After the groundbreaking albums, In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, introduced yet another phase of trumpeter Miles Davis' remarkable career by launching fully into electronic instrumentation, the next album, 1971's A Tribute to Jack Johnson, which served as a soundtrack to a little-seen documentary about the great African-American boxer from the early 20th century, was poorly promoted by Columbia Records, which chose to devote resources to pushing another Davis record, the Live at the Fillmore East set, and did not sell as well as its predecessors.
Yet, Jack Johnson has attributes to it that make it a compelling continuation in Davis' development with improvisation through jazz, funk, electronic sound, and other elements. And, as many reviewers have noted, though the ensemble playing in the aforementioned albums was excellent and Teo Macero's distinctive editing was remarkable, Davis' playing on Jack Johnson was probably better. As importantly, the phenomenal guitarist John McLaughlin made some searing contributions that are notable sonic counterpoints (always a crucial dynamic in Miles' career) to the leader's trumpet. The rest of the band, including Herbie Hancock on organ (no piano playing here), Michael Henderson on electric bass, drummer Billy Cobham, and young soprano sax player Steve Grossman, performs with great style and interconnectedness.
This is all the remarkable because the recording for the album began at an April 1970 session with the leader arriving late, so McLaughlin began to improvise some riffs and Henderson and Cobham quickly jumped in to provide rhythmic support. Hancock, who had left Davis' band some time before, happened to be at the studio carrying a bag of groceries and was asked to sit at the Farfisa organ and start playing, though he resisted at first. Finally Miles came in and, highly impressed by the jamming, quickly got his trumpet together and joined in. After some major editing by Macero, including lifting material recorded in late 1969 and working on several takes in the main sesion, a 27-minute track called "Right Off" was assembled.
This was followed by another composite of different takes, skillfully edited by Macero with approval from Davis, called "Yesternow" and running only slightly shorter at 25 1/2 minutes. Riffing off the bass line of James Brown's famed "Say It Loud—I'm Black and I'm Proud", as well as recycling a small section of In a Silent Way's "Shhh/It's Peaceful," nearly half of the length of the track was lifted from a piece called "Willie Nelson." This excerpt, however, featured other musicians who were not credited on the album. These included bass clarinet player Bennie Maupin, who was so notable on Bitches Brew, electric pianist Chick Corea, bassist Dave Holland, drummer Jack deJohnette, and guitarist Sonny Sharrock.
Years later, the album was finally recognized by fans, critics and musicians for its excellent level of playing and innovative editing, as well as for the important Davis placed on recognizing Johnson as a man of black power long before the movement of that name.
When Columbia began its fantastic series of complete sessions box sets for Miles, its installment released in 2003 for the Jack Johnson period proved to be one that was revelatory because it mined the various takes that not only led to the creation of the heavily-edited albim, but cotemporaneous sessions that included much unreleased material and tracks that appeared on other records, such as the follow-up, Live-Evil, and 1974's Big Fun.
Still, it is five discs crammed with material and you'd have to be a serious Miles fan to even consider acquiring the box. But, for those who do, there are remarkable moments throughout. One is the pre-edited versions of "Go Ahead John," which, when it appeared on Big Fun, had been processed by Macero so that the guitar and drums were manipulated and then panned back and forth on both channels. It likely seemed super-innovative at the time, but the original heard as recorded on this set shows far more clearly that McLaughlin was truly unique in his playing and could deliver very powerful, heavy and blistering runs that just weren't heard before or since. Even more killer are minutes of his performances on "Right Off" that were cut from the original album and the wailing and fuzz-box skronk elicited an admiring comment from Davis that there was "some nasty shit" that the guitarist laid down.
Another great discovery is the amazing playing of the largely-unknown Sonny Sharrock, who was likely invited because he seemed as close to Jimi Hendrix, whom Miles greatly admired and planned to work with before the rock god's death several months later, as could be found. Actually, Sharrock was a masterful slide player and his work on "Willie Nelson" is a great example of that, though interested listeners can hear much more of that in Sharrock's later solo work and with the mind-pummeling Last Exit in the late 80s and early 90s.
Discs 3 and 4 has material that appeared in Live-Evil and features two versions of "Honky Tonk" and some short, haunting and beautiful pieces by Hermeto Pascoal, a Brazilian musician, such as "Little Church" and "Nem un Talvez" that proved to be good mood pieces to break up the intensity of other tracks. The last disc has a two-part previously unreleased piece called "The Mask" before the album versions of "Right Off" and "Yesternow" appear.
Even though there are sometimes three, four, and even six versions of certain tracks, it is fascinating to hear the process of how Davis and Macero worked to take extended versions and different takes and then carefully edit them down to the final tracks that were released. Any given listener could probably think of many portions that were left on the cutting room floor and which could have/should have been left in.
But, for true Miles fanatics, especially those who like his so-called "fusion" period, patience and careful listening can reveal so many amazing aspects of the recording process and elements of excellent music that, as with the unfortunate excising of Sharrock's contributions, was left behind. The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions is a lot of music to take in, but even listening to a disc at a time over, say, a week span, is an exercise in hearing a great musician and a sympathetic producer create some of the most memorable music of the era.