A Tribute to Jack Johnson is not what you expect from a jazz album. It's not even what you expect from a jazz fusion album, the pieces of rock and roll and jazz refusing to intertwine as gracefully as a band such as the Mahavishnu Orchestra would demand. In spirit, and in tone, it may be closer to the blues than anything else. It's the day as it passes you by on the corner, it's beer and hot, trashy food from a local vendor, it's a sweaty, filthy old man lusting after some sweet young thing because he's got nothing to lose from pursuing his baser instincts. It's grimy, it's gritty, and most of all, it feels undoubtedly, indescribably real.
Right off the bat, you can plainly see that Miles, even if he was in his 40s when the album came out, understands the tone and ambition of unbridled youth. Remember, this music served as a tribute to a black man who would unapologetically destroy his white opponents in the ring and later sleep with their wives, back in an era where simply being in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and having the wrong colored skin could put you on the end of a branch. Jack Johnson's brashness, fearlessness and pride are captured perfectly in the first song, "Right Off". John McLaughlin jams along with guitar riffs deep and crackly enough to make even John Lee Hooker do a double take. Miles' soloing is joyous but sharp-he's having a good time, but don't let that stop you from thinking he doesn't have something to prove. Billy Cobham doesn't get much opportunity to stretch his legs, but he keeps a thick, funky rhythm throughout, and if he isn't already, than Michael Henderson, young as he was at the time, deserves a spot next to Bootsy Collins and Larry Graham as one of the best funk bassists to have ever lived: His bass lines are as smooth as silk and heavy as stone. Herbie Hancock puts in an appearance during the last 10 minutes that sends off the first 2/3rds of the song before it ends with an electrifying guitar-centered jam, courtesy of John McLaughlin. While it stretches a bit long in places, "Right Off", with all its verve and boldness, is truly one of the finest jams ever recorded.
"Yesternow", while a bit less driving a bit more mellow, is no less powerful in its own right. If Henderson was great on the first track, than he's positively transcendent here-his bass lines build the foundation of the song, and stick out on their own as being chill but forceful, a combination many bassists would and will never accomplish. Cobham gets a bit more room to improvise, since the song structure is less demanding, and John McLaughlin's guitar gains a psychedelic, near Hendrix-like attitude that seeps in and around the music. Miles himself has a relatively wide berth from the song, but when he does play it's the same mix of unshakable calm and jagged bravado. One would think that a complete lineup change halfway through the song would spell catastrophe, but while it is jarring at first, it soon gains a funky, badass edge that's only befitting as a tribute for one of the funkiest badasses who ever lived. "A Tribute to Jack Johnson" ends the exact same way it began-with its finger on the trigger and a devilish smile spreading across its face.
This album is a rather singular entity in the musical landscape. No album before or since has mixed such technical complexity with such honest, streetwise intensity. It certainly isn't a perfect album-as I alluded to earlier, parts of it are too long and there's a frustrating lack of closure on the first track-but I'm going to go right ahead and call this "Essential" anyway, since this belongs in the collection of any jazz fan, any rock fan, hell, any MUSIC fan who'd like to take a walk on the wild side. "A Tribute to Jack Johnson" is as groovy as you can get without actually being George Clinton, and it sends a clear message to the musical world of the 1970s: "Are you listening? Because THIS is how it's done."
"I'm Jack Johnson -- heavyweight champion of the world! I'm black! They never let me forget it. I'm black all right; I'll never let THEM forget it."