On The Corner (1972)
A controversial flop at the time of its release, On The Corner has become one of Miles Davis’ touchstone albums in the four decades since. A unique and unprecedented swirl of free jazz, funk, and electronic music (when that genre barely existed), wrapped in a bright yellow sleeve depicting blaxploitation cartoon characters, it’s as assaultive as it is brilliant. And it was always meant to be a line in the sand. When it was originally released, it didn’t have any personnel listed — a total affront to jazz fans, who valorized individual expression and would buy albums based on who played on them. Not this time. With On The Corner, Davis was attempting to create a collective sound that would not only draw in young black listeners at a time when jazz’s audience was already becoming old and white, but would also reflect the New York City he saw when he looked out his window.
It’s an immediately alienating listen, starting with a harsh, serrated guitar riff and blatting trumpet atop about three different keyboards and as many percussionists, with a drummer beating out a looplike funk rhythm on a clattering, junkyardish kit. The first solo is by soprano saxophonist Dave Liebman, who recorded without headphones — he remembers being in the studio just playing blindly, and hearing what sounded like a roomful of typists all around him. The rhythm stays monotonous just long enough to get you almost used to it, then it shifts to something more assaultive, then back again; On The Corner is constantly trying to wrong-foot you, and most of the time, it succeeds. But once it gets its hooks in you, it’ll never let go. You can listen to it a hundred times and hear something new every time. It’s got funk guitars, Indian percussion, dub production techniques, loops that predict hip-hop — it’s like walking down the street in New York and hearing six languages in three blocks, amid car horns and jackhammers and the rattle and crash of teeming human life. It’s not a jazz album. It’s not an anything album. It’s one of the greatest records of the 20th Century, and easily one of Miles Davis’ most astonishing achievements. It’s a masterpiece.