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 based on 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.
None of Miles Davis' recordings has been more shrouded in mystery than Jack Johnson, yet none has better fulfilled Miles 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 Miles, 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 Miles; 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 Miles
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. There is this groove that gets nastier and nastier
as the track carries on, and never quits, though there are insertions
by Macero of two Miles 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 Miles, 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 Miles'
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. [The album was completely remastered and reissued in January of 2005, following the 2003 release of the Complete Jack Johnson Sessions box set by Legacy.]
1. Right Off - 26:54
2. Yesternow - 25:36
Trumpet – Miles Davis
Bass [Fender] – Michael Henderson
Drums – Billy Cobham
Guitar – John McLaughlin
Keyboards – Herbie Hancock
Liner Notes – Miles Davis
Saxophone – Steve Grossman
Voice [Jack Johnson's Voice] – Brock Peters