In 1972, Miles Davis took a dump on the genre known as jazz music. To some critics and purists, Davis had been a heretic since 1969’s In a Silent Way, but it wasn’t until On the Corner that the entire community collectively deemed him a lost cause. It is hard to imagine that the same artist who, more than a decade earlier, had pioneered numerous sub-genres of jazz such as hard-bob, post-bop, and modal, could be dismissed by an audience that once groveled at his feet. The common knowledge of his severe drug habits, and the degree to which he vocalized his desire to connect with an urban youth that had withdrawn from jazz into the more accessible grooves of Sly and the Family Stone, Parliament and Funkadelic and Jimi Hendrix, led to his being labelled a sellout during the late 1960s and 1970s. On the Corner was completely alien to the the initial ears it encountered. However, its influence on almost every genre other than jazz, like hip-hop, rock and electronic, is immeasurable, and today, it is regarded as one of the crowning achievements of the 1970s. It is Davis’ quintessential black album and his final studio effort (or really any kind of effort) before letting himself be consumed by the chaos of his own life.
Jazz critics took On the Corner as an insult. Worse yet, it was widely ignored by its target African-American audience, and it doesn’t take a musicologist to see why. Unlike almost every other LP that the trumpeter had released, Miles doesn’t take the time to let the smooth sound of his band warming up seduce its listener, or mesmerize them with a hypnotic melody a few times before gradually introducing the rhythm section and the rest of the instrumentation. It does not even bother with the formality of an opening drum roll. To a first-timer, the opening seconds of “On the Corner/New York Girl/Thinkin’ One Thing and Doin’ Another/Vote for Miles” are the audial equivalent to being stabbed in the gut with a broken bottle. It literally starts in the middle, with its hulking rhythm section that includes three drum kits, two other percussionists utilizing tablas, dolaks, and bongos, guitarist John McLaughlin, bassist Michael Henderson, and three keyboardists (including Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock) in full force. The percussion clashes with itself, creating a murky wall of polyrhythms pulled together by the hi-hat’s looping, double-timed phrase, a focal point in the mix for all but five of the track’s twenty-one minutes (and in all four of the songs on the album, too). The crunchy distortion of McLaughlin’s guitar adds to the tension with a jarring one-chord riff that intersects at odd intervals with what may be the funkiest one-note bassline of all time. Only upon the third or fourth listen do the keyboard layers make themselves apparent at the core of the mix, panned to the dead-center, laying down dissonant phrases that serve to give the entire track an atonal sound, even when the soloing is harmonious.
Atop, or amidst, the mayhem, the horns do their soloing. For the first two minutes, the work is done by the first of two soprano saxophones, which saves the opening measures from absolute cacophony. The smug blues phrasing of the initial solo makes this the most conventional part of the record, beyond which the brass section is relegated to schizophrenic wailing. After John McLaughlin’s identity crisis, in which he cannot figure out if he is playing rhythm or soloing, the second soprano saxophone spurts out terrified shrieks of warping dissonance before the bandleader finally decides to take the stage at the seven-minute-mark. Together with producer Teo Macero behind the boards, Davis is present throughout the entire record with his odd mixing modulations and dub-like sound effects and, during his first instrumental appearance, he takes the liberty of lowering everybody else’s volume and introducing a droning electric sitar. Similarly to his other efforts of the decade, he has completely transcended the realm of regular trumpeting and, using his distinctive wah effect to funk-up his sound, Davis delivers a haunting, vocal solo that trembles and warbles over the other players who bow in his presence. It does not last, however, and before long, the track continues in the same way that it did before. Trumpet and guitar share a solo for three minutes of the latter half of the track, in which their notes coil around each other as Davis boils like a teakettle and McLaughlin dances around the fretboard like he has eleven fingers on his left hand, and so ends Davis’ only momentous performance on the first half of the album.
In fact, much of the criticism for On the Corner is based on the fact that Miles Davis, the only man whose name made it onto the packaging of the original release, barely plays at all. But while this review up to this point has done just that, On the Corner is not a record meant to be picked apart. On the cover of 1970’s Bitches Brew, Miles Davis’ name is preceded by the words “directions in music by.” This label, which is implicit on the 1972 release, is meant to be taken both literally and metaphorically, meaning that Davis was indeed the bandleader during the sessions for each album, and the path through which he takes his players is a foreign and innovative one. None of the instrumentalists from On the Corner have complained about not receiving credit for their work, nor do they have the right to. Each instrument’s role is relatively minimal, and most of the playing is rudimentary to the point of pretension. The album’s distinctive sound comes from the way in which the personnel were arranged and from the production, both of which were masterminded by Davis.
Because he had the delusional idea that some part of On the Corner was going to be a hit, Davis intentionally used a method of production designed to sound good for AM radio, in which the stereophonic range is wide but the individual sounds are compressed. Music listened to today never employs this production technique, and neither had the 46-year old trumpeter. As a result, the rubbery sound and the lack of perceptible melody stick out just as much as the music itself. Davis also pioneered several aspects of electronic music. He and Teo Macero would glean their favorite parts of the hours-long jam-sessions and splice the tape together to create the illusion of a single performance while being eclectic in the material they chose to release. Sound effects and other effects were added in post-production, giving “Black Satin” its signature gargling noise and “Helen Butte/ Mr. Freedom X” its Fred-Flintstone-scrambling-around-sound before the final sitar freak-out. Davis goes nuts with the panning on the latter half; the soloing instruments gently glimmer from left to right channels on “Helen Butte,” and invade different ears unexpectedly and arhythmically on “One and One.” Every weird effect and strange technique seems like the product of a drug-addled fever dream, yet is retrospectively the best possible decision that could have been made (why are the sleigh-bells the loudest thing on the final track?). This is true of the condition that the players were forced to play in as well; everyone was in the same room and the drummers could not even hear themselves. It does cost them a few egregious screw-ups, but these only add to the heat of the album.
While the title and the cover art may mislead a potential listener to expect something more accessible, the album ultimately sounds exactly how it looks. The corner is Davis’ idealistic vision of where he wants to be heard, the bustling urban center where black culture simultaneously has its roots, its visions and its reality. Having experienced the corner firsthand through his years as a hustler and a pimp, Davis knows better than anybody that it is not always a pretty place. On the Corner’s warped groove endures bleak soloing, extraterrestrial manipulation and straight-up errors to perfectly replicate the messed up reality of life in the 1970s as he saw it from the window of his New York City apartment.