"Miles Davis dropped jazz for good in late 1971-- not that he'd been keeping up many appearances for the genre in several years. Though his band would still occasionally play old standards live, his main show in the early 70s was free-ish funk, openly indebted to Sly Stone and James Brown (and I still wonder what Davis would have made of Funkadelic). Of course, the maligned genre in question-- jazz-- was mostly the property of people writing about Davis, and in some cases, his still-jazz-oriented peers, so it's no surprise to read his bandmates of the time (percussionist Mtume, bassist Michael Henderson, guitarists Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas, drummer Al Foster, saxophonist Dave Liebman) refer back to those days with no small amount of pride, and scorn towards the ever-present "critics". The records Davis made during this time sounded raw (but weren't), hard (and were) and not the kind of thing that was going to fit into any particular canon, even as their maker adopted conscious efforts to position his music for younger, blacker audiences. And he might have dropped jazz, but he picked up something a lot more important: the future of music.
On the Corner was released in October 1972, followed by Big Fun and Get Up With It, both in 1974. All of these records contained (at least partially) music recorded during sessions in 1972-75, the period represented on Columbia Legacy's latest extravagant box-set treatment for Davis, The Complete On the Corner Sessions. Over six discs, we get every track put to tape during the period by Davis' revolving cast of players (in addition to the core of his touring band, luminous Davis alums like Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette, John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Don Alias, and Bennie Maupin drop by), and though I don't anticipate many all-night OtC listening parties in the near future, it's arguably the greatest collection of Davis' post-Bitches Brew studio music in one set. The thing is, this is thick, sticky stuff; 20-minute jams like "Ife" or the unedited take of "On the Corner" are amazingly gripping despite their lengths, but process a few in a row, and you risk experiencing dizzy spells. In retrospect, maybe it's not surprising that Davis retired in 1975, resurfacing half a decade later playing music that was a lot more easily digestible.
Since its 72 release, On the Corner (featured in full on the last disc in the box) has attained a level of infamy outmatching any of Davis' other records, though not really for the right reasons. Downbeat's equally infamous calling-out of its tunes as "repetitious boredom" unfortunately summed up the feeling of many folks who would have preferred to only remember Davis' music from the 50s and 60s. However, rock and experimental music fans weren't quite so dismissive-- in fact, today, OtC is one of the easiest Davis records to recommend to a non-convert, especially if they're down with the wtf production and uber-grooved-out beats. Teo Macero's editing/splicing/midwifing of the myriad sessions that comprised the record were no less significant to its sound than Davis' pieces, and considering how records are made today, perhaps more so. Still, it's the avant-funk and druggy ambience that lingers longest. There's a reason people compare this stuff to Can.
Disc one features unedited takes of "On the Corner", "One and One", and "Helen Butte/Mr. Freedom X", all of which would appear in messed-with form on the 1972 LP. And though OtC's edits are a considerable part of its magic, the surprising thing with these tracks is how well they work as just jams (greatly assisted by the fact that in most cases, their signature hooks are intact, such as the hi-hat pulse in "On the Corner", or the classic sing-song melody in "Helen Butte"). "Jabali" is a previously unissued track, featuring a slow, lurching bassline from Henderson, and gradually picks up steam while simultaneously becoming more psychedelic (anyone order three extra keyboards?). The second disc begins with "Ife" (originally issued on Big Fun), and adds Paul Buckmaster on electric cello. Buckmaster's contribution to Davis' music at that time was considerable, especially via turning the trumpeter onto Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose use of recorded and electric sound had a big impact on the recording of OtC. "Chieftan" is a previously unissued, agitated vamp, featuring an insistent hi-hat + rim shot beat, augmented (like many tracks from this era) by tabla and sitar. "Turnaround" and "U-Turnaround" are also new tracks, but whose slow, heavy grooves would have sounded very at home on, say, Live-Evil or Dark Magus. "Rated X" (later on Get Up With It) is just a badass funk track that features some seriously distorted production, and should probably be sampled by all crate-digging, rare-grooves DJs ASAP.
Disc three begins with another track from Get Up With It ("Billy Preston"-- not featuring Billy Preston btw), and several unissued tracks: the somewhat raucous, wah-wah guitar-powered "The Hen", two HUGE mixes of "Big Fun/Holly-wuud" (which would later be severed to make both sides of a 74 single), the skeletal, relatively restrained "Peace", and the funk dirge "Mr. Foster", which takes the basic groove of "Big Fun", and stretches it across 15 minutes of mournful vamping and uncharacteristically solemn solos from Liebman and Davis. Disc four contains the two epic-length tracks from Get Up With It, "Calypso Frelimo" and the Duke Ellington tribute, "He Loved Him Madly". The first piece begins as reverb-drenched, frantic funk, and moves into molasses-paced death groove (though still laced with reverb, as if recorded in a subway tunnel). I've never been a huge fan of "He Loved Him Madly", though its extended (30+ minutes) calm is a welcome respite from the otherwise merciless pace of the rest of the box.
"Maiysha" (also from Get Up With It) begins disc five, and though its major-key, curiously sprightly guitar figure seems a little out of place with generally darker (or more cynical) music on the other discs, it still retains the exotic flavor of the box's music. "Mtume" begins with-- you guessed it-- a conga solo by Davis' permanent conga player Mtume, and soon turns into an up-tempo Afro-Cuban groove with cool triple-guitar wah-ing from Lucas, Cosey and Dominique Gaumont. (A shorter outtake of the same track features a good soprano sax solo from Sonny Fortune.) The 19-minute blues-shuffle "Hip Skip" (with a pretty bizarre organ solo by Davis), frantic "What They Do" (reminiscent of the faster stuff on Dark Magus) and brief, strangely loungy "Minnie"-- notable mostly for being recorded at Davis' last session in 1975 before his five-year retirement -- are all previously unissued. The final disc of the box contains all of the OtC LP, in addition to a fairly straight blues on "Red China Blues" (from Get Up With It, and featuring the only harmonica solo I can remember hearing on a Davis track), and both sides of the "Big Fun"/"Holly-wuud" single.
So, here we are again, near the end of another year, with another indispensable Miles Davis box to purchase (which Columbia doubtlessly realizes, as the lofty $120+ price tag might indicate). Do you need it? If you're a die-hard, it's obvious: you do. If you've never heard On the Corner, it's obvious: you don't. However, you do need to buy OtC sooner than yesterday. Perhaps in six months or a year, after you've stopped annoying all your friends by telling them how great it is, then you can go back and order the box-- by which time, should be available for about half of what is now. Davis saw the future with this music. Be smart, do the same."