Jack Johnson, later reissued as A Tribute to Jack Johnson, is a 1971 studio album and soundtrack by American jazz trumpeter, composer, and bandleader Miles Davis. 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. This was the second film score he had composed, after Ascenseur pour l’échafaud in 1957.
The music recorded for Jack Johnson reflected Davis’ interest in the eclectic jazz fusion of the time while foreshadowing the hard-edged funk that would fascinate him in the next few years. Having wanted to put together what he called “the greatest rock and roll band you have ever heard”, Davis 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.
Jack Johnson was released by Columbia Records on February 24, 1971. It was a turning point in Davis’ career and has since been viewed as one of his greatest works. JazzTimes later wrote that while his 1970 album Bitches Brew had helped spark the fusion of jazz and rock, Jack Johnson was Davis’ most brazen and effective venture into rock, “the one that blew the fusion floodgates wide open, launching a whole new genre in its wake”. According to McLaughlin, Davis considered it to be his best jazz-rock album. (by wikipedia)
None of Miles Davis’ recordings has been more shrouded in mystery than Jack Johnson, yet none has better fulfilled Davis’ promise that he could form the “greatest rock band you ever heard.” Containing only two tracks, the album was assembled out of no less than four recording sessions between February 18, 1970 and June 4, 1970, and was patched together by producer Teo Macero. Most of the outtake material ended up on Directions, Big Fun, and elsewhere. The first misconception is the lineup: the credits on the recording are incomplete. For the opener, “Right Off,” the band is Davis, John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham, Herbie Hancock, Michael Henderson, and Steve Grossman (no piano player!), which reflects the liner notes. This was from the musicians’ point of view, in a single take, recorded as McLaughlin began riffing in the studio while waiting for Davis; it was picked up on by Henderson and Cobham, Hancock was ushered in to jump on a Hammond organ (he was passing through the building), and Davis rushed in at 2:19 and proceeded to play one of the longest, funkiest, knottiest, and most complex solos of his career.
Seldom has he cut loose like that and played in the high register with such a full sound. In the meantime, the interplay between Cobham, McLaughlin, and Henderson is out of the box, McLaughlin playing long, angular chords centering around E. This was funky, dirty rock & roll jazz. The groove gets nastier and nastier as the track carries on and never quits, though there are insertions by Macero of two Davis takes on Sly Stone tunes and an ambient textured section before the band comes back with the groove, fires it up again, and carries it out. On “Yesternow,” the case is far more complex. There are two lineups, the one mentioned above, and one that begins at about 12:55. The second lineup was Davis, McLaughlin, Jack DeJohnette, Chick Corea, Bennie Maupin, Dave Holland, and Sonny Sharrock. The first 12 minutes of the tune revolve around a single bass riff lifted from James Brown’s “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” The material that eases the first half of the tune into the second is taken from “Shhh/Peaceful,” from In a Silent Way, overdubbed with the same trumpet solo that is in the ambient section of “Right Off.”
It gets more complex as the original lineup is dubbed back in with a section from Davis’ tune “Willie Nelson,” another part of the ambient section of “Right Off,” and an orchestral bit of “The Man Nobody Saw” at 23:52, before the voice of Jack Johnson (by actor Brock Peters) takes the piece out. The highly textured, nearly pastoral ambience at the end of the album is a fitting coda to the chilling, overall high-energy rockist stance of the album. 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. (by Thom Jurek)
he first track and about half of the second track were recorded on April 7, 1970 by this sextet:
Billy Cobham (drums)
Miles Davis (trumpet)
Steve Grossman (saxophone)
Herbie Hancock (organ)
Michael Henderson (bass)
John McLaughlin (guitar)
The “Willie Nelson” section of the second track (starting at about 13:55) was recorded on February 18, 1970 by a different and uncredited lineup:
Chick Corea (piano)
Miles Davis (trumpet)
Jack DeJohnette (drums)
Dave Holland (bass)
Bennie Maupin (clarinet)
John McLaughlin (guitar)
Sonny Sharrock (guitar)
01. Right Off (Davis) 26.54
02. Yesternow (Davis) 25.35
More Miles Davis: