For a class of music so embedded in the whole idea of thinking outside of the box, the jazz community was mighty quick to throw Miles Davis to the wolves upon the public unveiling of his “jungle sound” concept in the early ‘70s with his controversial 1972 acid-urban statement On the Corner.
Enraptured by the daring new sounds of black music that erupted from the Vietnam era, particularly the works of Sly Stone, James Brown and Maggot Brain-era Funkadelic, Miles saw an opportunity to expand upon that electrification of his modal style of playing he had initially conspired on In a Silent Way. This then coalesced into the realms of psychedelic rock on such late ‘60s masterworks as Bitches Brew and A Tribute to Jack Johnson following Davis’ discovery of the works of Jimi Hendrix thanks to ex-wife Betty Davis (whom Miles would later accuse of having an affair with the guitar legend, but that’s another story entirely). For On the Corner, however, his goal was to find a way to bring it closer to the essence of the black power movement that provided the soul of inner city life during that most crucial era for African-American culture and his electric sound closer to the classic funk style pioneered by the likes of Clinton, Brown and Stone.
However, at the same time, Miles was also turned on to the avant-artistry of the minimalist classical movement, predominantly the works of German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and his conceptual ideas of sound looping and repetition. The introduction to this revolutionary method of creating music had opened up the floodgates in Davis’ mind to the ways by which he could contort the structure of the grooves he was digging into during his electric period.
“It was Stockhausen which so totally caught his attention,” proclaimed British arranger-composer and master cellist Paul Buckmaster, a close friend and collaborator of Miles’ who initially introduced the trumpeter to Stockhausen’s post-war forays into electronic music and tape manipulation and oversaw much of the On the Corner sessions alongside Davis. “He obtained a cassette copy of Stockhausen’s Hymnen and found that piece most intriguing. I saw, in fact, that he had that cassette in his Lamborghini Miura…”
The image of Miles speeding down the road blasting avant-garde classical music out of an expensive Italian sports car is not only a seriously cool vision, but a perfect allegory to the crux of the On the Corner antithesis. His goal was, essentially, to create experimental bump music, which drew from two incredibly disparate sources but came together beautifully when blasting out the speakers of a designer sound system. And when looking at it through an eye nostalgic for that late ‘60s/early ‘70s era, he certainly accomplished his mission, especially considering how the whole look and feel of On the Corner fits as perfectly in that pocket of time as an ostrich feather on the side of a fedora hat.
For this gorgeous six-CD box set, the final installment of Columbia/Legacy’s Grammy Award-winning metal box series commemorating Miles’ magnificent career on Columbia, gracefully succeeds in accentuating every aspect of what made On the Corner not only such a controversial piece in the Davis canon but a treasured keepsake for modern fans of early ‘70s psychedelic jazz as well. The gold casing features the funky cartooning of original On the Corner jacket artist Cortez “Corky” McCoy embossed in all of its multi-hued blaxploitation glory right in the center of the set, with newly etched Corky sketches in the box’s accompanying booklet. The sketches include a wild depiction of Miles as the cloven-hooved Greek god of flocks and shepherds Pan that greets you as you initially open the hardcover book, which contains wonderfully insightful liner notes and essays from producer Bob Belden, journalist Tom Terrell and the aforementioned Mr. Buckmaster.
As far as the music goes, you get nearly an entire workday’s worth of that indelible On the Corner funkadelia. The collection covers all 16 sessions for the album including the original 1972 LP, its subsequent 1974 double-disc sequels Big Fun and Get Up With It as well as 12 previously unissued tracks including, for the first time ever, the full unedited version of the album’s title track. So basically you are getting another two full hour-plus albums worth of unheard On the Corner funk here.
However, as grizzled fans of On the Corner have come to realize, if you are looking to this box to geek out over solos, be they by Miles himself or any of the myriad of players featured on these sessions which included such prominent Davis veterans as John McLaughlin, Mtume, Herbie Hancock and Jack DeJohnette, established names new to the Miles crew like Chick Corea, Billy Hart, Sonny Fortune and Lonnie Liston Smith and new lions who would rise to prominence backing up Miles through the ‘70s such as Pete Cosey, Reggie Lucas and young funk bassist Michael Henderson –- who Davis established as the backbone of On the Corner, look elsewhere.
On the Corner is not a virtuosic album in any way shape or form. This is tribal music, right here, for the concrete jungle. It’s ghetto music for the third eye. All of the players came together, even Miles himself, to attach themselves to the thick, funky bass of Michael Henderson like barnacles on an anchor of groove, and propel full bore into the abyss of wherever the rhythm took them. They created music that certainly wasn’t for everyone, especially the snooty jazz critics of the time who still had visions of Kind of Blue dancing in their bryl creamed heads.
If you are a fan of electric Miles and consider On the Corner one of your top five favorite Davis albums, you have hit the damn jackpot with The Complete on the Corner Sessions. However, if you don’t have the stomach for six-and-a-half hours of singular groove, unless you are a survivor of the early ‘90s NYC rave scene, your wisest best would be to admire this box set from afar and stick to the original issue of this challenging beauty.