#MutualNight: Miles Davis’s “On the Corner”

miles_davis_on_the_cornerConfession: the first jazz album I owned was a Kenny G album.

“But that’s not jazz!” I hear you (some of you, anyway) saying. And I totally agree. In my defense, though, I was in 7th grade, was looking for jazz to listen to, and it’s what my saxophone teacher pointed me toward.

And in fairness to him,[fn1] Sam Goody and the other late-80s record stores classified Kenny G as “jazz fusion,” a classification that helped give “fusion” a bad name among jazz listeners and aspiring jazz musicians. 

There’s another type of jazz fusion, one that isn’t synonymous with “instrumental easy listening.” That type of fusion was pioneered, if not created, by Miles Davis, critically with his 1968 In a Silent Way and 1970 Bitches Brew albums. On both of those albums—and honestly, for the rest of his life—Miles incorporated the instrumentation and feel of rock music, not to mention its studio editing.

1972 saw Miles take his experiments to an extreme with his release of On the Corner. And it was critically despised. Like, the jazz establishment hated it.[fn2] So what was so bad about this album?

For one thing, there wasn’t really any melody. For another, there were no pyrotechnic solos. In fact, the opening track, “On the Corner” doesn’t even really start. When the needle hit the record groove (or, today, when the mp3 starts to play), you’re already in the middle of a song, and you don’t have any sense of how far you are in the song. You have to get your bearings as you listen.

And the song’s basically just a rhythm section groove—a repetitive bass line with a couple drums and the occasional horn or guitar burst. And make no mistake—the solo instruments are hitting quick bursts between and around the groove that the rhythm section plays. Frankly, much less Miles Davis and you couldn’t really call it a Miles album.

So what’s going on here? Two things. One is that Miles is listening to James Brown, to Sly and the Family Stone, and to P-Funk. He sees that they’re reaching young black audiences, and he wants to reach that audience, too. You can tell without even listening to the music: the blaxploitation-style Corky McCoy cover lets you know immediately that this album is street, and is funky.

And maybe the best example of the street cred of this album is the song “Black Satin.” Unlike what has come before, “Black Satin” kind of has a melody floating over the rhythm section. With trumpet and whistling, sleigh bells and hand claps, it’s Miles doing schoolyard game. It sounds exactly like kids playing on the street, complete with ambient noise.

And when I got this album in high school, that was enough for me. It’s experimental, but it’s funky. I’d moved beyond (far beyond!) Kenny G, but I still listened mostly to fusion, though I was getting into the Godfather of Soul and Sly Stone and Tower of Power and whatever other funk I could get my hands on. And the groove is incredible on this album. I may not have understood what Miles was doing, but I could feel the band lock in, and I could enjoy the fact that I was listening to something that greater jazz minds than mine hadn’t been able to understand.

But there was another thing going on, too: at the time, Miles was listening to Karlheinz Stockhausen, an experimental classical and electronica composer. I learned what Miles was listening to reading the album’s liner notes, and I became an instant fan of Stockhausen, without ever actually hearing his work. (I searched for it, again, in the Sam Goodys of the era, but the era was pre-Amazon, and, it turns out, most mainstream CD stores didn’t carry experimental German classical music. I did find one Stockhausen album, which was pretty much the extent of his music that I’d heard.) Apparently, Miles was especially fond of  Stockhausen’s “Hymnen.” Until tonight, refreshing my memory of On the Corner, I’d never heard “Hymnen.” Even in this post-Amazon world, the best price for that CD is over $90. But thanks to YouTube, I’ve now heard part of the composition. Largely, Stockhausen stitched together clips of various national anthems, interspersed with radio static and other white noise. It’s strangely—awesomely, frankly—compelling, and it does an amazing amount of work contextualizing what Miles is doing in On the Corner.

So that’s On the Corner: a melding of funk and experimental classical music. But the thing is, it works. It works so well. The album is deeply intellectual, but it’s also deeply physical.[fn3]

And even if it wasn’t recognized or appreciated when originally released, you can hear its echoes in music ranging from punk to hip-hop to electronica. But even if it hadn’t influenced a single other musician, On the Corner deserves a place in your listening rotation. And put it on in the background to your New Year’s party, and you’ll have an instant ambient party soundtrack.[fn4]

Miles Davis, On the Corner


[fn1] Not that he deserves and “in fairness to him”: a saxophone teacher pointing a kid who wants to hear jazz toward Kenny G has to be malpractice at best.

[fn2] Which is interesting. A decade or so earlier, Miles released Kind of Blue (during “arguably the most creative in all of jazz history.” And Kind of Blue represented a massive shift in jazz, from frequent chord changes to a modal approach to jazz, where soloists would play over one or two chords for whole choruses. And Kind of Blue ended up being tremendously critically and popularly acclaimed. I’d argue that, even if you hate jazz, Kind of Blue should be in your record collection. (I think I have it on CD, on mp3, and on vinyl. Also, I have Mostly Other People Do the Killing’s note-for-note recreation, Blue.)

[fn3] In fact, it strikes me as somewhat the apotheosis of Funkadelic’s injunction, two years earlier, to “Free Your Mind … and Your Ass Will Follow.”

[fn4] Note that it’s not just me: Kind of Blue notwithstanding, Pitchfork singles out On the Corner as “one of the easiest Davis records to recommend to a non-convert.” Convert or not, you need to give it a listen.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this. I loved Miles when I got Kind of Blue from those music clubs that gave you 20 CDs or so for a low price (and then mad their money once you were hooked). I’ll give this a try.

  2. Bitches Brew arguably is a much better album and a greater creative achievement, but On the Corner is an absolutely fascinating experiment. It’s been years since I’ve listened to it; I’ll have to dig it out again.

    Sam, how into ’70s jazz are you? Are you familiar with McCoy Tyner’s output from that time? His live double album Atlantis can only be described as “heavy metal acoustic jazz.” It’s an absolutely splendid listen, especially on a long highway drive at high speed; it’s probably a bit too intense for dinner parties, though. :)

    Former Miles sideman Keith Jarrett also had two excellent all-acoustic bands during the ’70s, one with European personnel (Jan Garbarek on saxophones, Palle Danielsson on bass, and Jon Christensen on drums) and one with Americans (Dewey Redman on saxophones, Charlie Haden on bass, and Paul Motian on drums). Both ensembles incorporated gospel and rock influences into very advanced post-bop jazz, with the American band a bit more “outside” than the European one. Saxophonist Donny McCaslin was pretty obviously channeling Garbarek’s work with Jarrett in his contributions to David Bowie’s Blackstar.

  3. Jeez. Your sax teacher who sent you to Kenny G and left you to discover Bird and Coleman Hawkins and Cannonball and Trane and Lester Young and this comment could just keep going on…

    Malpractice indeed.

  4. Yeah, he explicitly disliked bebop (which, at the time, I had no idea what bebop was). So maybe kind of not the optimal saxophone teacher for an aspiring jazz musician.

  5. A guy with whom I jammed in college (I play bass guitar pretty well and guitar…not well) was a trumpeter whose first serious teacher was a smooth jazz guy. He knew all these corny Chuck Mangione licks that sounded like the music on the PA in the dying mall in Joliet, IL I occasionally visited as a kid. (Or, for that matter, the office of the psychiatrist that my horrible 2nd grade teacher insisted I visit because I was bored to tears in her class and acted out accordingly.)