Two months before Miles Davis went into the studio to record the music in this set, he claimed he "could put together the greatest rock ‘n roll band you ever heard." A retrospective listen to The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions shows he may have not been far from the truth.
Recorded in New York City during the spring of 1970, this music was put down only six months after the sessions that produced Bitches Brew. Where In A Silent Way had an ambient modal feel and Bitches Brew a cosmic layered sound, A Tribute to Jack Johnson was Miles with a smaller, leaner, more explosive electric group. A little under half of the recordings on this set were done with five instruments: electric guitar, electric bass, drums, soprano sax and trumpet. Miles was looking for a raw rocking sound and John McLaughlin’s guitar plays prominently throughout the music. On other songs the group swells to as many as nine, but the foundation of the sound is always heavy bass and chomping guitar.
In some respects the set is copious (even the biggest fan would find six versions of Willie Nelson a bit overdone), but the four and a half hours of previously-unreleased music hold so many highlights that the shortcomings of the set become negligible. There is Miles playing the blues alone for ten minutes, held only by the slow unobtrusive guitar of McLaughlin on "Go Ahead John." There is the fat swaggering bass line and guitar interplay of "Ali" with Miles coolly soloing over the top. And there is the loose stop-and-go barrel-house rock sound of "Honky Tonk."
The musicians on these sessions are an all-star cast of Davis’ cohorts at the time: Steve Grossman on soprano sax, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock on electric piano and organ, drummer Jack DeJohnette, bassist Dave Holland, percussionist Airto Moreira and others. The set also sees the addition of two key members to Miles’ circle: electric bassist Michael Henderson and pianist Keith Jarrett. Henderson would play with Miles until his retirement in 1974 and Jarrett would later contribute to live recordings at the Fillmore and the Cellar Door in Washington, D.C. The set also includes Wayne Shorter’s last recordings with Miles before leaving to form Weather Report.
The set comes with complete sessionography, rare black and white photos of all the musicians, two essays, and a discography of the albums that include music from these recordings. Like the other box sets in this Columbia/Legacy series The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions gives the definitive look at a period of Miles’ rapid musical change in the late 60s and early 70s.