Thursday, February 25, 2010

Miles Davis - A Tribute to Jack Johnson

In jazz, it seems, all roads lead to Miles.

One of the first jazz albums I ever listened to was Miles' Kind of Blue. As an entryway into the world of jazz, it's nearly perfect. The idioms of the genre are laid out quickly and executed to perfection; long pieces built around simple progressions with individual solos arcing over and around the groove by each member of the band one by one. As a form, its inherently understandable, and that ease of recognition made me quickly understand that Kind of Blue is a masterpiece.

My next step with Miles, from all that I had read, had to be Bitches Brew. Its one of those epochal albums, all-important and impossibly critically acclaimed. It also was an album I was horribly ill-prepared for, and so impenetrable that I deleted it from my library without finishing it. The form was gone (I realize that's the point), and I couldn't follow the artistry. I decided that I disliked it and haven't returned since. I've added other Miles albums to my library, the most relevant of which here is In a Silent Way. I didn't struggle with that one because its formlessness wasn't an obstacle; with the ambiance allowing the music to shift through different paces, I was able to let myself go. I've found it to be great music for falling asleep to late at night. Am I a Jazz impurist? Perhaps. C'est la vie.

I realize, of course, the brashness of the dismissal of Bitches Brew but when I wrote, "all roads lead to Miles", I meant it. I have since dabbled with fusion in more accessible forms (the "Fusion FM" radio station in Grand Theft Auto IV, unlikely a source for music it may be, has become my favorite in the game.) I've also since become well-versed in the blues, especially as filtered through '60s and '70s classic rock. When I first read about A Tribute to Jack Johnson and its place in Miles' canon as the bluesiest, hardest-rocking recording of his fusion era, it piqued my interest. When I read the anecdote that Miles was late for the session, leading guitarist (and fusion hero) John McLaughlin to start playing around with a riff and gathering the band into a full-swing jam by the time Davis arrived, only to see him promptly join in and lay down what became the opening number, "Right Off," I had to give it a listen. I'm a sucker for a good anecdote.

I'm pleased to say that filtering Miles through the blues gained me entrance into Tribute. The first eleven minutes of "Right Off" are a blast. Settling into a Silent Way-esque ambient stretch provides a change of pace (inevitable in a 26-minute track), before Herbie Hancock steps in with a slow-burning farfisa organ solo taking us through the back stretch. "Right Off" isn't the bluesiest blues or the hardest-rockin' rock jam I've heard, nor is it the most energetic or blistering jazz number I've heard, but it succeeds on its own terms nonetheless.

The second side, "Yesternow", doesn't go for the blistering blues like "Right Off", but instead lays down a funky groove worthy of Parliament. This tracks' meanderings are more laid back (hey, funk's all about the groove) and have a more consistent flow. For the pace change here Miles actually brings back a section of "Shhh/Peaceful" from Silent Way, which is only conceptually bizarre but surprisingly effective, before heading into the home stretch of another funk groove, this one bluesier than the first.

As for me, musically, it's all good. Not transcendent, but my biggest qualm isn't in the music. It's the side-length tracks. I understand their length, but it doesn't mean I find a 25-minute listen any less impractical than it is. I fear A Tribute to Jack Johnson will fall into my category of albums and tracks too long to listen to regularly, but I'm ok with that. I'm glad to have met this Tribute, and expect to give it a few go's every now and then when the mood strikes. And if it's paved one more stretch in my road back to Bitches Brew, well I look forward to the opportunity to climb that mountain again. No promises, but at least I feel like I'm preparing myself better for the next try.


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