Miles. 25 Feb 2013.

“I could put together the greatest rock ‘n roll band you ever heard.” The Rolling Stone journalist who took this statement down would have been forgiven for feeling sceptical. By late 1969, jazz musicians were still working out how to rock, let alone roll. Miles’s most recent release at the time, the ambient masterpiece In A Silent Way, was a far cry from rock ‘n roll. And that landmark exploration of rock ‘n jazz, Bitches Brew, would not be released until April 1970. Many years later, in his autobiography, Miles acknowledged the challenges he encountered in working with rock ‘n roll, saying, “When I started playing against that new rhythm first I had to get used to it. (…) Playing the new shit was a gradual process.”

Jimi Hendrix, whom Miles occasionally hung out and jammed with during 1968-70, proved a crucial catalyst in the trumpeter’s journey towards playing the “new shit.” Influences from Hendrix had been creeping into Miles’s music since 1967, but he possibly received his strongest cue on New Year’s Day 1970, when he attended the second of the two legendary Band Of Gypsies concerts by Hendrix at Fillmore East in New York. After seeing what just one guitarist, bassist, and drummer could achieve, Miles spent much of the first half of 1970 recording with increasingly small, guitar-led bands.

The result was A Tribute to Jack Johnson, the soundtrack for the eponymously-titled movie about the legendary black world heavyweight boxing champion at the beginning of the 20th century. After the album’s release in February 1971, it was barely promoted by Columbia and sank into semi-obscurity. Yet over time its reputation has grown to such a degree that the release of The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions has been awaited with widespread and eager anticipation.

In the middle of this clash of tonalities Miles decides to make his entrance. “He blew the shit out of it,” remembered Henderson. “It was all done off the cuff. And then Miles blasted my ass, he kept repeating a B flat, and only an idiot would not have gone to B flat. Miles directed me over to B flat using his trumpet. Imagine someone blowing you over to B flat!”

I’ve never listened a lot to John McLaughlin. Until now. I’ve always loved the track ‘Right Off’, but hadn’t listened to it in years. I cued it up in the car and was mezmerised. Was amazed how well that track locks with a car that’s moving. Kinetic. Miles and McLaughlin really push against each other sonically and, man, it rocks. The architecture is so anti – but they pull it off. A beauty. Am trying to work it into an assembly cut that I’m editing. If you don’t know the story of Jack Johnson there was a PBS film done on him. Unbearable Blackness? A book, too.

Published by William Vaughan

filmmaker, artist

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