Monday, April 22, 2019

What?!: So What

Miles Davis: So What

I’m pretty sure that I’ve lamented here at some point that I’m not a musician, and don’t really have the knowledge or vocabulary to analyze music, which is why most of my writing about music is some combination of historical discussion, memories tied to the music and personal opinions about what I like and what I don’t like. For someone who purports to opine about music for an audience, it is a real flaw, but as you can see, from the nearly 100 pieces that I’ve written here, plus the ones elsewhere, I haven’t let this stop me.

So, when I read that Miles Davis’ album, 1959’s Kind of Blue was important because it showed Davis was moving from hard bop to a modal approach, I’m really not sure what that means. But, I know what I like, and the music on Kind of Blue is incredible, even if I can’t really explain why. The fact that it is, by many accounts, the greatest selling jazz album of all time, and to some, the greatest jazz album of all time, tells me that I’m not the only one who likes it. Plus, I’m willing to bet that most of the purchasers couldn’t explain the difference between hard bop and modal.

The first song on the album, “So What,” may well be Davis’ most well-known song (although there appears to be some thinking that Gil Evans wrote the introduction). The title reportedly came from actor Dennis Hopper’s response to Davis’ intellectual musings.

The playing by Davis and the other members of his sextet, a veritable Jazz Hall of Fame consisting of saxophonists John Coltrane and Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, pianist Bill Evans, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb, is amazing. But let me quote someone who knows what he is talking about, Richard Cook, author of It’s About That Time: Miles Davis On and Off Record and former editor of Jazz Review:

The mystery of the piece is its air of elusive, almost secretive possibility. One feels that the solos could go anywhere, could follow any path, could drift on without stopping, and not feel ‘wrong’. It is a definition piece of jazz, if one identifies that music as something played by intuition and living on its instincts. For once, there seems to be no contrast in the solos played by Davis, Coltrane and Adderley: they move seamlessly together, as if each man were playing his part in a predetermined plan. Evans’s accompaniments are handsomely shaded, although one has to strain to follow him: the ear is drawn irresistibly to the horns and what they are saying. On his own solo, which features some surprisingly dissonant voicings that he plays on the bridge, the horns riff behind him. In the end, the music drifts back towards Chambers and his ostinato melody, Jimmy Cobb ticking impassively at his ride cymbal, Evans playing the so-what tag, and the entire piece fading away into silence.

Interestingly, when they played the song live, they played it faster, which I think detracts from some of that mystery, but does show off the musicians’ chops.

By the time I saw Miles Davis, in 1985, he had long passed the point that his music had the kind of influence that it had back when Kind of Blue was released, and for some time after. But he was playing to large crowds, including at the Pier on Manhattan’s West Side where I saw him (with Stanley Jordan, just a few years out of college at that point, opening). What I remember most about that concert (other than being amazed that Stanley was opening for Miles Davis), was that Davis’ band was incredible, that he spent much of the show playing with his back to the audience, and that occasionally, his playing was pretty remarkable.

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