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The most hated album in Jazz?
on 2 April 2010
Upon release this album was reviled, despised and generally detested. Miles Davis who gifted the world with the definitive jazz album 'Kind of Blue' and, instead of resting on critical accolades and commercial success had carried on creating, exploring psychedelic 'acid' rock (the underrated 'Miles in the Sky') blues-rock (The proto-fusion of 'Bitches Brew' or 'In a Silent Way') and even playing his trumpet through a wah-wah peddle to create a Hendrix-inspired feedback effect on 'Live Evil'. THE Miles Davis had finally lost the plot, they speculated; "I love Miles, but this is where I get off" one reviewer grumbled. However, Miles' quest was motivated by art and the desire to create. That purity of vision resulted in the hypnotic, searing blast of sweaty, funky-soul that is 'On the corner' in some ways his most alternative record. Certainly one of his best.
Inspired by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, James Brown and Sly & The Family Stone (who were rocketing up the charts at the time), yet also perturbed at the way young black audiences had largely ignored jazz, Miles began crafting a record that gave these fans the type of music that was selling big and blowing minds, but gave it to them AS jazz, arguably in its original form. He was also about to step away from any significant critical or commercial success for many years, as the record was unfairly blasted by critics and purists. The accusations of 'selling out' mirror those hurled at Dylan circa 'Highway 61' and while that record catapulted its writer to even greater heights, On the Corner doomed Miles Davis for many years.
Interestingly, it wasn't jazz fans that dug this one up from the depths and resurrected it some 15 years or so after release. It was second wave punk bands, 90's Hip Hop DJs and alternative rockers who finally told the world all about this great album.
The album is extremely tightly played, and features much less of Miles' playing than one might expect. It sets about very early on creating a heavy, swirling groove which permeates the entire album and seems to surround you like a tornado of sound. It also utilizes the loud/quiet formula you will find in Sun Ra (Heliocentric world), King Crimson (Crimson King) or other Miles records of the period. It has its own heart beat that tumbles along, buoyed by sounds from seemingly ill-fitting instruments (Jingle bells???) jangly symbols and some exceptional blasts of rock n roll guitar. Very deep and murky, mysterious and otherworldly, alternative and challenging yet instantly familiar and interesting. A great experiment, a wonderful adventure to go on.
It just keeps going, a smorgasbord of sounds. A record that would predate the rise of alternative music by many, many years. Miles was simply further ahead of the curve than even he realized this time. Maybe it isn't strictly speaking a jazz record, but I'd stop before describing it as funk in the purest way or rock, or fusion, or soul...But its all in there, a cultural document with grooves saturated in prevalent thought of the time, civil rights, pan-Africanism (check the congo-ized percussion on 'Vote for Miles') politics (Mr. Freedom X) sex and free expression. While the other jazz players were sticking rigidly to formula and established patterns, Miles was reporting on the world of the time. Sticking his head out of the window, to hear the sound of the street, as he did his entire life.
This record deserves significant re-appraisal. You could start by buying it.