Monday, November 26, 2007

On the Corner

On the Corner is probably just about the most contentious thing Miles Davis ever did, and even now you'll still find plenty of jazz-heads who'll foam at the mouth and brain you if you even mention it, let alone suggest that it's good, or even jazz. I'm reminded of it by the fact that a big box set of the complete sessions has recently come out, and currently sits in the "highest priority" part of my Amazon wish list (hint), and that's reminded me that it's about time I pulled it off the shelf again and had another listen.

Its origins lie in Miles' realisation in the early '70s that jazz had been largely abandoned by young black kids, who were listening to Sly Stone and James Brown instead. He realised he needed to do something that would connect with them, speak to the kids on the street. So he made a funk album, of course. But being Miles, he couldn't make any old Stone-derived sound. He needed to bring something new to the party. And what he decided was the killer concept, that would bring his sound to the kids on the street was the ideas and processes of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Well, obviously.

I remember when I was a teenager first listening to Miles, and finding things like Bitches Brew bewildering, in a way probably only matched by Trout Mask Replica, another album it took me a long time to get my head round. But I always felt there was something in them, something that was just out of reach, that I needed to keep digging and find. Anything of real worth requires effort, because the effort makes the reward that much sweeter. So when Miles decides that what funk-jazz needs is the influence of the German avant-garde, god dammit, you've just got to go with it, because in the end you'll see he's right.

What Miles specifically takes from Stockhausen is his concept of space. On the Corner is an album that isn't much concerned with harmonic progressions, being on the surface a sequence of one-chord jams (or to be more accurate, cut and paste collages derived from one-chord jams). It's in the placing of the sounds that it gets its power, taking what could almost be described as a pointillist approach, short staccato phrases juxtaposed in varying combinations, never resting, always moving, but also static, creating a real sense of an environment in which we stay for a while. I'm reminded of the way Birtwistle describes many of his works, in terms of a single unchanging object viewed from changing perspectives.

If this sounds dauntingly intellectual, the effect on the ear is visceral and immediate (as is the actual music of Stockhausen and Birtwistle, if you ignore all the talking about it and just listen). Those foam-mouthed jazz-heads need to open up their perspectives and stop worrying about whether this is jazz or not. It's an extraordinary record that even now sounds like something that arrived in our midst from outer space.

Oh, did I mention that it's also damn funky?

1 comment:

Indy Datta said...

Coincidentally, I was listening to this on my iPod the other day as I was out and about. It is, indeed, as phonky as shit.