the release of The Complete On The Corner Sessions on October 2nd, 2007, it became abundantly clear just how far ahead the album was at the time of its initial release: over 20 years. Ever since, the album is acknowledged as it should be:

  • Stereogum magazine:
    “one of the greatest records of the 20th Century, and easily one of Miles Davis’ most astonishing achievements” and “funk guitars, Indian percussion, dub production techniques, loops that predict hip-hop”;
  • Alternative Press:
    “essential masterpiece”“representing the high water mark of [Davis’] experiments in the fusion of rock, funk, electronica and jazz”;
  • Fact:
    “a frenetic and punky record, radical in its use of studio technology” and “the debt that the modern dance floor owes the pounding abstractions of On the Corner has yet to be fully understood”;
  • Pitchfork:
    “longing, passion and rage milked from the primal source and heading into the dark beyond”;
  • Mark Fisher (The Wire):
    “the passing of time often neutralises and naturalises sounds that were once experimental, but retrospection has not made On the Corner’s roiling, febrile, bilious stew any easier to digest”;
  • SF Weekly:
    “prefiguring subsequent funk, jazz, post-punk, electronica, and hip hop music”;
  • Thom Jurek (AllMusic):
    “the music on the album itself influenced – either positively or negatively – every single thing that came after it in jazz, rock, soul, funk, hip-hop, electronic and dance music, ambient music, and even popular world music, directly or indirectly”;
  • Anton Spice (The Vinyl Factory):
    “the great great grandfather of hip-hop, IDM, jungle, post-rock and other styles drawing meaning from repetition”;
  • Chris Jones (BBC Music):
    “prefigured and in some cases gave birth to nu-jazz, jazz funk, experimental jazz, ambient and even world music”;
  • Chris Smith (Stylus Magazine):
    “At times harshly minimal, at others expansive and dense, it upset quite a few people. You could call it punk”;
  • Jamie Morrison (Noisettes drummer):
    “On the Corner is a huge influence on us. I love the rhythm section, and the way you’re just thrown into the music at the beginning. It’s really punk in its attitude. It’s so offensive, and pushes boundaries at the same time”;
  • Jah Wobble (bassist):
    “On the Corner is fantastic, because this same riff comes back to you again and again. You can’t do it with any old riff”;
  • Greg Tate (Village Voice):
    “It was the first hip-hop/house/drum’n’bass/breakbeat album I’d ever heard”.

Well, that just shows what a decade or two can do… Of course, pieces of art (including albums) can truly be judged after time has passed. But the difference between “an insult” and “essential masterpiece” is rather huge.

What is very clear is that On The Corner is an essential part of Miles Davis and signaled yet another direction in his (already very) diverse body of work. Luckily, Miles Davis continued imperturbably for another couple of years.

Miles Davis Live 1972 (odibellamusic.com)

Miles Davis Live 1972

My opinion?

When my son gave me On The Corner, all I knew about it was that it was supposed to be Miles Davis’ penultimate funk-album. I didn’t know its background. I thought the album was highly intriguing (read: difficult to comprehend ). In the meantime it turned into a favorite, which I have played more than any other Miles Davis album I own, including Kind Of Blue and Bitches Brew. I think the minimalist approach is very inspiring. The rhythms are exciting and complex. Several drummers are accompanied by tabla and other instruments, which are played rhythmically. It all makes for an album of beats, and (through that) dance. I can understand that this album isn’t for everyone, but it stands out as a testament to Miles Davis’ relentless desire to experiment. Just for this album alone, we should be forever grateful to him.

Songs

All songs written by Miles Davis.

Side   Song   Time
A   Medley: On the Corner/New York Girl/Thinkin’ One Thing And Doin’ Another/Vote For Miles   20:02
    Black Satin   5:20
B   One And One   6:09
    Medley: Helen Butte/Mr. Freedom X   23:18
Miles Davis - In Concert - Big Fun - Get Up With It - Agharta (milesdavis.com)

Miles Davis – In Concert (1973) – Big Fun (1974) – Get Up With It (1974) – Agharta (1975)

After On The Corner

During the three years following On The Corner Davis continued in the same direction. On The Corner turned out to be Davis’ last complete studio album of the 1970’s. He focused on live performances and recordings, which resulted in the impressive live-albums In Concert: Live At Philharmonic Hall (1973) and Agharta (1975).

In 1974 Davis released the albums Big Fun and Get Up With It, both compilations of recordings made during the difficult period (for jazz-purists anyway).

Recluse

And then, suddenly, it was all over. After a show at the Schaefer Music Festival in New York City, on September 5th, 1975, Miles Davis started a five year period out of the limelights. In his autobiography Davis relates very candidly to his state at the time: drugs- and alcohol use, women, living in filth. In December 1975 he had hip replacement surgery.

Not until 1979, he was finally able to overcome his cocaine addiction and regain some enthusiasm for (making) music. In the meantime he had recorded some music, but it all turned into nothing, and Davis himself, in turn, returned to chaos and misery. An ‘intervention’ was needed to get Davis to take the last step to recovery and tidy up his living environment: away with the pest, disease and cockroaches.

Recluse no more

Miles Davis - Grave (jazzenzo.nl)

Miles Davis – Grave

On May 1st, 1980, Davis returned to the studio for the first time in years. The coming years turned into his commercially most successful period, with albums like You’re Under Arrest from 1985 and Tutu from 1986.

Early September 1991 Miles Davis checked into the hospital for a routine checkup. The doctors advised intubation to support him with his breathing, as he had contracted pneumonia. The (standard) procedure went terribly wrong. Davis suffered a stroke and sank into a coma. After breathing using machines for a couple of days, the machines were turned off. Miles Davis died on September 28th, 1991, 65 years old.

In closing

Do you know On The Corner by Miles Davis? What’s your take on it? Do you agree with the original reviews? Or do you agree with the later revaluation? Let me know!

 

Compliments/remarks? I´d love to hear them!