What made MIles Davis’ sound?
In this essay, I am going to discuss the sound of Miles davis. What makes MIles davis who he is in the history of jazz and all the elements that found the foundation to his success.
As we know, the birth of cool jazz in the 1950s is the creation in reaction to the bebop period hti the 1940s. Bebop is fast and complex in the aspects of both harmony and melody. A standard bebop tune is usually performed at tempo at around 200 bmp or up. Harmonically, the chord progressions change every bar. In the turnaround sections sometimes it has 4 different chard for a measure. Also there will be key change in 4 measures or less. The extreme example is the tune “Giant Step” using the technique called multi-tonic system. It changes key in every measure in the first 3 measures and keeps circling in the key of B major G major and Eb major. That being said, musicians in that period were tire of the fast and complex nature of the trend in jazz music and they were looking for new element and sound in jazz. This is the seed planted and waiting to blossom to a new style in jazz, the cool jazz.
Gil Evans, one of the most import figures of the cool jazz era, has just moved to New York City from california in 1946. The first night he arrived in the New York City, he went straight to 52nd street and met some of the big names in jazz such as, Bud Powell, Erroll Garner, Ben Webster and Dizzy Gillespie. The next day he settled down at the basement apartment near 14 west 55 street. This is the place where the cool jazz was born because later on, it became the place where all the great jazz musicians of all time gather together to discuss the future of jazz. Musicians such as Gerry Mulligan, Johnny Carisi, George Russell, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie parker and more will come by there and have discussions. And this is the place where Gil Evans and Miles Davis generate the bond to collaborate and flourish their musicianship as the creator of cool jazz.
The one of the most import results of the discussion in the apartment is the idea for Miles Davis Nonet. Gil Evans arranged Miles Davis tune Dona Lee for Thornhill band in 1947 set the tone for Miles Davis band later. The instrumentation of using French horn, trombone, Tuba, Trumpet. Alto and baritone sax and rhythm section gives a brand new texture of sound people had never heard of before. Later the all time classic album “birth of the cool” released in 1957 with all the essence of the knowledge cool jazz period.
Here I am going to show two example to demonstrate and analyze the music to explain what makes Miles davis sound like Miles davis. The first song is called “ So What”. It is a modal tune in D minor. Medium tempo and mostly mezzo piano in dynamic. The song start with a catchy bass line motive in the first measure and the answer phrase with two piano chords. This first two-bar phrase repeat 4 times. In the 5th time Miles’ trumpet line came in playing the two note as an answer with the piano. It played another 4 times then goes straight up a half step to Eb minor for 4 times and goes back to D minor and played another 4 times as the whole intro and the main theme. Right after that comes Miles’ solo for a few choruses. In his solo, he played his trumpet with very smooth legato articulations. No big change in dynamic. His phrases was poetic in the way of good use of space. Unlike Charlie Parker, the sound of bebop, playing lightening fast 16th notes up and down with scales and arpeggios with chromatic notes, the smallest division of musical note he played was 8th note. He will play a phase and pulse for a few beats. Then start the next phrase and end with long note hanging. He will take his time and play scales with chromatic approach or even repeat the same note with interesting rhythm. His awareness of time space in the music set the tone of this song. After his solo, the sax and piano take solo and it end with the main theme in the end.
The second song is Gil Evan’s arrangement of “My ship”. In this tune, Gil uses exactly the sound of Miles Davis. He uses the instrumentation of Nonet band with French horn, trombone, Tuba, Trumpet. Alto and baritone sax and rhythm section. The whole song is in mezzo piano to mezzo forte in dynamic. The tempo is slow as in a jazz ballad tune. The whole song uses many half notes and the rhythmic motive. The extensive use of reharmonization in this tune is incredible. Every note has its own harmony for the texture. This is a perfect representation of the sound of Miles Davis in the hand of Gil Evan’s arrangement.
All in all, the sound of Miles Davis is the result of collaboration of the great musicians in the 1950s. It is the collective intelligence presented by the great Miles Davis.