50 Years Later: Revisiting Miles Davis’ Musically Dynamic ‘(A Tribute To) Jack Johnson’

In a 1969 interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, Miles Davis was quoted as saying, in the man’s customarily declarative tone: “I could put together the greatest rock and roll band you ever heard.” (A Tribute To) Jack Johnson (released 3/24/71) may not feature that hypothetical ensemble, but this now half-decade-old album is arguably the late jazz icon’s most aggressive foray into the jazz-rock fusion field he opened up with Bitches Brew (later releases like Pangaea might rival its hard-hitting nature). 

Recorded from February to March of 1970 with a shifting roster of musicians, the album was released the next year with just two tracks filling the sides of a vinyl LP (a wholly different cover appeared on subsequent editions). 2003’s The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions is a five-CD set that derives its increased impact from its curators enlarging upon the music that first came out; the content of the box, one of the lavishly-annotated, metal-bound packages originally released from 1996-2007 (then reissued in 2010), effectively presents an alternate and expanded edition of the half-century-old record. 

As such, it becomes a listening experience proportionately deeper and more satisfying for its expansion to roughly six hours of music. Heard at the very end of the last disc, however, “Right Off” and “Yesternow” still constitute a remarkable distillation of imagination and technical expertise; nine minutes of the latter cut, for instance, are condensed from five takes of a tune called “Willie Nelson.” Elsewhere, similarly, rollicking romps segue into more reflective intervals, thereby proffering the main revelation within this landmark title: how Miles absorbed the influences of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone in order to make music as much for the body as the head.

In keeping with Davis’ touring groups of the time, the corps of accompanists on Jack Johnson (annotated in detail in the box set) is veritable who’s who of modern jazz. On the appropriately-titled “Go Ahead John” and elsewhere, Guitarist John McLaughlin gets free rein to continually comp and solo with new-found, often distorted bite: it is quite dissimilar to the streamlined tone he used on 1969’s  In A Silent Way. Meanwhile, for “Right Off,” Herbie Hancock unreels long lines from a Farfisa organ.  During “Honky Tonk” and “Ali,” keyboardist Keith Jarrett spends some of his final times on electric instruments, while Chick Corea is embarking on his adventures with synthesizers for “The Mask.” 

Such intense, perpetual motion can fully envelop and transport any open-minded listener, but probably no more so than the players themselves. Deeply immersed in the moment(s) as they no doubt all were, The Man With The Horn” is always the focal point of this music’s creation, even if, for prolonged intervals, his presence remains at only a subliminal level. Still, his accents and asides on “Little Church” (which ended up part of Live/Evil), give direction and purpose to the playing, so that, along with the (post-) production techniques of producer Teo Macero and engineer Stan Tonkel, the palpable sense of adventure within the musicianship never dissipates.  

As a direct result of such collective expertise, Jack Johnson effectively defines the stages of musical dynamics. The musicians establish the terms of their instrumental dialogue(s) early on within extended takes such as “Konda,” then engage in that esoteric means of communication that verges on telepathy. Not surprisingly, that progression, particularly as it takes place over the elongated course of the vault title, is much like a fighter setting up his opponent through a series of gestures inevitably leading to a knockout. 

Little wonder Miles saw such commonality between the crafts of boxing and music-making (during this period of his life, he regularly spent time in the ring as a means of physical conditioning). Or that he readily identified with the subject of a film documentary (utilizing this music) based on the life of fighter Johnson, as flamboyant a personality as the jazz icon himself. With the benefit of hindsight now, it seems almost inevitable Davis would make A Tribute to Jack Johnson, an album that radiates as much physicality as intellect.

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