By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Some people fear the electric music Miles Davis made in the 1970s. Jazz fans think of it as their hero’s Vietnam, melody and tone sacrificed in the electric mud; young rockers fear it’s all wanking they won’t understand; and normal folks wonder why they’d listen to anyone do anything for 32 minutes. But there are better reasons to be afraid. In 1972, Miles Davis said this: “I had begun to realize that some of the things Ornette Coleman had said about things being played three or four ways, independently of each other, were true because Bach had also composed that way. And it could be real funky and down. [On the Corner] was a combination of some of the concepts of Paul Buckmaster, Sly Stone, James Brown and Stockhausen. The music was about spacing, about free association of musical ideas to a core kind of rhythm and vamps of the bass line. It was with On the Corner and Big Fun that I really made an effort to get my music over to young black people.”
A fairly daunting To Do list — close to impossible, you might think. But On the Corner and Get Up With It and Big Fun (all newly remastered and reissued, Get Up With It and Big Fun for the first time in the U.S. on CD, Big Fun with extra tracks) made clear that Miles took his assignment seriously. 1969’s In a Silent Way threw open song form and track lengths, 1969’s Bitches Brew let in rock and funk, but it is on these three albums that Miles grapples fully with electricity, funk and noise.
Big Fun, drawn from sessions spanning 1969 to 1972, gets you acquainted with the major tendencies of 1970s Davis: Acoustic instruments, highlighted solos and chord changes are mostly gone; fat Fender bass lines anchor the tracks; percussion and synthesizers color and crackle; and producer Teo Macero gets nice with the razor blade on tape loops and edits. Jazz, as most folks recognize it, is history.
Big Fun’s opener, “Great Expectations/Orange Lady,” nails it (if a 27-minute track can be said to nail anything). Imagine the vapors of In a Silent Way rising from a deep, black pond instead of hanging over a sunny country lane. Fender bassist Harvey Brooks and guitarist John McLaughlin sit on a Peter Gunn riff while Billy Cobham leans on the high-hat, something Davis wanted his drummers to do very much between 1970 and 1975. Davis stretches out a liturgical, minor-key eight-note theme and ends it each time in full unison with the band: crescendo, stop. The track eventually dubs out to long, bleeding chords and drones, the pulse vestigial. A slower melody takes over, and the whole thing mastermixes itself into a tamboura loop punctuated by Fender Rhodes and tingly bells. 2000 to 1969, all aboard.
The bonus tracks make the new Big Fun more big but not exactly more fun: “Recollection,” “Trevere,” “The Little Blue Frog” and “Yaphet,” previously available only in the Bitches Brewbox set, because of their recording dates (late November 1969). They’re all in the ambient ballad bag, and “Recollection” is the best, a lovely Joe Zawinul piece played over an implied rock downbeat, Zawinul and Chick Corea on twin electric pianos, rocking a stereo massage, gently. McLaughlin and Davis pull the melody through the water past synth flotsam, as if anxiety wasn’t ever a possibility.
Anxiety is the dominant emotion in On the Corner. Miles may have been overdosing on Sly Stone’s Fresh when he recorded the album in 1972, but it didn’t make his funk ready for folks. In his autobiography, Miles claims that because Columbia pushed On the Corner as a jazz record and not as an R&B album, it failed to reach the kids. “Watching the way [Herbie Hancock’s] Head Hunters sold just pissed me off even more.” These comments lead me to believe that Miles a) never spoke to an actual teenager and b) never listened to the Head Hunters. The sprightly, clean funk of Hancock’s “Chameleon” and the kicks-seeking exigencies of youth do not orbit the same sun as On the Corner, this big painted gourd full of sharp, rattling ideas.
The album, perversely, opens with the most nervous music, a suite of four pieces that begins with “On the Corner” and ends with “Vote for Miles.” Macero is hot on the switcher, and it all seems to be going through a wah pedal. Everything sways, as if nobody can decide whether to start. It’s an amazing sound, like four distinct bands set up on a city block, playing the same song, listening to each other over the phone while sound bleeds through open windows. Macero’s edits and tape loops draw attention to the material nature of the tape, breaking the illusion that you’re hearing what people “actually” played. This roughs up the edges of your passive listening pleasure, like a splash of rubbing alcohol.
With “Black Satin,” On the Cornerkicks in. It’s the catchiest tune on any of these albums, whether you’re following Michael Henderson’s 4,000-lb. bass line or Miles’ perfect nugget. Overdubbing allowed Davis and Macero to add a great series of handclaps that move in and out of time with the track. The nasty bass-and-drum pattern holds for the remainder of the album, “One and One” and “Helen Butte/Mr. Freedom X.” The high-hats pile up like they’ve been left to multiply without supervision, unknown things squeal, and the sound reaches a near-free sprawl of noise as the groove sinks deeper in. Miles wanted Let’s Get It On, and he got White Light/White Heat.
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city