Fans of Miles Davis' electric period — a dozen or so albums roughly spanning the years 1968-75 — can close their eyes and conjure up 1972's On the Corner: the relentless hi-hat, hypnotic bass ostinatos, darting guitars, tablas and struck metals, the wordless sound of arguments, traffic, grime and smog. It's the sound of the bustling city and its citizens, soaked in sweat, fire-hydrant fountains and psychedelics, McMuffin steam and cigarillo smoke. Music for healthy living, this ain't.
This Sunday, a group of players will re-create On the Corner on the main campus of the University of New Haven. (A pre-concert talk begins at 5:15 p.m.) The organizer of the concert, bassist Chris Reba, teaches a variety of music and sound production classes at UNH; he'll perform with other former members of a Buffalo, N.Y.-area band called Bird With Strings — keyboardist Otto Muller, electronic musician Robert Phillips, drummer Will Redman and guitarist William Sack.
In graduate school, Reba said, Bird With Strings would get together to improvise over pop tunes — Aretha Franklin, Biggie Smalls, whatever was in the air, even entire albums — then quickly play a live show. “We'd learn all these tunes and just go to a gig,” Reba said. “It would be mostly free improvisation that would float in and out of these tunes.” They'll approach On the Corner in a similar way: by only practicing on the morning of the show. “It keeps it fresh... All of us know the album. We know the material. It's just a matter of getting comfortable and having some basic guidelines.”
Davis' album, with its now-iconic, cartoon cover art depicting characters on a street corner, was essentially a pastiche of jams culled by producer Teo Macero from hours and hours of taped material. Twenty or so musicians played on the sessions, including guitarists David Creamer and John McLaughlin; keyboard players Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Harold Williams and Lonnie Smith; drummers Jack DeJohnette, Billy Cobham, Al Foster and Jabali Billy Hart; reedmen Dave Liebman, Carlos Garnett and Bennie Maupin; tabla player Badal Roy and bassist Michael Henderson, who was still only 21 years old when the album was released. Largely panned in its day (and, at the time, Davis' worst-selling album), it's now considered a forward-thinking rock/funk experiment that has aged well. (A 6-CD deluxe box set of the complete sessions was released in 2007, with an attractive, metal case and extensive essays and artwork.)
Reba's group performed a similar tribute to Davis' landmark 1970 Bitches Brew at Finger Lakes Community College in Canandaigua, N.Y. several years ago, and they've been itching to tackle On the Corner ever since. For the show, Reba augmented the group by adding tabla player Ranera Das and Joseph Getter on soprano and synth saxes. “It's really influential to the people in this ensemble,” he said. “We're trying to keep the instrumentation fairly close to the original.”
The musicians will convene the morning of the concert for an all-day rehearsal, working with spare arrangements, allowing for as much free improvisation as possible. “Because of the nature of what we do, we'll probably go a little more outside of what happens on the album,” Reba said, likening the grooves to pedal points in the music of J.S. Bach, where often they are the only elements locking down unlikely successions of harmonies. “The point with this is that the groove holds everything together, especially the bass and drums... The groove continues on, and everyone else in the band can get pretty far outside.”
On Sunday, one important instrument will be missing: the trumpet.
“We thought it would be sacrilegious to have a trumpet player,” Reba said. “It's our homage without trying to be too literal.”
Miles Davis' On the Corner Live, May 12, 6 p.m. (pre-concert talk 5:15 p.m.), University Theater, Dodds Hall, University of New Haven, 300 Boston Post Road, West Haven, newhaven.edu.