28 June 2010

Music Monday

Miles Davis was the first jazz musician whose music I truly loved. I first began discovering his work when my parents bought me a copy of Kind of Blue for Christmas one year. I was 13. Miles is a great first love for any jazz fan, especially since his catalogue spans so many genres and schools of jazz that it serves as a pretty good proxy for the history of jazz between 1944 (his arrival on the New York scene) and 1975 (his first retirement). Miles was present in the first bebop, hard bop, avant-garde (for lack of a better term), and fusion recordings I ever heard.

But over the past few years the album to which I find myself returning again and again is Tribute to Jack Johnson, recorded in 1970 and released in 1971. The album was the result of music Miles produced for a documentary on the early-20th century heavyweight champion. The album featured John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Billy Cobham, Steve Grossman, and Michael Henderson. In his autobiography, Miles doesn't say much about the album, except that he originally wanted Buddy Miles (then playing with Jimi Hendrix) on the album and that it was not adequately promoted by Columbia Records. In his magisterial biography of Davis, So What, John Szwed wrote that Miles passion for and knowledge of boxing helped give the album  its sound:
His own feel for the movements of a boxer came across clearly in the soundtrack, where he tried to make the rhythms mime the grace and confidence of fighters like Sugar Ray Robinson.
Szwed notes that Jack Johnson "was one of Miles' favorite recordings for a long time," which is saying something since Miles was often dismissive of his own work in retrospect. Darcy James Argue sparked my revived interest in Jack Johnson. In this blog post on Davis' 1970s work, Argue remembers when he first heard Jack Johnson, which "blew my head wide open" as a teenager:
I can even pinpoint the exact moment when my brains hit the wall -- it's early in "Right Off" where John McLaughlin drops to Bb, but Michael Henderson keeps going in E, and Miles decides this bitonal no-man's land would be the perfect spot for him to make his entrance. And it is.
That moment comes at the 2:12 mark. Check it out below, it will get you through your Monday.

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