(All Album Reviews by Chuck AzEee!)
The great and mercurial Miles Davis is at it again, creating an album of just two side long jams, but boy were they some good ones.
Originally music that was to provide a soundtrack to the "Jack Johnson" movie, the album is to "modern" for its own good. Most of the personnel of Miles' groundbreaking Bitches Brew sessions were on their way to paving new ground in their own bands, but three hold overs (Billy Cobham on drums, Jack McGlauglin on guitar and Herbie Hancock on the Fender Rhodes) are joined by Miles, Steve Grossman on Soprano Sax and the much maligned, and underrated groovester, Mike Henderson, groove their way around two of the greatest tracks of the entire Jazz-rock genre.
First side or track one, "Rightoff" is a powerful jam, which only hints at the power that this particular lineup was capable of. More rock-oriented than it is jazz, "Rightoff" is a powerful statement which at the time served as the coming of one of the greatest drummers of the genre, Billy Cobham. Billy's dexterous drumming is held down smoothly with Mike's silky smooth bass lines converging on a funky foundation, everyone else to join in. Herbie Hancock, freed of the multi-keyboarding of the previous two studio albums (Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way) is free to provide a virtuoso counterbalance to the firebranding licks of guitar great, John McGlauglin.
Miles Davis is his usual self, in a setting which perfectly suited to his trumpet phrasing. Steve Grossman, another severely underrated musician, adds his own unique soprano work which is just perfect. And that is just the first song!
Track two, "Yesternow" is where Miles and Teo get things right, more of a song that creeps along, but builds momentum and then all of a sudden is spliced into an abridged version of "Shh/Peaceful" and once that is over, the band pulls out the "Sly and The Family Stone" funk grooves, which then ends with a creepy voice..........
Typical Miles, and in my opinion the greatest jazz-rock album that Miles Davis ever did.
A Tribute to Jack Johnson is one of the earliest of Miles Davis' so-called "electric" or fusion albums. It came only about a year after the massively influential and huge-selling Bitches Brew (400,000 copies the first year) and preceded all the other monstrous double albums that would characterize so much of Davis' '70s output. At first glance, Jack Johnson almost doesn't seem to be in the same category with these albums. The freaky cover art, 11-piece bands and platform shoes that featured in one way or another on many of those albums are all absent here. One could say Jack Johnson is like a last look back at the old Miles before the man dove head first into the avant-garde acid funk of his next several albums. That's not to say this is not a very progressive album, however. To listen to Jack Johnson is tantamount to witnessing the very birth of jazz-rock. Bitches Brew may have been electric, but the rock element in it was still rather diluted when compared to Jack Johnson. This album is an unabashed manifesto of what one could expect to come out of the next several years of jazz fusion, but this was just the beginning.
Davis' trumpet playing on this album is cleaner, tighter and more energetic than much of he would do for the next five years. Subsequent releases found Davis acting more and more as a bandleader and a multi-instrumentalist. On Jack Johnson, he still seems content to just be one of the greatest trumpet players in the world. Davis' backing band is lean and mean here too. Herbie Hancock (keyboards), John McLaughlin (guitar), Steve Grossman (sax), Billy Cobham (drums) and Michael Henderson (bass) form a rock-solid group of just the essentials. The cacophonous polyrhythms and wall-of-fuzz guitar solos of future albums had not crept in yet, so as good as those albums are in their own ways, this can seem like a breath of fresh air in comparison.
A Tribute to Jack Johnson is a single record containing two sidelong tracks. "Right Off" - as opposed to "right on" - is a mid tempo rocker that swings just a bit. John McLaughlin practically owns the track with his inspired, yet uncharacteristically restrained rhythm guitar that is equal parts rock muscle and jazz sophistication. He keeps things moving nicely while Davis, Grossman and Hancock offer up a series of long solos for trumpet, sax and organ. Towards the end he leads the band through some unpredictable key and rhythm changes that take the piece in a new direction and then bring it back full-circle to the same riff with which he opened the track. McLaughlin caps it all off with a wonderfully searing solo.
Somewhere in the middle of this track producer Teo Macero interrupts the groove by interjecting a brief snippet of some other Davis recording (a smoky trumpet solo), presumably to keep things from getting monotonous, but this actually seems somewhat unnecessary. This is minor complaint, however.
Side two is "Yesternow," whose title is another wordplay. This is a more subdued, atmospheric piece than the first. It's not quite a great as "Right Off," but it still grooves nicely while incorporating varying rhythms and riffs throughout its duration. Once again, Teo Macero feels he has to fade in a completely different piece of music during the proceedings. This time, strangely enough, it's actually a short section of "Shh/Peaceful" from In a Silent Way. This fits in better than the first track's interjection, but the logic for this kind of cut-and-pastery is again elusive. The piece fades out slowly and falsely with some weird analog delay feedback-type noises slowly creeping in.
It bears mentioning that A Tribute to Jack Johnson is the soundtrack to a film of the same name about the 1908 heavyweight-boxing champion. The final seconds of the album are comprised of words that are supposed to be Jack Johnson's, but could very well be construed as the mission statement for Miles Davis' music of the '70s: "I'm black, they never let me forget it. I'm black alright, I'll never let them forget it."
A Tribute to Jack Johnson can actually seem slightly tame when compared to what would follow, but it is almost uniformly excellent and comes highly recommended as a starting point for Davis' fertile fusion period.