This double album chronicles Davis’ most recent Philharmonic Hall concert, featuring his On The Corner band. It’s an excellent group, and on the surface Davis would seem to be doing the musicians a disservice by neglecting to identify them by name. But in Davis’ mind, it’s probably a question of self-preservation. Playing with Miles has become, not just a road to stardom and gigs but almost the only road for an enterprising young jazzman to follow. The stores are full of albums by recent and not-so-recent Davis graduates — Columbia itself released LPs by Weather Report and Herbie Hancock along with In Concert — and it seems to be getting to the point where musicians will stay with the master only long enough to find the wherewithal to front their own groups. The pernicious star/sideman syndrome (which has been responsible for much bad rock as well as some bad jazz) has run amok in the rarefied atmosphere surrounding Davis’ Mt. Olympus.
Davis’ current style, which has been developing since Bitches Brew and which has changed surprisingly little considering the continuing personnel changes, is conversational in conception. But this is no drawing room banter; the music is like-the supercharged, jiving conversation one hears on ghetto streets. Structures are minimal — a melodic fragment, a single chord — and rather than jamming away, the instruments speak in short, isolated bursts. Each player speaks and waits for another player to answer, but there are so many players there is always more than one line being stated. And Miles talks more and hipper than anyone. On In Concert he is playing throughout most of the music, which is all for the best since the band seems to really coalesce as a unit only when he is audibly in the lead.
Davis’ work here makes extensive use of the wah-wah, and of the speech-like inflections he was once so quick to deride in the work of Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman. Next to Davis, the most important player is bassist Michael Henderson, the only holdover from Davis’ previous group, whose stacatto style is influencing Fender bassists everywhere and who is the perfect bottom for Miles’ latest explorations. The two-hand drummers — Mtume, who is the son of saxophonist Jimmy Heath, and the Indian tabla wizard Badal Roy — are excellent, and their interaction melds the Third World’s two strongest rhythmic trips, African and Indian, into an expressive and melodic dialogue. Keyboard man Webster Lewis is also outstanding, his synthesizer is used tastefully, for accent and punctuation, in contrast to the rampant and pointless electronics now favored by certain former Davis sidemen. Sorry Miles, it looks like you’re raising another crop of young geniuses who will no doubt want to form bands of their own before long.
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The one real bummer is the short shrift given to Carlos Garnett’s soulful, creative soprano sax work. He was virtually inaudible during the concert and he is difficult to hear on the record, as he was throughout On The Corner. Garnett deserves a better hearing, and it’s not surprising that he has left Davis, to be replaced by Dave Liebman. But overall the music is bracing, popping, at least one step ahead of the many Davis imitators. There are few real surprises, but there’s a continuing skein of rhythms, themes and developments that makes fine extended listening. The trend toward long jams, blues shuffles and Latin rhythms which Miles is championing may prove self-defeating if he keeps at it too long, but there can be no doubt that he is still leading the pack.