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Jack Johnson: Miles Davis Goes The Distance

Note: This article originally ran on October 30, 2003 at Blogcritics.org, where I was among its earliest and most prolific contributors. I wrote numerous essays, interviews and product reviews there until about 2009 or so. At some point in late 2017, the current management at Blogcritics chose to remove all of my articles without notifying me, and have yet to respond to my email requests for an explanation, or to let me know how to restore them there. (Accidents happen on the Internet; perhaps it was just a glitch?) In the interim, I will slowly be reposting my more interesting pieces here.

I'm reposting this review of Miles Davis' A Tribute To Jack Johnson in honor of the legendary prize fighter (1878-1946) being pardoned by President Trump on Thursday. While this 2003 review focuses on the then-new box set of the albums' lengthy sessions, unless you're a Miles Davis completest, the single album that emerged from those sessions should do you fine.

Muhammad Ali once said, "I am the greatest!", and set out in the boxing ring to prove himself just that. In 1969, Miles Davis (an amateur boxer himself) said, "I could put together the greatest rock 'n roll band you ever heard."

And Davis did just that on A Tribute To Jack Johnson, the soundtrack to a long lost documentary about a legendary prizefighter from the turn of the 20th century. As Marshall Bowden wrote in his outstanding review of the new box set:

That Miles Davis should have been drawn to the figure of Jack Johnson is no surprise. Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion and star black sports figure, fought during the early 1900s, at a time when racism was de rigeur and jazz music was only beginning to develop. Johnson liked the high life, enjoyed fast cars and liked women, particularly white women. While Miles preferred black women, he certainly appreciated beautiful ones, had sartorial style, liked his home to be well appointed and modern, and also adored fast sports cars. Much has been made of the fact that Miles was born into a middle class background (his father was a successful dentist) but that only seems to have made the racism that he encountered that much more unpalatable, and Davis did encounter his share. The well known incident that occurred in front of Birdland, when Miles was hassled by police for standing outside the club and took a blow to the head from a white detective, seems to have set him firmly on the path of not taking any crap from anyone, an attitude that was certainly in line with that of Jack Johnson as well as boxers that Davis had seen during his lifetime.

For One Night, The Greatest Rock and Roll Group In the World

While the Rolling Stones have been dubbed "the greatest rock and roll group in the world", Keith Richards once said that title is only applicable on their best nights; on other nights, other groups get to make that claim.

On April 7th 1970, in Columbia Records' Studio B in Manhattan, Miles' rock and roll group was definitely the greatest in the land. "Right Off", the first five minutes of the opening cut of the original album, issued in 1971, features Billy Cobham on drums, James Jamerson-protege Michael Henderson on Fender bass, John McLaughlin on electric guitar, and Miles on trumpet. If Roger Daltry skipped a session with The Who, and Miles Davis sat in on trumpet, it would sound vaguely like the opening to "Right Off": McLaughlin's relentlessly riffing, vaguely Pete Townshend-sounding guitar slashes power chords, double stops, and wah-wah'ed licks while Miles counterpunches on trumpet, and Cobham and Henderson supply an endlessly funky canvas for the two musical boxers to collide with each other on.

Eventually, other musicians enter the mix: Herbie Hancock on the organ, and Steve Grossman on the soprano sax. But it was the opening to "Right Off", featuring Miles, backed by Cobham, Henderson and McLaughlin--surely as great a power trio as ever played--that made Jack Johnson, as "Downbeat" magazine once called it, a motherf***er. And who'd want to argue with them?

Lots of Jams, Lots of Edits

Of course, as with all other works of art, reaching those heights didn't just come spontaneously. Columbia's new The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions box set, with its five CDs of jams, outtakes, false-starts and extended cuts, shows just how much effort went into the 50 minutes or so of the original Jack Johnson album. Some of these jams are quite interesting, but how desirable the entire five CD package would be depends on how much of a fan of Miles and this period of his career you are.

They do show how radically Miles' recording methods changed over the years, though. In the late 1950s, he relied frequently on arranger Gil Evans to conduct lush jazz symphonies as beds for his playing. But by the time of In A Silent Way, and especially Bitches Brew, he had adopted a much more technological approach: he and his sidemen would jam endlessly, often around just a skeletal sketch of a tune. Teo Macero, Miles' longtime producer, would record everything, and then edit it down to a surprisingly finely structured piece of music, bringing order to what must have seemed frequently, during the sessions, as chaos.

It's the third disc in the box set where the bulk of music that dominated the original Jack Johnson came from, including the above session. Despite all the editing, the first 11 minutes of the album was apparently recorded live, without overdubs, a testament to the chops of Miles and his sidemen, and a stark contrast to today's endless digital manipulations.

Seeking a New Audience

Unlike the epochal Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson's sales were apparently somewhat flat during its initial release, and Jack Johnson, The Big Fights, quickly vanished without a trace, despite being nominated for an Oscar for best documentary of 1971 (it lost to Woodstock). To the best of my knowledge, it's not available on videotape or DVD, and has rarely been shown since its initial release, with the exception of a few clips included in Sony's recent biographical DVD of Miles.

Hopefully Sony's new box set will introduce new listeners to this seminal Miles Davis album. And if jazz/rock fusion ever wanted to make a comeback, the earthy, hard rocking sound that Miles, McLaughlin, Cobham, Henderson and Hancock made would be a great foundation to build (or rebuild) on.