Miles Davis: On the Corner – jazz rewiring

In 1972, Miles Davis published In the corner— at the time when one of his worst rated, poorly received and least popular albums. Full of extended grooves, wah wah effects, synthesizer grinds and a boundary-pushing sense of urgency, it plays like a psychedelic trip through the head beyond anything resembling traditional jazz.

There are the first examples—In a silent way in 1969 and Drink of female dogs in 1970 – which marked the arrival of his fusion period, a path outside the canons he already mastered, such as bebop or his pioneer cool. Electronic instruments replaced acoustic arrangements, styles blended into each other, and composition became a piecemeal process through studio editing.

By the time he arrived at In the corner the reserve of his previous merger efforts became an afterthought. Even 50 years later, it’s not just state-of-the-art, but unmatched. The sound of Miles Davis weaving his trumpet notes – moans and purrs – against a backdrop of electric guitars, Fender pianos and springy bass lines, delivers almost an hour of music like never before.

It’s no exaggeration,” even his approach changed the landscape. His methods, beacons, charting a path for contemporary electronic music, with production techniques that still make sense, such as cut-and-paste assembly, before DAWs like Ableton, Pro Tools or Logic.

It’s a complete “tech” leap, the future on arrival, in the sense of circuits and conduits but also musically. From funk technology to band science, In the corner is visionary. And while it’s a nondescript album in many ways, genre-wise, one of the most appealing things about such bold work is that it’s easy to listen to. A Blaxploitation soundtrack on acid—Tree dosage, you dig?

The mind is primal, the root chakra punches. Mood and tension push and pull as the album throbs and throbs – a complete commitment to the beat. The density of the music, somewhat like a tip of the hat to the ideas of saxophonist/composer Ornette Coleman. A free jazz avant-garde that Miles Davis rejected at an early age, his harmolodic theory perhaps too far even for Davis when introduced. Here however, some of these concepts – equal value given to rhythm, harmony and melody – are applied. A reassessment, a wink—indeed, Ornette was onto something.

The entry is only as good as its source material and in addition to what it was able to derive from the harmolodic premise, there are other ancillary reference points. Principles from acts like Sly And The Family Stone, James Brown, arranger Paul Buckmaster and electronic composer Karlheinz Stockhausen – kaleidoscopic soul, “playing from the bottom of the band” and notions of space – are also distilled by the maestro.

From Jump, the album broods, seemingly out of nowhere, percussion and hi-hats, a looping groove then brass, solos and bluster. There are times when the music slows down, even crawls, but the majority of the song happens in high gear. The energyless burn and ladle continued, Sir Miles leading his group, pulsating. Its usual timbre is still recognizable, though steeped in wah wah, feedback and distortion. Presenting his horn in a modern context, as if to suggest that since guitars and pianos can go electric, trumpets can also plug in.

Forty-six at the time of its release, Davis sought to woo a younger audience. The one who had grown up outside of juke joints and small cafes that promoted organic jazz. The new, new—In the corner was not created with the conservative listener in mind. It’s a progressive orbit, a forward-facing LP.

It is a world in itself, supernatural — extraterrestrial. For example, how on earth did the artist who created the “cool” aesthetic get here? Freeform fusion, mixed with sitars and reverb, funk riffs and toe taps. He had changed things before, changing the direction of the sound. And it was another one of those moments. A project of demarcation, before and after, the separation between its own acoustic history and a nascent desire for amplification. He wasn’t interested in the backslide, the ties to the past were no longer in play: style, taste, rules – it all ended in the name of innovation.

No man is an island, however. And Davis had co-conspirators. Like an army of musicians, nearly two dozen, contributed to the OTC sessions. With quite a few heavyweights among them, Herbie Handcock who was going to come out Headhunters a year later, in 1973, its own merger climax and its imprint on the period. Chick Correa, a giant of a pianist with a decades-long career highlighted by more than 70 Grammy nominations and 21 total wins. Then there’s James Mtume who played percussion in the Miles band and on the album, before forming his own band, Mtume who hit the ground running in 1983 with the release of the hit single “juicy fruit.”

Mentor, virtuoso, icon, no doubt. A legit original that left us with this revolutionary game changer. An album ahead of everything, even the critics’ ability to understand it, which after careful consideration and considerable time, has received the recognition it deserves. A standalone in an out-of-competition catalog, In the corner is the sound of brilliance captured on tape.

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Ada J. Kenney