Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971)

(Uncorrected short version here.)

A Tribute to Jack Johnson is a great example of "electric Miles," a late phase of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis's career begun in 1968 with In a Silent Way. Electric Miles not only wired and amped up his icy attitude and complex sound, but began looking to more contemporary sources as well, such as Sly Stone and James Brown, for the self-conscious explorations of identity that provide so much urgency here, still, for this and for so much of his work from the time, at once operating inside a tradition and yet feverishly innovating and expanding it. This album is well known, much loved, and there's not a lot I can add except to echo the sentiment that it's one of the greatest albums ever made, jazz or rock, and you should probably go listen to it right off.

Around this time Miles Davis declared he wanted to put together "the greatest rock and roll band you ever heard." That project was underway even before Jack Johnson, notably on Bitches Brew, but Jack Johnson leaves behind even more connections to jazz and goes even more deeply into an even more explicitly rock context, putting a pot of a raw stew of sound and rhythm directly onto the fire. I like Bitches Brew and Big Fun too, and many parts of many of the others from this period, but the desert island thought experiment applied narrowly makes Jack Johnson the one I'm going to pick. Guitarist John McLaughlin is much the face of the turn to rock (ironic considering what follows for his career), a serendipitous find on the part of Davis that he used to maximum effect, with McLaughlin's harsh, choppy, rhythmic, and irresistible play so unlike anything ever heard before. Producer Teo Macero is critically important too, the mad Dr. Frankenstein stitching together the parts to make this monster. Consider, for example, the edit at the center of the second side and long track, "Yesternow." Until that point it has built on a reworked and recontextualized bass figure from James Brown's "Say it Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud." It suddenly shifts gears at midpoint to a snippet from the In a Silent Way sessions, which reads almost like a momentary pause for reflection, implicitly demonstrating how far they have traveled in only three years, and then it moves to the "Willie Nelson" section. A whole new cast is on hand now in addition to Davis and McLaughlin: drummer Jack DeJohnette, guitarist Sonny Sharrock, and others, working it, sculpting it, turning it out ultimately into a complex of strange noises circling a guitar figure like strands of DNA, a chilly and beautiful moment, interrupted by musical rampaging. But this album goes to lots of amazing places, and lots of sidemen pull off amazing stunts, such as Herbie Hancock, fitted out for his part on the first side and long track, "Right Off," with an organ that sounds like they found it at a thrift store on the way to the date. Or drummer Billy Cobham who thrashes and splashes tirelessly, the long-haul trucker bringing this one home, in circular fashion. And don't ever forget the playing of Miles Davis here—he could well be the best in this whole remarkable stable, capable as always of bursts of sustained lyrical beauty, such as his first solo a few minutes in to "Right Off." This kind of playing we're already familiar with of course—"Pharoah's Dance" on Bitches Brew was my own memorable first exposure to it. But it extends back and virtually all the way through his career, achieving emotional tones reminiscent of singers, who happen to have the advantage of tender and meaningful words to shore up their effects.

No words are heard on Jack Johnson until near the very end—that's no surprise, given the album's origins as jazz and at the same time its fealty to the kind of rock (not rock 'n' roll) that plays for extended passages and seated audiences. If anything, the surprise is that there are words on this album. But Jack Johnson is obviously inspired by a fictionalized treatment of the boxer in a Broadway production of the time, The Great White Hope (where he is known as Jack Jefferson), which won a Pulitzer and a Tony in 1969. The words are only artifact of the project's origins as a soundtrack for a proposed biopic movie about Johnson. Words were never Miles Davis's forte but these spoken words are deadly serious, speaking to the sources of this remarkable music, uncovering a great source of identity in the boxer from the turn of the 20th century (which Davis discusses in his liner notes: "The rise of Jack Johnson to world heavyweight supremacy in 1908 was a signal for white envy to erupt. Can you get to that?"): "I'm Jack Johnson, heavyweight champion of the world. I'm black. They never let me forget it. I'm black all right. I'll never let them forget it."

(One note of correction: James Earl Jones was in The Great White Hope play as well as the 1970 movie directed by Martin Ritt. But that's Brock Peters on Jack Johnson.)

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