The Complete On the Corner Sessions
he Complete On The Corner Sessions isn’t my favorite Miles Davis box set, but that’s kind of like saying, “Well, The Birds isn’t my favorite Hitchcock movie.” Because when you’re dealing with an artist whose output is as extensive and consistently terrific as Davis’ or Hitchcock’s, then who really gives a shit what’s your favorite? They’re all awesome, and most of the time they’re better than another guy’s best. This music is better than just about anything else you’ll hear all year, and that’s only on the first disc.
Six discs. Say that real loud and fast. It sounds like “sex dicks.” That’s dirty. This is the dirtiest shit you will ever hear in your life. It’s filthier than a back alley filled with rabies-infected dogs eating used condoms. Bathroom floors in strip clubs are cleaner than this. You’ll wash your ears with bleach after you hear it. Oh yeah, and there’s six discs of it.
SIX DISCS! There’s more unheard material than you might think; twelve unreleased tracks, along with unedited masters of all the On The Corner jams, many of which provide fascinating insights into their eventual edited results. Aside from the album, you also get tracks from Big Fun and Get Up With It, recorded shortly after On The Corner. Sequenced chronologically by recording date, except for the original On The Corner and its accompanying singles (“Red China Blues,” “Big Fun/Holly-wuud”) wedged into the end, you could mistake this for one huge album. As such, the box set has a continuity lacking from other Davis reissues. I like to call it “sprawling cohesion,” but then Miles would’ve probably called me “some lazy white critic.”
Like all of Davis’ other box sets, the booklet and packaging are superb. Same book jacket cover with metallic spine, this time citrus cover clamped by red metal. The photographs are crisp, and the liner notes by Bob Belden and Paul Buckmaster are sweet reflections on Davis and the sessions. The information pertaining to the music is detailed and insightful, including session dates, players, etc. The CD jackets look like neon folders that you’d find in Trapper Keepers, and it all comes in a gold box with the original cover artwork in protruding plastic. It’s kind of tacky, but so are the characters on the cover. One guy has an all pink suit and a yellow tie, and the guy he’s talking to has striped pants. Another girl is wearing a unitard and has a huge ass. Apparently the green-suited guy she’s talking to has no money, but the back cover reveals that he just wants to carry her books for her. It’s a dirty joke, but so was On The Corner.
Do you really need to hear the story again? That jazz critics initially hated it, only to praise it years later? That Davis was influenced by Stockhausen and Sly Stone in equal measure? That he plays his trumpet through a microphone hooked up to a wah-wah pedal? Oh wait, did I just retell it? Not accurately, because you can’t properly tell a story you never witnessed, and I wasn’t alive when On The Corner was released, I just know what I read. What I hear is anger, and that’s important, because in his autobiography Davis is a pissed off cat. Everyone’s a “motherfucker,” and nearly every person in his life gets badmouthed or criticized at one point or another.
An album released in the midst of a criminally potent New York, a time when Davis’ son returned from Vietnam a changed man wracked with a heap of psychological and behavioral problems, the music culled from these sessions don’t just sound like the times, but also the mean son of a bitch as which he comes across. His trumpet cusses and lashes, and its cries are tortured wails instead of drawn-out sighs. The guitars sound like sporadic vomiting or cutting teeth, and there are hardly any sparkly keyboards. Drums sound less like rhythmic lock steps and more like cacophonous beatdowns.
Michael Henderson. Aside from Davis, Henderson is the only musician to appear on every single track on this collection, and with good reason. His bass is a gelatinous anchor, liquefied and wobbly but always holding the stew together. Often just playing out a couple of notes—barely deviating from but occasionally peppering them with sporadic tempo changes or an additional note here and there—his four-stringed voodoo is hypnotic. Even when the music is at its busiest, focusing on Henderson will reveal that you are dangling from his instrument (no pun intended), which in its simplicity allows you to latch onto something while you’re absorbing everything else. Davis may have had better bassists, but its arguable he ever had a musician who could be so solid by doing so little.
Teo Macero. The Complete On The Corner Sessions only further proves what a genius this guy was behind the boards. Cut-and-pasted to sound like taut whirlwinds of newspaper and debris, listening to the first and last discs, or the uncut takes and the final cut, show how much work went into the album itself. It’s beyond trimming the fat, more like taking the fat and creating a lard sculpture. And the sound! Remastered and LOUD, these discs sound great out of boomboxes or high-quality stereos, big headphones or tinny iPod ones. Play it on your beat up car stereo and it doesn’t diminish the quality at all.
Miles Davis. Miles Davis was a genius. Miles Davis was an asshole. Miles Davis was the classiest son of a bitch on the jazz scene. Miles Davis was a coke-snorting, bug-eyed freak who played the meanest trumpet since Dizzy Gillespie. Miles Davis once got naked and started stroking his dick on his female drug dealer’s bed, waiting for her boyfriend to come upstairs, just so he could score free drugs. Miles Davis was an anomaly. Miles Davis was everything I love and loathe about art and artistry and music. The Complete On The Corner Sessions is over six hours of cat-shredding, face-punching, car-combusting jazz-skronk brouhaha. Eat it with your ears.