Hallelujah! I think I finally got it. After only 9570 days, a mere 229,680 hours and a paltry 13,780,800 minutes I had a break through with Miles Davis On The Corner.
Although I will confess that there have been some days in that 9570 that I may not have listened to On The Corner* .
On The Corner was the first jazz LP I ever bought, way back on 25 February 1993; talk about jumping in the pool at the deep end. I had a taped copy of Bitches Brew for a year, or two before I took the plunge and I’d heard lots of jazz at home without really engaging** with it, apart from Charles Lloyd. I knew I wanted some Miles and there was a big selection in Jumbo Records in Leeds, it was the brilliant Corky McCoy sleeve that swung it for me.
I can remember just being baffled when I first put it on. That constant high-register tikka-tikka-tikka rhythm that sits right up in your grid, pressurises you, not obediently somewhere down below out of hearing anchoring the sound. That constant pattern was just there and then stuff happened all around it, wild stuff, with no discernible melodic scales.
Now when I listen back to On The Corner, particularly the first side of the LP – forget about the track designations, they don’t really count for much here, I hear an incredibly brave attempt to take music from a flat plane to a full 360° experience.
MIles D was fed up with the increasingly niche role jazz was playing in culture and wanted to make an LP informed by the musical principles of Karlheinz Stockhausen and acid funk which would feed off all the multitudinous influences he was hearing in the streets of New York – Sly Stone, James Brown and Jimi Hendrix and just make jazz relevant again. He and entirely-equal-genius producer Teo Macero, may have just miscalculated the average human’s mental capacity in that equation – On The Corner sounded like nothing else before or since*^. Far from creating a tidal-tribal wave of consciousness, it flopped^*; 1972 just wasn’t ready^^.
It isn’t an original thought but On The Corner must have sounded like an lien invasion in 1972. That constantly pulsing ticking incessant rhythm, tabla sections, tasty guitar freakouts, some genuine-to-goodness trumpet playing, acres of squelching bass and lots of percussion and clapping. Trumpets that sound like guitars, all manner of instrumentation being edited and changed in the studio to sound more like other instruments … maaaan.
Miles totally eschewed the idea of a conventional band by the time he cut On The Corner. Folks dropped in, folks dropped out, nobody got cover credited apart from the tech guys. Bassist Michael Henderson was a constant and around him revolved any number of Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, (the truly incredible) John McLaughlin, Al Foster, Dave Liebman, Carlos Garnett and Khalil Balakrishna, to name but a few. The performances they got on tape were often nothing short of incendiary.
And that’s where it got way clever.
Just like In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew before it, the genius of On The Corner was in the editing of Teo Macero; a man who’s role cannot be overstated here. It was his splicing of takes and performances, layering rhythm over rhythm over rhythm, that gives the music an astonishing density. Miles and Macero even added various effects and overdubs over the finished mix, creating a coherent whole.
Yup, a coherent whole. That’s where I have got to today, a place where I can say that On The Corner does offer a coherent vision. The album is designed as an exploration of a fragmentary, zooming diagonal world, with steady climbs and vertiginous drops and that’s what Miles gives us. Interestingly it is that alien alienating beat, the one that so confounds us at first, that provides us with the unity of sound that guides us through this musical kaleidoscope. It gives us a sense of progression, like a guide on a city tour taking you to different neighbourhoods.
For me the key to enjoying it was to just give up and stop fighting, stop analysing what instrument was where and when and how (never mind the why!) and to just enjoy the ride uptown. I have got to the stage where I can happily lose hours in the album now.
Forget the idea of individual tracks, there are some arbitrary divides and names here but the only one I can really differentiate is the tabla-sational ‘Black Satin’, mostly because there is an actual gap between it and the preceding four tracks. The futility of naming swathes of the music here is something akin to the European idiocy of imposing their idea of nationhood on a tribal entity like the interior of Africa; not a sentence I get to write very often, that.
Panned by jazz critics and shunned by audiences back in ’72 On The Corner has built a real legacy. Maybe fractured hyper-kinetic bursts mirror our times better now than they did 47 years ago but you don’t have to delve far into artists who are hard to pigeonhole like Flying Lotus or straight-up IDM artists like Autechre to trace the radioactive footprints of this album., or the waves it made in the musical gene pool.
So here’s to day 9571, 9572 and 9573, I’ll listen to On The Corner on each of them and am certain to discover something different and new each time out. Thank you Corky!
*all the way through, at least.
**We had a picture of Charles Mingus in our hall way and a Tom cat called Ellington.
*^although arguably, some more recent things may have come around to sounding like it.
^*Miles blamed Columbia bitterly for trying to market it to the traditional jazz audience, rather than young black kids. I’m a touch more sympathetic to whichever Columbia minion had the tough job of selling it, ‘Buy On The Corner today; you’ll fully understand it in only 26 years time!‘ is a hard sell.
^^On The Corner was recently voted the ‘second most important release of anything in 1972’ by the readers of 1537 Magazine.