By the 1960’s, thanks to the likes of Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Sun Ra, jazz was beginning to drift into outer space, becoming ever weirder and bolder. Miles Davis, still a pioneer in his own right, began thinking about incorporating other elements into his music, namely the Fender-Rhodes electric piano and electric guitar, something almost unheard of in the world of jazz. And while many of Miles’ contemporaries were breaking new ground of their own, little did they realise that Davis was on the verge of tearing up the rule book completely, and on the cusp of developing a whole new kind of music, one that had never been attempted before. Albums such as In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew would prove to be mere launching pads to what Miles was about to unleash.
Increasingly inspired by funk and rock, both he and Jimi Hendrix had been spending time together throughout 1969, hanging out and even sharing ideas (regrettably no studio sessions were ever attempted). And while arrangements had been made for the two to collaborate on a live album, sadly the guitarist passed away shortly before rehearsals were due to take place. Still, there was always John McLaughlin, an extremely versatile and gifted guitarist in his own right, who was no stranger to Davis, having played and recorded on several of the trumpeter’s LPs already.
Now for anyone looking for any kind of clue as to what a Miles/Hendrix collaboration might have resembled, one has to look no further than A Tribute To Jack Johnson, a soundtrack dedicated to the often flamboyant black heavy weight boxing champion of the early 20th Century.
Along from McLaughlin, Davis recruited Michael Henderson, an 18 year old bass prodigy, drummer Billy Cobham, Herbie Hancock on organ and Steve Grossman on tenor saxophone.
The first side gets off to a funky, muscular start with “Right Off” (as opposed to Right On), on which McLaughlin absolutely shines, whose ferocious, whipper-snapper wah wah riffs remain some of his grittiest, dirtiest ever. Cobham and Henderson hold down the groove, while Miles flits in and out like a pugilistic poltergeist determined to make its presence felt. If ever Miles wanted to estrange himself from the relatively snobbish jazz community on Jack Johnson he succeeded with aplomb. And at over 26 minutes, this would have to be one of the longest instrumentals ever put to a single side of vinyl.
“Yesternow” (instead of yesterday) is another lengthy atmospheric workout that slowly builds noodles and meanders around the room, but is never boring. Miles lets out some of his trademark solos, while McLaughlin’s understated guitar adds extra colour and texture. About half way through, producer Teo Maceo inserted a fragment recorded during sessions for In A Silent Way, adding additional depth and dimension, before McLaughlin turns up his amp and lays down some of the filthiest funkiest sounds the guitarist ever put to tape.
Like Bitches Brew before it, A Tribute To Jack Johnson was another bold statement by an artist not afraid to point his middle finger at the jazz establishment, or any establishment for that matter. By 1971, when this album was released, Davis was no longer the same man who recorded Birth of the Cool and Sketches of Spain. It was also the first LP on which the trumpeter deliberately distanced himself ever further from his own generation of musicians, and chose to embrace a younger predominately rock oriented audience, as evidenced by performing at such venues as Bill Graham’s The Fillmore East (and West), as well as England’s 1970 Isle of Wight festival (Hendrix’s last major concert appearance). From here on, the Miles Mothership had well and truly taken off, whose mission was to boldly go where no jazz musician had gone before. Looking back after all these years, we can merely marvel at his discoveries.