Musings on Miles
Next Wednesday is the 20th anniversary of Miles Davis’ death. I trust you have the altar in your home prepared, the candles ready for lighting.
This year for Season Eighteen, the AJW is presenting Miles’ music for elementary school students. That’s a tough one on a variety of levels. I had some thoughts going in about the challenges, which ran something like:
“Miles’ career is too long and varied to present. Miles’ music is too subtle and complex to be grasped by many adults, much less at that age level. Miles can’t be pigeonholed, making bite-sized classroom presentations inadequate. The Second Great Quintet’s music can only be conveyed effectively by the Second Great Quintet. We don’t have the budget to hire the necessary number of players to pull off Miles’ electric years. To focus solely on the early part of Miles’ career that most jazz musicians are comfortable with would be doing a disservice to his legacy.” And so on, and on.
We all love a challenge, right? So I figured out ways to make all these things work, to the degree possible. And I’m learning a lot in the process. The art of teaching, at least as it applies to music, requires deconstructing something and learning how to put it back together yourself before you can teach someone with little or no concept or context. I’ve been doing this for thirty years, so no big deal. I had great teachers coming up, and I learned from them. Then I stole from them.
But the revelation comes when, in the course of that deconstruction, you discover your own long-held, preconceived notions are just plain wrong. That recently happened to me, in the area of…The Electric Years. <cue spooky haunted house music>
That’s right–that period of Miles’ musical development that lasted a mere twenty-three years, or half his career. A lot of jazz musicians just write that stuff off, like it never happened. Until recently, I was one of those folks.
But now that I’m playing it every week, my perspective has changed. I’m finding it a real challenge to play music from Miles’ electric period, and that surprises me. Why, you ask?
Just to take a musical example: let’s compare the chord changes to an early-period Miles Davis composition to one of his later ones. Here are the solo changes to the first sixteen bars of Four:
Ebmaj/Ebmaj/Ebmin/Ab7/Fmin/Fmin/Abmin/Db7/Ebmaj/F#min B7/Fmin/Dmin7b5 G7b5/Ebmaj/F#min B7/Fmin/Bb7
And here are the solo changes to the first sixteen bars of Speak:
OK, so. A cursory analysis would seem to indicate that it would be easier to play the second tune, right? I mean, it’s all one chord! Come on! Can it really even be called a tune? Isn’t that just a sound?
But here’s the thing: bebop-derived jazz, with its complicated chord progressions and substitutions and its breakneck tempos, is easier to play than jamming over one chord and making a meaningful music statement. There, I said it.
Why? Because the higher degree of complexity means that once you learn how to navigate those changes and tempos, you can plug ‘n’ play. The tunes become a series of interchangeable parts, like Musical Legos, and the player no longer needs to think or even feel. You can still sound good over bebop changes by playing what you have played before on other similar tunes. And by their highly specific nature, the chords are sending you down well-worn paths (i.e., ruts) that you have traveled many times before. So I can meet other beboppers at any jam session anywhere in the world, share the secret handshake, and we’re off.
Bebop doesn’t have to be played this way, of course. The best players keep it consistently fresh. But those diminished/whole tone licks are standing just off in the wings, waiting for you to take the easy choice. Kind of like the pusher, always there when you need him. It’s so easy, kid. First one’s free. Just start with this whole-tone scale, it’s mellow…
On the other hand, what do you do with an open G7? There are no paths anymore. All that study, those hours of practice learning progressions–throw them away. You just landed on the surface of the moon. Now find your way home, or someplace more interesting.
I knew that if I was going to play this stuff, I would need some help. So I went back to the source. I bought a DVD of Miles Davis Live at Montreux Highlights, from appearances recorded between 1973 and 1991, the year of his untimely death. And I watched, and I listened.
From a sax player’s perspective, the 18 years chronicled here are a treasure trove: from Dave Liebman to Bill Evans, Bob Berg, David Sanborn, and on up to Kenny Garrett. But no surprise there: Miles always had the best, because the best would flock to Miles.
There is a lot of variety in these performances, but almost all of the improvisations are being delivered over one or two-chord jams. No form for the most part–the soloists play as long as they feel like until they either choose to end or are cut off by Miles coming in, or directing someone else to enter.
This music has to be played truthfully. It doesn’t give you the opportunity to be glib or preconceived. You have to approach it with fresh ears and no expectations as to your own impact or outcome, or else it doesn’t work. You can’t direct this or force it to go somewhere, any more than you can direct the waves at the seashore. But you can ride it! And you may fly up top over the waves for a while. Or, you may gulp some seawater.
It’s all good. Thank you, Miles.