Monday, February 1, 2010

Out in the street and down on the corner with Miles Davis

I know Miles Davis has already had the attention of this blog (see 25th August 2009) and that, aside from him and John Coltrane (see 2nd October 2009), jazz has been fairly unjustly short-changed here. But, even with so much really great jazz from both then and now still to be covered, I feel kind of justified in turning to Miles Davis again today if only because he went through so many incarnations in his phenomenally prolific career that it seems almost like listening to an entirely new musician when one of his last, and probably his most controversial, album On the Corner spurts out its music through my speakers.

Almost. There is, even here, in music that is unlike anything else that Miles ever produced – music that is now much more connected to funk than to jazz – the unmistakeable trademark of his trumpet, finding notes that ordinary mortal trumpets just could not possibly find, squeezing out the inner guts of the music with the same passion, the same disrespect for comfort zones, that we heard 13 years earlier in Kind of Blue.

But, even so, and aside from the brilliant mastery of the trumpet, there is far, far more than just 13 years separating the music of these two albums. They belong to different planets. Here, in On the Corner, electric sitars and guitars and organs and synthesizers are now part of the mix, creating music that is jagged, angular, almost avant-garde, where the trumpet no longer blends and bleeds into the rest of the music, but rather snaps and crackles and pops with it, plucked out of hours of jamming, and then hammered onto this rough and raw rock-laden surface.

This is not the music of suave jazz lounges, but of gritty, grubby streets where impoverished black people dance, pumped by cheap and dodgy drugs and where anything that helps you to forget your poverty for an hour or so is worth a look in. The music is built in the grooves of drums and bass that swagger and strut in gutters that feel disconcertingly like home.

But the music here is not aggressive. It’s discordant and its rhythms are almost impossible to grab hold of and yet it’s music that is comfortable with its own identity, music that makes no apology for the way it bleeps and bubbles its notes from random directions because, in this place, on this corner, it makes sense to do it that way. That’s how life and music are on the street.

The rhythms are elusive – their metre is free and always changing. The melodies are unmelodic, built out of notes that would never, in a million years, have seemed to belong together like they do here. It’s music that, even amongst all its grime and grit, has a strange sense of optimism to it.

The four tracks of On the Corner pretty much blend into one another and, even within each track, different pieces of music often poke their head in and merge themselves into whatever is happening at the time. And so the opening title track, at almost 20 minutes, is in fact four bits of music, and the closing track, at over 23 minutes, is in fact two. But the boundaries within tracks, as much as between them, are blurred and uncertain. The music is like simmering soup, where different aromas and flavours surround you, and you want to savour each of them, but you wouldn’t dare try to separate them.

So you end up with something that, by cobbling together all these bits and pieces, becomes a life-size tapestry of music, not really jazz, not really funk, but music where the human soul, in all its unpredictability, its pain and anguish, and even its banality, just does its thing.

On the Corner didn’t sell well when it was first released in 1972, and much of Miles Davis’s audience felt that he had turned his back on them and on jazz itself. But it is one of those albums that proudly resists any attempt to be pigeon-holed. It traverses musical borders; it breaks through all those long, long cordoned off boundaries, and it simply doesn’t care if the people who had invested in their own notions of what Miles Davis, or jazz, or trumpets, should do, feel pissed off.

On the Corner is, by any reckoning, ground-breaking music and even now, nearly thirty years after its release, it still sounds new, and it still sounds great.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Ian
    Not a comment on Miles Davis (whom I've never understood), but on your liking for 'noise'. Ex-Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart has produced some interesting noises by scaling-down (to audio scale) the electro-magnetic waves emitted by supernovae. For the full story, go to

    There's no sign of it in the iTunes store, but there's a very short sample on YouTube which, from reading the story, hardly does the work justice.

    Perhaps a reader of this blog knows more??