Saturday, November 24, 2007
THE COMPLETE ON THE CORNER SESSIONS, PT. 2: CUTTING AN EARTHWORM IN HALF WITH A BUTTER KNIFE.
Me and OtC have always had stand-offish relationship and--in fifteen years of taking a run at the album every six months or so--I've only marginally softened my view. The 20-miunte long On the Corner opening suite? Terrible. Categorically unlistenable. No high points, just low points, no depth, a third of an hour of sheer uncomfortable noise, like someone dumping roofing nails onto a plate glass window. Black Satin? Fun but kind of cartoonish, very much like the cover of the album. One and One? Pointless. Helen Butte? It has some moments but--at sixteen minutes--it's often difficult to sit through. Mr. Freedom X is the only song truly redemptive song on the album--eight minutes of bizarre space funk...completely unlike anything else I've ever heard before or since. But--with this dismissal in mind--you know what I find shocking? My favorite post-Bitches Brew album is Live In Concert which is a live recording comprised of material from OtC. Taut, motile and supple. How is it that the same material sounded so frantically goddamn dead in the studio? I was hoping the On The Corner boxset could help me figure this out.
Oddly, enough it does. The unreleased tracks (most of the first three discs of the set) from 1972 and very early '73--The Hen, Chieftain, One and One (Unedited Master), On the Corner (Take 4), etc.--showcase the band as they sound on the In Concert album: furious, tight, and claustrophobic. It's a wonder that OtC was released as it was with so much stronger material at hand. This band sound almost pornographically frantic, raunchy and raw. And, really, there is something startlingly pornographic about the music--and it's not just the chicka-wacka guitars either. It somehow illicits the same mildly repulsed yet undeniably fascinated response that hardcore porn does. (I mean, I like hardcore porn but you might not.) In fact, there's even a song on the set called Rated X: Miles was surely tuned into the aesthetic.
I refuse to call the OtC music bad. I could call it horrible (and, probably, rightly so) but I won't. The influences point directly toward James Brown and his rhythm section. But Miles takes it even further by stripping away almost all melody and and harmony so that little else but rhythm remains. The effect is hypnotic, weird, and oppressive. However, as this is not a jazz band (yes, I know it's not SUPPOSED to be) and that makes the music difficult to parse and a very slippery conscious listen. It lacks a lot of the signifiers of both jazz and funk yet manages to be both somehow. The history and sound of jazz is trashed while retaining it's essence: pure improvisation. The ideas of funk and rock are retooled as well, casting aside all individual theatrical affect and popular accessibility for an almost hostile group cohesion.There are very few landmarks for the listener to gauge--no head arrangement, no set melody (in most cases), no solo(s) in the traditional sense, no tonal color, and a extremely limited dynamic. There are very few quiet moment. Bitches Brew was a journey though a vast landscape; OtC is a walk down an narrow alley struck with lurid, violent murals. There are also thugs, hookers and pimps loitering in this alley, waiting to take your few last greasy dollar bills.
The songs generally consist of endless and almost unvarying drum and bass vamps which everyone in the band bounces off of. More often than not, Miles pushes the sax player (Dave Liebman in most cases) to take the first solo. The band mugs Liebman, cuts him to shreds....and then Miles steps in--the black-velvet clad Prince of Darkness--and takes control of the situation. In the past, his saxophone players--Coltrane, Wayne Shorter--acted as a filagreed, secondary foil to his primary poetic spareness. Here they act as slack meat to sate the appetite of the performing tigers before Miles comes into the cage and makes them sway and dance and clap their hirsute paws and whatnot.
*Postscript: The lapidiary examples on the OtC section of the boxset (and there are far more than on the other boxsets) are 1.) Chieftain. It's fifteen minutes of colorlessness based around a one-note bass thump, one wah-wah-ed guitar chord, and the endless five-beat clacking drum-shell rhythm. The only dynamic comes from the accenting drone of sitar and tabla, and from Miles--who solos for most of the quarter-hour, which is impressive considering the 30+years of hush and parsimony he'd exhibited until then. A very strange piece of music, one that's almost impossible to emulate. 2.) One The Corner (Take 4) I didn't care for it at first but it's burned a place in my brain. John McLaughlin's squirmy, hesitant guitar solos are the main feature, and have--after repeated listenings-driven me to conclude this song (and most of the early music on OtC) can be summed up with the following analogy: listening to this music is like watching someone trying to cut an earthworm in half with a butter knife. 3. One and One (Unedited Master). This is best example of Miles's esthetic from this era. Great funky bass that I never get tired of hearing, huge drums, all of the sidemen laying a complicated mosaic of color and rhythm. One and One is about as close as this band gets to creating the kind of dynamic found on Spanish Key and Miles Runs the Voodoo Down (god, I hate that title) from Bitches Brew.