When it hit the streets in 1972, On the Corner was, to paraphrase James Brown, the new, new, super-heavy funk. One step beyond the already mindblowing electrification project that was Bitches Brew, this was Miles Davis’ boldest, blackest recording yet. And it still is. Underrated even by critics who defended the trumpeter’s transformation from the modal genius of the mid-1960s to the switched-on starchild of the ’70s, On the Corner was a festering soup of sonic experimentation that was all about collective jamming and deep amorphous polyrhythms. Open-ended sessions, shot through with a potent, R&B-influenced pulse, psychedelic vibes, grinding organ and dancing tables, were radically edited into form by producer Teo Macero – extrapolating the improvisatory impulse of jazz into the computer-lab world of electronic music.
The Sly-Stone-Meets-Stockhausen mash-up was several galaxies far removed from the music Davis made indelible in the late 1950s – beginning with Kind of Blue, through several Gil Evans collaborations, and onto his latter-day supergroup with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Tony Williams, who all followed their leader into the brave new world of jazz-rock fusion. Critics argue that the movement was a dead-end for jazz, and it’s hard to argue away the fact that, aside from a few amazing albums, a lot of what came in the wake of Davis’ new sound was stridently commercial schlock. But what’s heard here isn’t a cul-de-sac, it’s a visionary path to the future of popular music. Like some protean fungi sprouting from a stump in the Rain Forest, the music has seeped into the post-1970s consciousness that shaped disco and dub, ambient and trip-hop, and the outré chic mixes of avant-ribshack producers like Timbaland and the Neptunes. At least, that’s what it sounds like now. What it sounded like then (or close, I think I first heard On the Corner in 1978, which may or may not have been more impressively dense and wild under the frequent influence of hallucinogens) was something like a thick syrup crawling with bees, or sweat dripping off of a provocatively naked thigh, or a lucid dream in a cybernetic jungle.
These six CDs are a map through a hypnotic thicket, offering a chronological survey of the sessions that yielded Corner and subsequent studio albums (Big Fun, Get Up With It) leading up to Davis’ retirement in late 1975. Though Davis would return in 1981, these are his last records that matter. Tracks like “Helen Butte/Mr. Freedom X” and “Black Satin” are at once bad-ass and immaculate, cosmic and streetwise: these stoned-out grooves suspend time. Fret-freaks will grab this to hear legendary guitarist Pete Cosey’s contributions, while connoisseurs of spectral funk will dig into the half-hour dirge “He Loved Him Madly,” a meditation on the death of Duke Ellington that might as easily be a eulogy for jazz itself. Columbia’s vaults may have given up the last of its Milesian ghosts with this extravagantly packaged metal box (with tactile facsimiles of the ghetto cartoon characters Davis inked for the original album cover). The eighth and final set sends out the archival series with a big bang.