A TRIBUTE TO JACK JOHNSON was originally conceived as the soundtrack for a documentary on the life of the first African American heavyweight boxing champion, but the album stands on its own as one of the most brilliant, compelling fusion recordings ever made. This is due in large part to the increasing influence of rock and funk on Miles's aesthetic, to the superb musicians (including Davis himself-- who turns in some stunningly vigorous solos), and in part to the production skills of Teo Macero, who collaged the album together from numerous jam sessions into two lengthy, majestic tracks.
The infectious boogaloo groove of "Right Off" has John McLaughlin's crunching, wah-wah-driven power chords dancing fervently around the relentless backbeat of Fender bassist Michael Henderson and drummer Billy Cobham. Gone are the trappings of bebop harmonies and modern jazz rhythms, save for Davis's dramatic solo, with its long, linear melodies and nasty blues inflections. The haunting, surreal "Yesternow" is an abstract update of the classic Miles/Gil Evans mood piece. The groove accrues momentum in a dreamy, backwards manner, keying off Henderson's hypnotic modal patterns and McLaughlin's speech-like figures, culminating in an atonal distortion solo by free jazz pioneer Sonny Sharrock. In all, JACK JOHNSON packs a punch like nothing else in the trumpeter's canon, and continues to grow in stature and influence decades after its release.
Q (12/93, p.130) - 3 Stars - Good - "...A TRIBUTE TO JACK JOHNSON is a cult status rarity....it's a treat..."
Uncut (p.121) - 4 stars out of 5 - "[The album] lays down a blistering blueprint which it took the world two decades to catch up with."