Miles Davis: Tribute to Jack Johnson

There’s something in the swagger of Miles Davis’ playing on these recordings that reminds me of a boxer walking down the aisle. There’s the limit of the people crowded all around the runway, the chaos of that moment where the heavyweight comes out from behind the curtain and the whole place erupts, all the heroism and spectacle, translated onto record. The sharp blasts of his trumpet like being worked over with shots to the stomach. It all makes sense.

Jack Johnson was the first African-American heavyweight champion boxer in 1908. He was known for his flamboyant lifestyle, fast cars, expensive wine and fine cigars. He married two white women in his life and was subjected to the worst kinds of systemic racism. He was eventually jailed for violating the “White Slavery Act” and moved to Paris, where he died in 1946.

This remaster and companion piece to the Ken Burns film Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise And Fall Of Jack Johnson comes from the same 1970 sessions as the Grammy-winning 5-CD bob sex released last year. On it, Miles blurs the line between jazz and rock, bringing in younger musicians like John McLaughlin on guitar and Michael Henderson on electric bass.

“Right Off” the album’s opener, starts off with a classic rock riff and keeps the pace up for most of the 27 minute jam. There are moments of spontaneity that make popular music seem like it was constructed in a warehouse, and in the middle when the jam breaks down, you know that this is the real deal. I don’t envy Teo Macero (who had produced Miles since 1958) the task of having to cut the tape to edit it. And “Yesternow” is the perfect Side B, with another 25 minutes of pure jazz fusion bliss to offer up.