One could call this album Metal Machine Miles—it is filled with electronic beeps and metallic clangs, and a very looped, robotic feel. It engages by trance and repetition. Miles’ wah-wah trumpet announces itself and disappears, and returns sounding a pattern rather than a melody; everything seems to be about shifting rhythms and shifting grooves. On On The Corner—a double album with just four tracks, one per vinyl side—rhythm is in fact the message.
Two music-shapers had Miles’ ear at this point. On The Corner owes much of its sound to Miles’ lashing some of their musical ideas to the jazz-rock-soul train he was steering in 1972. One of them was electronic composer and tape-music pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose compositions wove together patterns of found sounds and electronic-generated beats, moments dropping in and out. Miles later wrote of the “circular” effect of the music he was drawn to, and how Stockhausen made him aware of music as “a process of elimination and addition.”
Paul Buckmaster—the British producer and arranger—was the other musical influence who shaped On The Corner in multiple fashion: serving as an arranger for a few of its tracks, playing electric cello on the album, and turning Miles on to Stockhausen’s methods. He also helped give it its science-fiction feel: “this idea I had to combine strange space music with street music,” he later described.
Miles himself freely admitted On The Corner—with the music inside and the hip, animated street-scene on the cover—was a conscious attempt to reach younger black ears, combining dance-floor rhythms with headier, top-line ideas and wide-open, musical palette. Tracks like “Black Satin” serve that balance: an undulating pulse on an Indian tabla yields to a slippery groove and insistent handclaps, a whistle-and-muted-trumpet melodic fragment that fades in and out, as do textured electronic sounds. The multi-sectioned opening track—titled “On the Corner/New York Girl/Thinkin’ One Thing and Doin’ Another/Vote for Miles”—is an exercise in maintaining a rich rhythmic development, never dropping the beat as different solo moments and moods pass by: wah-wah trumpet, soprano saxophone, slashing guitar—at times all sounding alike.
In fact On The Corner sought to hide the idea of distinct sounds, the overall sound was the priority; layers not players. The cover did not identify specific musicians. Miles was still working with the best and he freely called on many who were not part of his working band. On The Corner benefits from more than 19 musicians, including four different keyboardists (Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Cedric Lawson and Harold Ivory Williams), three reed players (Dave Liebman, Carlos Garnett, Bennie Maupin), three guitarists (John McLaughlin, Reggie Lucas, Dave Creamer), and a half-dozen percussionists.
On The Corner is the one Miles album that needed time for its true value to be appreciated. It first met harsh reviews when it was released in 1972. Today it’s praised for planting seeds that are still flowering. Author John Szwed writes that with this album “Davis broke every rule enforced by the jazz police. Yet today … we hear that Davis was laying the foundations for drum ‘n’ bass, trip hop, Jungle, and all the other musics of repetition to come.”