Miles Davis – A Tribute to Jack Johnson

A Tribute To Jack Johnson (album cover)

A Tribute To Jack Johnson (album cover)

After writing yesterday’s article, The Evolution of Trey’s Tone – Part II, I began thinking further about the factors that have influenced Trey’s most recent tonal change.  It is clear that at certain points in Phish’s career they have been influenced by certain musicians more than others.  However, there are certain influences that have constantly remained present in Phish’s playing.  A Tribute to Jack Johnson by Miles Davis is one of those influences.  Completely improvisational, and featuring only two songs, both over 20 minutes, this album  is one of the finest pieces of music ever recorded.

In 1971 Miles released A Tribute to Jack Johnson as the soundtrack to a documentary about the boxer Jack Johnson. The album defines jam music in the realest sense.  Miles’ band at the time featured Steve Grossman on soprano sax, Michael Henderson on bass, Herbie Hancock on the organ, Billy Cobham on drums, and the legendary John “Mahavishnu” McLaughlin on guitar. A stellar lineup to say the least.

The story goes like this: McLaughlin, Cobham, Grossman and Davis had scheduled a recording session at Columbia studio in New York. As per usual, Miles was late, and so the band began improvising without him. Herbie Hancock, who happened to be in the building at the time, was brought in at the last minute to play organ. The producers began recording, and when Miles showed up late, he liked what he heard. He stepped in the studio, and at 2:19 on the first track “Right Off” Miles begins his solo.  The album includes the recordings that occurred at Columbia studio on April 7, 1970 mixed with some of Miles’ solo recordings from 1969.

Miles Davis 1971 (J. Perrson)

Miles Davis 1971 (J. Perrson)

The music is a raw sounding improvisational form of fusion jazz.  Characterized by Miles’ outside modal playing and McLaughlin’s gritty guitar sound, Jack Johnson borders on funk-rock.  This album has always been one of my favorites, as it takes the listener on a transcendent musical journey. The chaotic highpoints blended together with the melodic plateaus provide contour to the musical landscapes.  The playing is tight yet highly exploratory. 

Jack Johnson, above all, is a timeless piece of music.  Even though it was released in 1970, the music sounds as though it is brand new.    The playing on the album was extremely groundbreaking, as it brought the spirit of both rock and funk music to jazz.  Using electric instruments in this fashion was nearly unheard of  at the time.  Very few, if any, jazz musicians were using distortion effects such as the one used by McLaughlin on the album.

The first song “Right Off” begins with an edgy, funky groove.  The groove never quite leaves the song, as it delves into ambiance, before returning back to finish the song off. The second song “Yesternow” lifts the bass line from James Brown’s “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”, and features some alternate musicians, such as Dave Holland and Chick Corea, in parts.  Miles’ playing on both tracks features some of his most complex and tightest music ever recorded.  This piece of music is loaded with energy blurring all lines between musical genres.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

Beginning with Silent Way in 1969, and then Bitches Brew in 1970, Miles introduced a highly innovative sound to jazz music.  Using electric instruments and accompanied by a guitar, Miles’ bands were a cross between jazz, rock and funk.  Although not as commercially successful as the prior album Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson exhibits what many feel is the finest playing of all three. In a 1995 interview with Addicted to Noise, Trey said the following with regard to the album:

“Right now I think Miles is probably the cutting edge in every stage along his career. I’ve been really heavily influenced by this Miles Davis album, A Tribute to Jack Johnson. John McLaughlin plays on it, and he plays really differently from how he normally plays, he’s in a great space on that album, and I think that’s really affected me a lot, that whole kind of style. And Miles influenced a lot of these rock bands, like the Dead or something.”

Interesting little factoid: The intro music to disc 2 of A Live One is part of “Right Off”.

Listen to “Right Off”, the first track off Jack Johnson. Pay close attention at 2:19 as Miles comes in with his soaring modal solo (if you are unfamiliar with the modes check out our article on them: Modal Exploration). Give this one a bit of time to load, its quite long, but well worth it.


Also, in 2004 Trey recorded a session with Herbie Hancock at the farmhouse. Below is one of the recordings from that session showing some of the same type of improvisational playing as is heard on Jack Johnson.



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2 thoughts on “Miles Davis – A Tribute to Jack Johnson

  1. Matt,
    there were only 3 jams that surfaced from the session years ago. When i get back from saratoga i will be sure to post them. They really are very interesting, and all 3 are very different! Check back next week.

    Thanks for reading.

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