Miles Davis lost a lot of fans with Bitches Brew, and even more with what came after. But seeing as how at least one of the records from his controversial ’70-’74 period is now being held up in some circles as a precursor to hip-hop, jungle and a slew of other currently fashionable styles (and all three of the albums are currently being called, ahem, “seminal” by many of the same publications that once roundly trashed them), perhaps the fans he gained with Big Fun, On the Corner and Get Up With It were more important in the long run. And thanks to the nitre-chipping elves at work in the jazz vaults at Columbia Records, you can now pick up all three works in digitally polished re-issue plus 45 minutes of previously unreleased material with one easy trip to the record store.
A good place to start is Big Fun, which originally appeared in 1974 as a two-LP collection of oddments from recording sessions mostly around the time of Bitches Brew. The sprawling “Great Expectations” gets things underway, unfolding in a series of cycles anchored by a thick, dark Harvey Brooks bassline that skulks underneath a low cloud of percussion, electrified squawks and ethereal echoes drifting to center and out again. Droning lines of trumpet and Bennie Maupin’s bass clarinet periodically clear out the dark ferment of colors that collects in the cut as each cycle ends and commences again with the tsst of a hi-hat. The last half of the 27-minute track (there’s a reason these four album sides never found a home on previous releases) features mostly wide strokes of long tones (again by Davis, Maupin and soprano saxophonist Steve Grossman) with quiet spaces of electric sitar and electric piano that suggest hazy temples and the Blade Runner-era atmospherics of Greek composer Vangelis.
The other three original tracks on Big Fun are still problematic for various reasons, e.g. the endurance-testing bassline of “Ife” and the infuriating channel panning on “Go Ahead John” that makes guitarist John McLaughlin’s remarkably ugly solo uglier still. The four bonus tracks each have something to recommend them (especially the haunting “Recollections”), but ultimately there might be just a hair too much space in this collection to keep any but the keenest of Davis fans on tenterhooks for the well over two hours it takes to get through it.
Move on to the short, sharp shock of On the Corner, perhaps the most widely reviled Davis album ever. Without a hint of foreplay, the album drops you smack into a profane melee of abrupt tape edits, relentless bass ostinatos, wah-wah trumpet, raunchy guitar, looped drum tracks and soloists constantly elbowing in and out. Considering the album’s utter disregard for convention and politesse, little surprise that so many conservative jazz tastemakers, still smarting from the purist apostasies of the three years previous, gave it such a drubbing on its release in 1972. Slightly more surprising is how even the self-assigned avant-garde attacked its perceived lack of direction and structure—even avant-idiot Eugene Chadbourne derided On the Corner as “pure arrogance” when it came out, likening it to “coming home and finding Miles there, his fancy feet up on your favorite chair.” (Chadbourne, on the other hand, would have been busy peeing in your ice cube trays. Talk about the pot calling the kettle, well, you know.) On the Corner may seem aimless and dissolute alongside even the flawed Big Fun, but where it errs at least it errs with style. Davis did indeed release this demonic blast of funk with the intention of getting across to young black people; for such a calculated sellout move, though, it’s a more demanding listen than anything funk heavies like James Brown were putting out at the time. Check out that chorus of sleighbells and hand-claps on “Black Satin!” Davis flew his detail-fixated critics the bird by omitting personnel from the liner notes of the original release; the restored roster—of known quantities like Jack DeJohnette, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Michael Henderson—does little to dispel the malevolent haze that still hangs over this album.
Sales and critical reception of 1974’s Get Up With It, another collection of outtakes from various sessions in the four years previous, were apparently so disappointing that Columbia didn’t even consider polishing it up for domestic re-release when they digitized the rest of the Miles Davis catalogue. The two-LP set has drifted in and out of print on compact disc for several years on Columbia’s licensees abroad, but a long-overdue digital remastering of this official re-release has now done much to lift and separate, as it were, the component parts of both dense jams like “Calypso Frelimo,” and “Mtume,” and of quiet ruminations like “He Loved Him Madly.” Interestingly, some of the tracks contain no trumpet at all; Davis was well on his way to an early retirement in 1975 and had begun to rely on dissonant keyboard pounding to lead big ensembles. This new “voice” is used to chilling effect on the black-assed obeah of “Rated X,” which sounds like a smacked-up Davis leaning on the organ with his entire forearm. Listen to this track last. Two albums would follow Get Up With It, but the jaw-clenching “Rated X” still sounds like the perfect last word for a dark magus in seclusion.