Columbia Records, which owns almost all of Miles Davis’ recordings from his emergence as a leader onward, is known for dubious (read: monetarily motivated) re-releases of said artist’s catalog. It is hard to impinge the label’s character, however, for making available something like Jack Johnson, the forgotten soundtrack to a forgotten documentary about a boxer largely forgotten in this day, his name stolen from the public consciousness by a surfer bum with an acoustic guitar. Absent of the yellow stickers on the jewel case, which might proclaim, for example, “a fusion masterpiece” or “still relevant” (high praise for a modern aficionado of this era of jazz), this record has little modern pretense, considering the auspicious settings which it was recorded in.
For those not familiar with Jack Johnson, a short history. He was the first black world champion heavyweight in 1908; naturally, race is the biggest element in his story. His opponents were repeatedly titled the “Great White Hope” and his gaudy style (fast cars, opera, steak and white women), which impinged upon contemporary notions of white dominance, eventually caught up to him when he was jailed on a technicality involving a white girlfriend. As legend (and song) goes, he attempted to buy a first-class ticket on the maiden voyage of the doomed Titanic, the race-influenced denial of his request a blessing in disguise when the ship sank. He died in a car crash.
It’s no surprise, then, that Davis felt a parallel to the legend. Miles’ interest in boxing, white women and autos are superficial in comparison to what Davis really believed about the moral of the modern fable, likely seeing himself in the story. Having been commissioned to create a score for a documentary on the boxer, Miles and producer Teo Macero began work on several recoding sessions in early 1970. Jack Johnson mainly features music recorded after the complete breakup of Miles’ seminal Second Quintet. The music kicks “Right Off” with backbeats from the incredibly accomplished Billy Cobham; Michael Henderson, the first electric bassist to play with Davis, plays recklessly with funk while Scottish guitarist John McLaughlin is reckless with the blues.
The somewhat sloppy cut-and-paste of Macero threads in everything from Johnson’s voice to samples of older Davis recordings to a somewhat distracting effect. To truly understand the sound, the listener might want to consider a stopwatch and notebook and is advised to take notes. Overrated saxist Steve Grossman is cloying on soprano, and Herbie Hancock, having departed from the quintet, is conspicuous in a ornamental guest solo on Farfisa organ, an instrument long relegated to retro-chic movie scores. Despite all the distractions, though, what stands out is some innovative playing from McLaughlin and Davis, the likes of which each man only came close to in the next 10 years.
A Tribute To Jack Johnson lays bare Miles’ claims to understanding pop music: though he may have understood James Brown, Prince, and hip-hop, his ’70s rock doesn’t envision the precision of the late ’70s, the new wave, or even create a seamless listen. There’s too much music in this music to create a familiar listening experience for most. Where Davis fails as a pop star is his innate sophistication, even in most raw of fusion. With the exception of some slight tweaks, the dark, cagey studio sound that Macero and Davis used throughout the era is preserved. Despite that, the re-release is justified, as there really isn’t anything quite like this record.