To me, the most remarkable thing about Miles Davis isn�t that he released Birth of the Cool
, one of the most important jazz recordings of all time, before he was 25. And it isn�t that, from 1957 to 1959, he released four five-star albums and another, Porgy and Bess
that isn�t so bad either. It isn�t even that he released Bitches Brew
in 1969 � hell, I don�t even like Bitches Brew
all that much, I just listen to On the Corner
when I want to get Miles to punch my face in.
No, for me, the one thing Davis did during the span of his recording career that is the single most remarkable is 1970�s A Tribute to Jack Johnson
, a two-track masterstroke that features Davis (obviously) on trumpet, Herbie Hancock on keyboards and John McLaughlin on guitar and was the soundtrack for a documentary about boxer Jack Johnson.
A Tribute to Jack Johnson
kicks off with �Right Off,� a 26-minute track that is basically Davis tipping his hat to Sly Stone and the other funk greats of the time. But its far from just a tip of the hat, he's showing he can do it better.
The song opens with McLaughlin tearing into his guitar. The guitar part isn�t necessarily hard or intense, but as is the case with all the best jazz you'll ever hear, its all
about the feeling, baby.
As McLaughlin tears *** up, the drums and bass join him and you immediately get lost in the fun.
And then, at the 2:19 mark, MILES appears. That�s right, for the first 2:19, Miles isn�t even on the track!
He appears with a simple note from his horn, gaining your attention, and then he takes things over and things get ten-times as funky as they were at the start.
For the next several minutes, Davis, Hancock and McLaughlin go to town, playing some of the best music you�re likely to hear in any genre. To be honest, it kind of reminds me of Standards
-era Tortoise, but I�m sure the jazz gods would hate to hear me say it. The song could just end with those three going nuts and I would be satisfied � but it doesn�t.
Right before 11-minute mark, when you�ve finally accepted the song for what it is and you�re really getting down with your bad self, the whole thing stops and it becomes, well, almost ambient. A lone horn guides you on a slow, relaxing trip that wouldn�t be out of place on a Pink Floyd album. For sure, its one of those lay-on-your-bed-with-headphones-on-and-think-about-the-meaning-of-life-while-stoned-out-of-your-mind moments, one of those breakdowns when you�ll find yourself wondering why you ever listen to anything else.
But it only lasts just over a minute! As suddenly as the mini-breakdown had started, it ends and McLaughlin�s guitar and the rest of the song�s backbone fade right back into focus. Right when you were picturing yourself floating down a river, or drifting through the air, or whatever the hell the song was making you think, you�re punched back to life and its once again time to boogie with the band.
Hancock�s keyboard work keeps things bumping throughout and, really, its good enough to be considered one of the best things Hancock has ever done, right up there with Empyrean Isles
McLaughlin�s guitar is another constant, always distorted and always funky.
But the best thing throughout is clearly Miles, who seems to be at his most playful, his most inspired and his most intense all at the same time. Live-Evil
is crazy, yes, and it came first, yes, but A Tribute to Jack Johnson
is like Live-Evil
, only consistent enough that you can get down to the whole thing. Live-Evil
and Jack Johnson
is Rain Dogs
, if a Tom Waits comparison will help me make my point.
I haven�t even started with �Yesternow,� the album�s 25-minute second song, but it�s pretty much more of the same, only a little less funky and a little more chill. But you don�t buy this album for
�Yesternow,� you buy it for �Right Off.� And I hope you do
buy this, or at least download it.
I really, truly think it�s the best thing Miles ever did.
And that is saying quite a lot, I know.