“There are two kinds of influences; one is a direct influence. The other is what I call programmatic influence. . . . On the Corner . . . all that shit was programmatic influence. ‘Cause you can’t really measure how far it spreads. . . . It affected the next generation of artists, from Mos Def to Santana to De la Soul. . . . There’s no ruler to measure that inch.” ~James “Mtume” Heath
Critics often argue about the importance of Miles Davis’s albums from his late-’60s addition of electric instruments to his mid-’70s semi-retirement. Was 1970’s Bitches Brew the first true fusion record? Isn’t 1969’s In a Silent Way the true precursor to fusion because of its arrangements, instrumentation and studio techniques? Perhaps 1968’s Miles in the Sky deserves greater recognition for its use of electric instruments? As entertaining as this exercise may be for pundits, one point seems oft forgotten: how ripe with ideas each of these records was. At this point, the jazz icon and pioneer could have rested comfortably as the genre’s (arguably) greatest commercial success(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kind_of_Blue). However, Davis deliberately pushed further into the unknown. In this period he produced albums that may have been purchased or shared in diminishing numbers, but they stirred an unprecedented amount of conversation.
For what it’s worth, then, 1972’s On the Corner may be one of Davis’s least-listened-to yet most-talked-about records. From a historic standpoint, it is notable for being one of Davis’s last proper albums until the musician’s reemergence from retirement in the ’80s (1974’s Big Fun and 1975’s Get Up With It were collections more than coherent records). However, On the Corner is also a pinnacle of Davis and producer Teo Macero’s use of the studio as a music-making tool. Much like the pair’s “format” of editing, looping, applying effects and generally throwing the rulebook out the window on Bitches Brew, the two apparently set out to burn the book’s remains on On the Corner.
The process of reaching that point is the subject of The Complete On the Corner Sessions. This six-disc set exhaustively documents the recording sessions related to and spun off from this milestone. Although the album has often been cited as an influence in hip-hop and electronic music, the reissue’s inclusion of unedited master takes make explicit the extent of tape loops, studio effects and “production” techniques employed. For example, the title track sputters and spurts in a honking frenzy in untouched form but is edited down to a molasses of funk and squelches. Included then is the album’s principal “source material” of two recording dates in early June, along with “follow-up” dates from the next two years. Davis’s well-oiled nonet performs throughout with his trademark wrenches-in-the-engine — Stevie Wonder-alumnus/bass guitarist Michael Henderson and percussionist James “Soon-to-be-Juicy-Fruit” “Mtume” Heath were hired as a deliberate affront to jazz standards; cellist, arranger and composer Paul Buckmaster, known for his collaborations with Elton John as well as prog-rock groups Third Ear Band and Nucleus, came from the U.K. with a head full of ideas and a suitcase full of Stockhausen records — from lead sheets that Tom Terrell describes in the extensive liner notes as being “more akin to a Rube Goldberg hieroglyph.” Though On the Corner‘s original four tracks (two of which are roughly twenty minutes long) are frequently described as funky or compared to Sly & the Family Stone, the boxed set treats the album like an entirely distinct beast — funky without being restrained to the blues, and sounding circa Riot Sly, sans pop structure — and makes Bitches Brew sound almost conventional.
Admittedly, The Complete On the Corner Sessions confirms some of the album’s weaknesses, particularly its tendency to be heady and insular. Six discs of dense material makes you feel fortunate that Macero and Davis took the time to filter through the tapes. And although fancy packaging and endless essays by Davis compatriots (Buckmaster) and scholars (Terrell and Bob Belden) are boxed set de rigeur, a more appropriate bell/whistle would have been isolated tracks for aspiring producers to remix/edit/sample. However, the set also demonstrates the creative virility Davis experienced at a time when most artists fall victim to habit. If this set is truly the last of Columbia’s Davis boxed set series, it certainly solidifies the bookend to one of Davis’s many accomplishments.