A Tribute to Jack Johnson wasn't the first time a film project effected a change in the trumpeter's stylistic thinking. Miles had recorded a moody and abstract soundtrack for the 1958 Louis Malle noir film Elevator to the Gallows. It was a spontaneous recording, made without pre-arranged themes or chord structures, and it opened up a dramatic new sound-world for Miles, more concerned with mood than with harmonic line and logic. The phase that opened up with Bitches Brew and took a fresh turn with the Jack Johnson sessions was both an extension of that abstraction and a deviation from its floating, almost unmetrical pulse. Along with McLaughlin's guitar, Henderson's almost primitively locked-in bass was the new signature sound, anchoring the funky, Day-Glo ostinati that Miles preferred as backdrops to his increasingly free improvisations. The dense keyboard textures and polyrhythmic percussion that became the signature sound of Bitches Brew gave way to something leaner, darker and faster on its feet.
Unlike the Malle film, William Cayton's documentary on the life of boxer Jack Johnson--who won the world heavyweight title in controversial circumstances in 1908 and lost it again equally controversially seven years later--was close to Miles's heart. Johnson's flamboyance, conspicuous success and clashes with the white establishment seemed to prefigure Miles's own. The trumpeter also liked to hang out in boxing gyms and spar, helping to build the image of a sharply combative little cat always ready to defend his turf. Many of the tracks on The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions are named after great boxers: "Ali," "Duran," "Archie Moore."
The original Tribute to Jack Johnson, released in February 1971, consisted of just two LP-side pieces, "Yesternow" and "Right Off." Both were assembled after the fact by Teo Macero, but the basic performances remained surprisingly intact. At the April 7, 1970, session "Right Off" began as a vague studio jam. McLaughlin, presumably bored with waiting while Miles and Teo talked shop in the booth, started to play a shuffle vamp in E. Henderson and drummer Billy Cobham picked up on it and started to play. Herbie Hancock had been passing through and was drafted on organ. After a few minutes, the red light was on, and Miles was in the studio playing some of the fiercest trumpet of his career.
The "Right Off" that appeared on the original record consisted of edits from three takes of the theme made that day, together with an unaccompanied trumpet solo Miles had taped for Macero in November 1969. These takes are now available in full. "Yesternow" was compiled in a similar way, using takes of "Willie Nelson" recorded in February 1970 with a different band. This lineup included Chick Corea on electric piano, Bennie Maupin on bass clarinet and a second guitarist, the heavily echoplexed Sonny Sharrock. Again, Macero reverted to the 1969 solo trumpet tape and to an orchestral accompaniment underneath actor Brock Peters's narration. It's a less surprising track, but no less powerful than "Right Off" and driven by the same visceral intensity, thanks to a twelve-minute bass riff ripped off from James Brown and Sly Stone.
When Miles returned to the studio two years later to record On the Corner, he made an even more blatant bid for a new rock constituency, with doubled guitars and an even skimpier bass line. Perhaps the message of Jack Johnson didn't get across to the trumpeter's satisfaction. It remains, however, the roughest, rawest electric jazz ever recorded. It stands on the brink of what was to be Miles's most difficult decade, artistically and personally. The roiling anthems of Dark Magus, Agharta and Pangaea, guitar- and organ-heavy, with the scanty trumpet parts distorted and wah-wahed almost out of existence, weren't considered releasable in the United States and originally appeared only in Japan. After that, illness closed in and Miles disappeared for the rest of the decade, an almost forgotten figure until the pained, painful comeback of the early 1980s.
Invisibility almost always leads to mythology. With no new records coming, fans pored over the back catalogue and critics cemented into consensus a whole set of casually unsubstantiated clichés about the trumpeter: that he had given up on jazz entirely, that his trumpet playing had always been "minimal" (a notion that dogged him throughout his career, no matter how many notes he packed into his solos), that he had never been a sufficiently able technician to manage the fast transitions of bebop, even that music mattered to him less than a certain mode of presentation. This myth can hardly survive The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions, which highlights Miles's mastery of improvisation at furious levels of speed and intensity. It certainly can't survive the even more remarkable At the Blackhawk.