Jack Johnson (album)
Original LP (Columbia S 30455)
|Film score by Miles Davis|
|Recorded||February 18 and April 7, 1970; 30th Street Studio, New York City|
|Miles Davis chronology|
Jack Johnson, also known as A Tribute to Jack Johnson, is a soundtrack recorded by American jazz musician Miles Davis. The album was the second film score Davis had composed, after Ascenseur pour l'échafaud in 1957. In 1970, Davis was asked by Bill Cayton to record music for his documentary of the same name on the life of boxer Jack Johnson. Johnson's saga resonated personally with Davis, who wrote in the album's liner notes of Johnson's mastery as a boxer, his affinity for fast cars, jazz, clothes, and beautiful women, his unreconstructed blackness, and his threatening image to White men.
Jack Johnson was a turning point in Davis' career and has since been viewed as one of his greatest works. Davis, who wanted to put together what he called "the greatest rock and roll band you have ever heard," recorded with a line-up featuring guitarists John McLaughlin and Sonny Sharrock, keyboardists Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, clarinetist Bennie Maupin, and drummers Jack DeJohnette and Billy Cobham. The album's two tracks were drawn from one recording session on April 7 and edited together with recordings from February 1970 by producer Teo Macero. The music reflected Davis' interest in the eclectic jazz fusion of the time, but also foreshadowed the hard-edged funk that would fascinate him in the next few years.
The first major recording session for the album, which took place on April 7, 1970, was almost accidental: John McLaughlin, awaiting Miles's arrival, began improvising riffs on his guitar, and was shortly joined by Michael Henderson and Billy Cobham. Meanwhile, the producers brought in Herbie Hancock, who had been passing through the building on unrelated business, to play the Farfisa organ. Miles arrived at last and began his solo at about 2:19 on the first track.
The album's two long tracks were assembled in the editing room by producer Teo Macero. "Right Off" is constructed from several takes and a solo by Davis recorded in November 1969. It contains a riff from Sly and the Family Stone's "Sing a Simple Song". Much of the track "Yesternow" is built around a slightly modified version of the bassline from the James Brown song "Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud"; this may be a deliberate allusion to the song's Black Power theme as it relates to the film's subject. "Yesternow" also incorporates a brief excerpt of "Shhh/Peaceful" from Davis's 1969 album In a Silent Way and a 10-minute section comprising several takes of the tune "Willie Nelson" from a session on 18 February 1970.
"Right Off" comprises a series of improvisations based on a B flat chord, but changing after approximately 20 minutes to an E chord. "Yesternow" has a similar B flat ostinato and shifts to C minor. It concludes with a voiceover by actor Brock Peters: "I'm Jack Johnson, heavy-weight champion of the world. I'm black. They never let me forget it. I'm black all right. I'll never let them forget it." The album's liner notes provide a description of the music
|“||Michael Henderson launches into an enormous boogie groove with Billy Cobham and John McLaughlin. Miles immediately leaves the control room to join in with them. He achieved exactly what he wanted for the soundtrack by creating the effect of a train going at full speed (which he compared to the force of a boxer). By chance, Herbie Hancock had arrived unexpectedly and started playing on a cheap keyboard that a sound engineer quickly connected.||”|
Release and reception
Jack Johnson was released in February 1971 by Columbia Records to some commercial success, despite little marketing from the label. It was less commercially successful than Davis's previous electric album, Bitches Brew, reaching only No. 159 on the Billboard 200 where Bitches Brew had risen as high as No. 35.
In a contemporary review, Steve Starger of The Hartford Courant called Jack Johnson "magnificent" and "another gem" in Davis' 20-year "string of gems", and wrote that the tracks "really make up one long, churning, steaming, brooding, slashing musical experience that never dips below the highest of art." Starger found the sidemen's performances masterful and said that Peters' voiceover at the end gives "Johnson's words frightening majesty". Robert Christgau of The Village Voice gave the album an "A+", indicating "an organically conceived masterpiece that repays prolonged listening with new excitement and insight." He viewed it as his favorite "piece of recording" from Davis since Milestones (1958) and Kind of Blue (1959), and felt that, although it lacks the excitement of the best of Bitches Brew, the album coalesces its predecessor's "flashy ideas" into "one brilliant illumination." In a negative review for the Los Angeles Times, Leonard Feather viewed it as a "letdown after the unflawed triumph" of Bitches Brew and was dismayed by Davis for aligning himself with "the thumping, clinking, whomping battering ram that passes for a rhythm section".
|The Penguin Guide to Jazz|||
|The Rolling Stone Album Guide|||
Robert Christgau later called Jack Johnson "a great one" in a 1981 review. In a review upon the album's 1992 reissue, Down Beat critic John Ephland called it "trippy stuff" and a "heavily edited mélange of musical forms". By contrast, Jack Fuller of the Chicago Tribune felt that Davis had failed in his attempt at the "rock idiom". In The Penguin Guide to Jazz (2006), Richard Cook wrote that the album "stands at the head of what was to be Miles Davis's most difficult decade, artistically and personally." The Boston Herald cited it as one of Davis' "last truly great albums" and as "some of the most powerful and influential jazz-rock ever played." John Fordham of The Guardian remarked on the transition in Davis's playing from a "whispering electric sound to some of the most trenchantly responsive straight-horn improvising he ever put on disc". According to Fordham:
Considering that it began as a jam between three bored Miles Davis sidemen, and that the eventual 1971 release was stitched together from a variety of takes, it's a miracle that this album turned out to be one of the most remarkable jazz-rock discs of the era. Columbia didn't even realise what it had with these sessions, and the mid-decade Miles albums that followed – angled toward the pop audience – were far more aggressively marketed than the Jack Johnson set ... Of course, it's a much starker, less subtly textured setting than Bitches Brew, but in the early jazz-rock hall of fame, it's up there on the top pedestal.
The Lexington Herald-Leader wrote that, although In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew were "groundbreaking" for "herald[ing] fusion's arrival", Davis' playing on Jack Johnson "surpasses both recordings". In a retrospective review of the album, Allmusic's Thom Jurek complimented its "funky, dirty rock & roll jazz" and "chilling, overall high-energy rockist stance", stating "Jack Johnson is the purest electric jazz record ever made because of the feeling of spontaneity and freedom it evokes in the listener, for the stellar and inspiring solos by McLaughlin and Davis that blur all edges between the two musics, and for the tireless perfection of the studio assemblage by Miles and producer Macero".
In a 2010 interview, American rock musician Iggy Pop said that he purchased Davis' 1960 album Sketches of Spain and Jack Johnson in a no frills used record shop for less than $5 at least 25 years ago and that "they have been my inspiring companions ever since. The one tears me apart and the other puts me back together."
All songs were composed by Miles Davis.
- Side one
- "Right Off" – 26:53
- Side two
- "Yesternow" – 25:34
|This section does not cite any references or sources. (November 2013)|
The first track and about half of the second track were recorded on April 7, 1970 by this sextet:
- Miles Davis – trumpet
- Steve Grossman – soprano saxophone
- John McLaughlin – electric guitar
- Herbie Hancock – organ
- Michael Henderson – electric bass
- Billy Cobham – drums
The "Willie Nelson" section of the second track (starting at about 13:55) was recorded on 18 February 1970 by a different and uncredited lineup:
- Miles Davis – trumpet
- Bennie Maupin – bass clarinet
- John McLaughlin – electric guitar
- Sonny Sharrock – electric guitar
- Chick Corea – electric piano
- Dave Holland – electric bass
- Jack DeJohnette – drums
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- Jack Johnson at Discogs (list of releases)
- "The Making of Jack Johnson" by Paul Tingen
- "Sound, Mediation, and Meaning in Miles Davis's A Tribute to Jack Johnson" by Jeremy A. Smith (PhD Diss: Duke University, 2008)