11 July 2008

Friday Album Cover: 2-For-1 Special

Note: Since I did not post a Friday Album Cover last week, I give you two Miles Davis album covers this week.

Miles Davis
'Round About Midnight
'Round About Midnight was Miles Davis' debut album with Columbia, then the largest and preeminent record label in America. The signing of Davis was a coup both for Columbia and Davis; Columbia gained the rights to a brilliant (and popular) artist and relentless self-promoter who would remain at the forefronts of jazz and middlebrow American style for years to come, while Davis gained entry to a promotional vehicle worthy of his own self-image.

The cover to 'Round About Midnight set the Davis archetype for the next fifteen years. Miles is presented as the Dark Prince: bathed in mysterious red light, hidden behind his trademark dark sunglasses, exquisitely dressed in a custom-tailored suit ("Cleaner than a broke-dick dog," as Davis recounts the saying of his youth in his autobiography), shielding himself from vision with his music (represented by his trumpet), and with the mysterious facial expression that is equal parts depression, rage, and contempt. The picture suits Davis' reputation as an enigmatic hothead, who would dismiss any fan who dared speaking to him, mouth off to trigger-happy policemen, and criticize any musician in interviews.

At the same time, the image connotes a knowingness about Davis. He seems perfectly content to scare off others. He has his art, and that seems to be enough (though anyone familiar with his life story knows by now that art was never nearly enough for Miles). As much as I like this album, the cover is even more intriguing in the way it cemented Davis' reputation as the mercurial genius of jazz, a Zeus-figure if ever there was one.

Miles David
A Tribute to Jack Johnson

Fifteen years after recording 'Round About Midnight, Davis and his controversial electrified band put down the sessions that would be edited into A Tribute to Jack Johnson, Miles' self-styled tribute to the legendary turn-of-the-century boxer. Whereas 'Round About Midnight featured Miles the suave Brooks Brothers devotee, Jack Johnson presents the rock-and-roll Miles, sporting bell bottoms and a muscle-revealing tank top. Miles' stance is also significant here, it evokes both the delicate balance required of a boxer (Miles was a noted boxing enthusiast as well as an amateur boxer himself) and the tortured performance poses of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone (whom Miles so badly wanted to emulate during this period).

Just as 'Round About Midnight cemented Davis' Dark Prince archetype, so too did Jack Johnson solidify the image of Davis the Rock Star. Gone were the days of playing standards at the Five Spot, now he was opening for the Grateful Dead and Santana at the Fillmore. Exit Wayne Shorter and Ron Carter, enter John McLaughlin and Michael Henderson. Perhaps not coincidentally, Jack Johnson was also one of his best albums recorded after he began mixing rock and jazz. No longer content to play what he considered to be a dying art, Miles charged forcefully into new territory, and for awhile at least, produced some captivating music.

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