Today I listened to this album in the car with my recording-arts mentor. As we drove back from his studio in Morgan Hill, CA I remembered that the last time I had played a CD in his car it was the Minutemen’s Double Nickels On the Dime. I was amused briefly to realize the near total opposition of the two: the Minutemen album was seventy-five minutes long, filled to the absolute brim with forty-three little M-80 blasts, each about ninety seconds in length; Davis’ was a single record which staggered under the weight of two slablike tracks, each between twenty-five and twenty-seven minutes long. Double Nickels was composed of funk-rock that attempted to pass as jazz; Jack Johnson was a summit of jazz and fusion masters who had come together to play funk and rock and roll. I grow away from the former and towards the latter.
I don’t like Bitches Brew either. I listened to that rotten soup of good intentions for a year without making any headway, and the only track I ever enjoyed in part was “Pharaoh’s Dance.” Ultimately I have shelved it; perhaps I will return. Probably not. (My insincere apologies to Greg Tate, who wrote so lovingly of the Bad Brains: I like some of what you like. Other stuff, not really.)
Anyway, the backing band for this earth scorcher is one of the first reasons I saw fit to invest in it. John McLaughlin, perhaps my personal favorite guitarist, gets chances aplenty to scream over “Right Off” in his eminently air-guitar-worthy Mahavishnu style, but in “Yesternow” he exercises a subtlety surprising for the author of such schmaltz as “A Lotus On Irish Streams” (and pretty much all of the Orchestra’s later work). It appears that he has discovered the wah-wah and distortion pedals under a loose cobblestone at an Indian temple and resolved to let everyone else know they exist. The album begins with one of his power-chord flourishes in stumbling 4/4, before drummer Billy Cobham irons out the bunched-up rhythm with a swingin’ rock beat. (Side note: Cobham also drummed for the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and his duet with John McLaughlin in the intro to “The Noonward Race” is a sound to behold. In terms of sheer technique he may actually exceed Neil Peart, and in dynamic sensibility [and not being a libertarian asshole] he far exceeds Rush’s drummer. Give’m a hand, folks.) McLaughlin rips the next two minutes apart into a series of scowling guitar runs; these segue obliquely into a key change (from E to Bb pentatonic) which appears to catch the bassist by surprise. (Bassist Michael Henderson performs admirably throughout, though he gets the usual rock-bassist shaft because of his secondary role to the lead instruments. His basslines are highly constant, however, and do not disappoint when scored against the bass’s true benchmark: maintenance of the groove, the ass-shaking chest-thrusting foot-tapping groove. One revels in the drummer’s antics, pantomiming and praising; when the bassist takes control, however, it’s like Victor Wooten’s imaginary mentor says in The Music Lesson: “They’re really cheering for you.”
About here, the man who was supposed to be on the album cover enters in. (On the original release, Davis’ trumpeting profile against a black background was exchanged for a stylized painting of the titular boxer. The printers also spelled Teo Macero’s name wrong. Twice.) Miles plays trumpet in bleating blasts, as he always has. He has McLaughlin to take care of breathless speed-leads and lightning scales, so he focuses on sustained squeals in the upper register, and often harps on one or two notes in rapid succession at Thompson-gun speed. No gunslinging here, though — Miles need not protect his massive reputation. In fact, he only appears on the first side for about eight of its twenty-seven minutes, and for the rest lets his manic sidemen, all about ten or twenty years his junior, turn them jazz cats loose from the bag. This is a badass setup.
After about ten minutes the producer inserts a minute-long segment of Miles’ trumpet playing, accompanied in the left speaker by an earaching electronic loop that is the only downside to headphone listening. Ultimately the break serves the recording well by providing a short reprieve from the relentless rock attack of side 1, which might grow monotonous if left unchecked. No one, however, would call it their favorite part of the album, and one is relieved when “Right Off” resumes. A saxophonist named Steve Grossman makes a series of reedy, nerdy soprano runs which use too many notes but make their point well enough. He plays for several minutes and says a great many florid things, perhaps oversharing; in any case he performs well. I can’t help wishing, however, that we’d gotten another Wayne Shorter solo in a Miles band; had Wayne been there to turn brass into gold, there’s no telling how brilliantly copies of this album would have glowed yellow on record-store shelves. Anyway, after Grossman’s session flashes the keyboard of the famed Herbie Hancock, whose Headhunters solo album yielded my enthusiastic approval (I actually put a band together to play “Chameleon” for a school talent show). Hancock’s fascination with cheesy synthesizers is still several years distant, and he is instead given a “Louie Louie” organ with which to make a serious point about the rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. Fortunately he ignores the festival owners’ orders and lays down a damned fine solo.
After Herbie, however, the very texture of the music changes. Cobham suddenly begins to whack away at another 4/4 beat, the same from the album’s beginning, which McLaughlin accompanies with a bizarre 12-bar guitar lick. Apparently some bands have recycled the riff as the “Theme from Jack Johnson,” none of whom I can find on the Internet. The songs I can find which are titled “Theme from Jack Johnson” do not actually include the 12-bar lick in their interpretations of Davis songs, instead riffing on the intro/outro of “Right Off” and the primary bassline in “Yesternow.” Can’t say I blame them, as those motifs are far more interesting.
Luckily, the “Theme” ends pretty quickly and, holy of holies, the band actually returns to the introduction in E pentatonic. (I mean no offense to schmaltzians, but E is a way better key than Bb.) This outro is the highlight of the entire album. It defies words, except that
the head shakes from left to right to up and down and in all directions, hair and wonderment splattering the walls with Pollockian patterns of wonder and blunt socket extatic yes indeed it is in fact Herbie Hancock getting a shot at the organ manipulative pedals and hand pusher syndromic cyclopic virgin buttons of bliss swirling howl undue trapezoidal microcosms reverbrating more and more unto detailed bliss
during the organ solo. Afterwards Grossman embarks on a far more interesting solo, and John McLaughlin reminds us that he’s here, and he’s fucking mad. If the song were asphalt it would not play on a turntable, but for the sake of argument if the song were asphalt McLaughlin is an airplane that crashes onto it in bloody burst of fire and screeching metal. There is no way to end the song but on a fade-out, because a jam like “Right Off” goes on into infinity. Like Finnegan’s Wake, the ideal listener would loop it so that the ending segues softly into the blasting beginning. Fortunately, I get a little spent after twenty-seven swingin’ minutes of Miles Davis boogie rock, so I allow the second track to happen.
Side 2, “Yesternow,” is where most critics like Bob Christgau and I run out of energy. (He just leaves it at “music for a vacation on the moon.” Lazy bastard writes like four sentences per album. How can he not stand not advocating more for stuff he loves? Good incisive writer, though.) However, it deserves none of the shadow that “Right Off” attempts to cast over it, and stands purty darn strongly as its own twenty-six-minute celebration of funky bliss. Michael Henderson, der bajista barista, lays it down with a single bassline which he repeats endlessly for ten minutes. (The preceding sentence is a shining example of the oxymoron figure of speech.) John McLaughlin is uncharacteristically subdued, stinging softly with wahed-out chordal moans. Steve Grossman makes a short and passing appearance. Herbie plays a few muted organ chords, which space out and eventually die away at the end of the section. Billy Cobham hangs cymbal splashes on the confection like a diamonds on a chandelier, and Miles inserts oddly placed trumpet thingies into the overall stuff. I have officially run out of words. Luckily producer Teo Macero was kind enough to slap another soft interlude, extracted directly from the first few minutes of “Shhh/Peaceful,” into the middle of the half-hour track, giving me new vocabulary and a chance to discuss something that isn’t the first ten minutes of “Yesternow.” I have not mentioned the man often enough in this text, and will do so now: Macero is responsible for the bizarre shifts in tone and motif throughout Miles’ Sixties and Seventies work. He was a big fan of that tape-splicing technique which self-loving (read: wanking) “progressive” and psychedelic rock bands adopted to extend their songs to unsustainable lengths; Macero, however, was good at it. Get me not wrong — his product on Bitches Brew was not very interesting, but the sessions themselves were sow’s ears, and he couldn’t have made a whole lot of good of them. Instead, he got to hone his skills on that disappointing album, and developed new ways of interpolating and connecting song parts in time for Jack Johnson. It was he who managed to splice the straight-4/4 “Theme” into the swinging “Right Off,” and here takes four parts (the interlude, and three takes of “Willie Nelson” which comprise the parts of the song) and links them together in a similarly terrific fashion. Once the interlude ends we see that a second guitarist has joined the band: a guy named Sonny Sharrock, who plays a bleeping, blooping axe in the right channel. I have only ever heard one guitar like that: Blixa Bargeld of the Bad Seeds (and Einstazander Newbarton or whatever it is — I’ve never listened to it). Now I’ve heard two. It squeals and blubs throughout, playing as if through an amplifier recovered in that Antikythera shipwreck, watery and fluid and operates on an utterly alien premise which people only started aping years later. Meanwhile, McLaughlin plays his pentatonic licks in the left speaker, and before you know it he leaves a single measure of feedback echoing therein before embarking on a new lockstep pattern with Henderson; Sharrock continues his rude futurism. Miles appears here and there to play his characteristic extended notes. We haven’t seen a group leader this absent since moderator Lester Holt during the second presidential debate of 2016. (ZINGER!)
Once the extended jam dies away, however, an entirely mood overtakes the piece. Heart-rending funeral brass bleat a sad march as Teo resurrects the trumpet solo from “Right Off,” and unexpected mysterious bittersweetness predominates for the last two minutes; the chords are sad and stately, the muted echoing trumpet devastates the soul, until a voice actor speaks authoritatively: “I’m Jack Johnson, heavyweight champion of the world. I’m black — and they never let me forget it. I’m black, alright — I’ll never let them forget it” — a reminder that the record is a soundtrack, and a salute, to the life of Miles’ favorite boxer.
The album ends on a Picardy third — a major chord when a one expects a minor. It’s a common form of resolution and indicates small but resolute hope.