miles davis - jack johnson

Miles Davis: Jack Johnson (1971)

A quick one as I prepare to leave for the weekend (which means no review tomorrow…I’m okay with that). Miles Davis has always been a towering figure for me in music: he was my gateway into jazz, and his evolution served as touchpoint for my own growth as a listener. The connection to his music is even stronger now that my son joined his schools jazz ensemble and in what is now his 7th year playing trumpet opted to get his own for Christmas. So we’ve been exploring the man’s work, and today as we drove to school I put on Jack Johnson to show Davis’s skill at improvising over a repeated lick, and his use of a mute, which my son is also starting to utilize.

When it comes to Miles’s electric phase I was never one to point to Bitches Brew as the totem album, although I know for many it is. I’d rather play In A Silent Way with its more moody, ambient textures, or the straight up funk madness of On the Corner. Jack Johnson walks a middle road in my head, sticking to a more classic electric rock approach by – by using a minimal crew of five players – giving a sense of space for exploration. It helps that the players in question are stellar, including Herbie Hancock on keyboards, “Mahavishnu” John McLaughlin on guitar, and Billy Cobham on drums (we need to cover some Billy Cobham soon). I’m not as familiar with Steve Grossman on sax, but he’s been around the Miles electric crew for a while, and also played with Elvin Jones in addition to being a bandleader in his own right. Electric bassist Michael Henderson also stuck around with Miles during his electric phase, and both of them fit in seamlessly with the band as they flex some spacious, open riffs for everyone to solo over.

Only two tracks, but those tracks are mammoths, starting with Side A’s “Right Off”. Far from the freakout of some of the other albums around this time, Davis and crew feel relaxed, using this more as a jam than anything else, McLaughlin largely vamping some funk chords against Cobham and Henderson for the soloists. Listening to the extended exercises on The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions it’s hard to say why this particular track was chosen (the problem being all of the cuts are equally excellent), but besides Miles’s tone being exquisite (he solos both with and without the mute) there are some great contributions from Hancock in particular on keyboards. As the track ends and the players come together for a more expansive sound, it pays all the space off admireably.

Side B is dedicated to “Yesternow” and it’s largely the same affair, albeit with the bass providing the rhythmic layer for the improvisations. In the end it’s two tracks of relaxed jazz rock explorations, and it was a great way to connect with my son1.

1 ran out of time writing before I had to head out for the weekend. Everyone stay safe!

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