MILES DAVIS, On The Corner
Melody Maker, 1990
In the late Sixties, the influence of the counter culture percolated into Miles Davis' music. In A Silent Way was jazz's answer to Hendrix' "1983, A Merman I Should Turn To Be", a beatific lagoon of serenity. On 1970's Bitches Brew, oceanic rock turned murky and miasmic; Miles' labyrinth of chthonic catacombs perfectly caught the era's apocalyptic aura. The Sixties drive to "break on through" had unleashed terrifying voodoo forces; venture too far into the unknown, shed too many repressions, and you risk psychosis, the loss of the brakes and boundaries that make you human.
By 1972's On The Corner, the counter culture's boundless psychic spaces had suffered contraction. On The Corner is implosive, seething with volcanic but caged energies: it's jazz's answer to There's A Riot Goin' On. In the funk of Sly Stone and James Brown, Miles found a perfect musical analogue for the early Seventies 'the world is a ghetto' vibe. The bulk of the album consists of feverish, minimal-is-maximal varations around a single bass and guitar riff. The sulphurous fizz of the polyrhythms, the viscous malignancy of the bass, rhythm guitar that etches livid weals in your frontal lobes, wah-wah riffs that coil and bristle like rattlesnakes, or choke on their own venom: this is the sound of paranoia, totally wired, uptight, and coked to the gills. You feel like the air's burning in your lungs, like your heart's hammering against your ribcage and your nerves have turned to cheesewire.
Sometimes the feeding frenzy of sound subsides into a morass of despondency; Miles' trumpet gropes through dank chambers of the soul, inscribing cryptic hieroglyphs of despair on the dungeon walls. "Vote For Miles" is a unhinged sprawl of Indian raga drones, strangulated wah-wah paroxyms reminiscent of Loop's "Thief Of Fire", random volcanic-mud squelches of funk bass. On "Black Satin", a jaunty horn motif sashays with the murderous nonchalance of a whistling pimp; underneath the deadly cool, percussion simmers like a pressure cooker; overlapping waves of handclaps and tambourine veer up to smack you round the chops.
Like Bitches Brew, Dark Magus, Get Up With It and other Miles albums from this supremely fertile and fetid period, On The Corner combines a sense of claustrophobia and oppressive density with ominous space and unfathomable depths. This music has the listener's faculties reeling in paradox: entrapment and liberation, dread and rapture, agony and ecstasy. On The Corner is one of the dozen albums (for a list, send a SAE) that anyone interested in the outer limits should own, or be owned by. Because it cleaves closest of Miles' masterworks to funk groove and rock impact (Davis was trying to reach out to a young black audience), it's easy for the jazz novice to get into. But once you're into it, it'll take you as far out as anything Davis (or anybody else) ever recorded.