REVIEW: Miles Davis – A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971)

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MILES DAVIS – A Tribute to Jack Johnson (Columbia, 1971)

Bear with me, because as much as I love this record and jazz in general, I know very little (technically) about the music. I just know what sounds good to my ears. As far as jazz albums go, this one will be very palatable to rock fans because of the predominance of the electric guitar, especially on the first side, “Right Off”. John McLaughlin plays plenty of cool riffs and funky licks before Miles kicks in with his one-of-a-kind trumpet. Honestly, by the time you get to the end of the track, you will hardly believe that 27 minutes have gone by. It’s that good.  And it grooves, solidly.  Being in a room with this guys must have been a mindblowing experience.  It truly is an awe-inspiring groove that they lay down.

Side two, “Yesternow”, is a slow paced atmospheric piece, over 25 minutes long.  But by the end, it transforms into another one of those surreal grooves.  On this one, McLaughlin plays jagged, mournful and distorted bits over a slow groove. It’s not as immediate as “Right Off”, but some of the playing here (by everybody) is incredible. I love McLaughlin’s wah-wah.

That’s Herbie Hancock on organ, and Billy Cobham on drums.  Incredible.  They are accompanied by Michael Henderson (bass) and Steve Grossman (soprano sax).

As a movie geek, it was a special treat for me to have the late great actor Brock Peters do a cameo at the end, playing legendary boxer Jack Johnson:

“I’m Jack Johnson, heavyweight champion of the world!  I’m black!  They never let me forget it.  I’m black alright, I’ll never let them forget it!”

The album was the soundtrack to a Jack Johnson documentary film directed by William Cayton.  I can’t really go into a deeper analysis of the music (sorry) but there’s a decent Wikipedia article that can do it better than me.

This is a great, accessible album and I strongly recommend this 2005 remastered Sony edition.

5/5 stars

31 comments

  1. Great lineup on thisrecord. As talked about before I have tried and failed to get into most Miles Davis stuff I have heard .. I am certainly curious now about trying this recording out. Billy Cobham is a beast and McLaughlin and Hancock too? How can you go wrong …. But i have been pretty expectant to like a MIles Davis record in the past … Now I have to hear this

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  2. There is an album simply called Miles and Coltrane that i really like… live album. Kind of Blue is obviously great .. but even that i find just … is lacking something for me.

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  3. Check out the beast Billy Cobham in this one. Shitty recording .. but at about the 1:50 mark the drumming just is so groovy … and at about the 2:36 mark .. the drum roll he does is just lightning .. followed by the manliest cymbal crash i have ever seen !!!

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  4. It’s often hard to put into words what makes certain instrumental music so impressive, but you’ve done a great job with this write-up. Even as a musician myself (well, I’m a drummer, so a sort-of musician), when it comes to jazz it’s difficult to write or say anything other than “holy crap, this is amazing. How did they do that?” This album is one of the more recent Miles discoveries for me…not sure why it slipped under my radar for so long…but it’s definitely a great entryway to the Miles catalog for rock fans. I own the same edition you have, and I second your recommendation. Good liner notes and great sound. Then again, this music would sound good on a cheap cassette recorded from a scratchy vinyl record.

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    1. LOL…”sort-of musician”!

      You’re right, it is very hard to talk about instrumental music in a meaningful, descriptive way. I’ve tended to shy away from it because it’s not easy to do. But this album was really worth talking about. Glad you enjoy it too!

      I felt there was no point in reviewing Kind Of Blue. What can be said that hasn’t been said already?

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    2. Yeah .. i have been a singer in bands .. and am a pretty good drummer as well … and yeah i refer to myself as a sort-of musician too.. lol

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  5. Meat I have been “trumpeting” this album for years… probably my favourite Miles…

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    1. It is definitely a slippery slope. But so is blues…so is old country…so is classical!

      I like to just pick and choose things that strike me. Miles David is definitely one of those guys. Not every album is for me, but he has a lot of incredible stuff. It’s like prog rock with trumpet! :)

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      1. Yeah I think that’s the best I could manage! Just picking and choosing here and there. I’ve not heard much Jazz that has appealed to me all that much but the Miles Davis stuff with McLaughlin intrigues me.

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        1. You’d also dig the Neil Peart Burning for Buddy compilation discs because of the familiar drummers. Guys like Matt Sorum and Kenny Aranoff. That was my gateway drug.

          I’ll be posting stuff like this in 2013. Blues, country and classical too. For me, country is one I want to talk about because “artists” like Shania and Taylor Swift have turned it into a dirty word. I aims to fix that. I aims to show you what country is really about. To me, it’s fuckin’ rock and roll with acoustic guitars! Johnny Cash was on the same record label as Elvis….

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        2. Well I’ve heard the name but that’s about it… she did a DVD with Def Leppard? That sounds like something I could live without seeing. I’m going to guess that they didn’t do Die Hard the Hunter?

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    1. Agreed. Miles wasn’t the type to just keep repeating himself. Sort of like a box of chocolates, you never knew what you were going to get. There will be more coming, that is for sure.

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    1. Well isn’t that a happy coincidence! I’m familiar with Mobile Fidelity releases on CD, but what are their vinyl releases like? This is one I’d like on vinyl. Remember what I said about loving when a side is a whole song!

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