Tuesday, September 28, 2010

September 28: Miles Davis, "So What"

Artist: Miles Davis
Song: "So What"
Album: Kind Of Blue
Year: 1959

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Though they are rather infrequent, there are a handful of moments in music history that one can point to as clear turning points in the progression of music.  While these moments can take on many forms, in most cases, they are either the debut of a new artist, or a work of an established artist that is so extraordinary, nothing after was the same.  Then of course, there are one or two artists where there are so many of these events, one can only try to track them on their personal timeline as the artist in question reshaped music time and time again.  With this in mind, one can easily make the case that over the past century, there was no other artist that provided as many "world changing" moments as one finds within the music of Miles Davis.  From his development of the West Coast "cool" sound of jazz to his wildly unique work during the psychedelic era, Davis spent nearly half a century reshaping the idea of "what" could constitute jazz, and proving that there were no limitations to this definition.  During this time, he released countless legendary records, but few hold the reverence and iconic status as his flawless 1959 album, Kind Of Blue.  Seen by many as "the" definitive jazz record, the album stands as the blueprint for countless jazz concepts, and it also boasts what may very well be the greatest grouping of musicians in history.  Though there is not a sub-par moment anywhere on the record, to understand Miles Davis, one need only experience his 1959 classic composition, "So What."

Truth be told, looking at the liner notes to Kind Of Blue is very much akin to reading the back cover of any generic book on jazz history.  The names go beyond the idea of an "all star" lineup, and there is no question that the sextet here represent the most impressive collection of musicians on one album in history.  Opening "So What" is piano giant Bill Evans and double bass master Paul Chambers, alongside drummer Jimmy Cobb.  This rhythm section is truly unparalleled, and the trio set a brilliant theme in motion, kicking off with a fantastic swing, as well as deploying Davis' trademark "cool" from the very top of the track.  In retrospect, "So What" boasts one of the stranger openings, as Evans and Chambers completely flesh out an extended solo before dropping into the compositions' main theme.  The drumming from Cobb is nothing short of stellar, and it is due to his playing that the track is able to keep its "cool" feel throughout, as his laid back approach is flawless.  It is this almost overly relaxed element that makes "So What" so unique, as even during the more pronounced soloing, the mellow mood never dissipates.  Due to this aspect, as well as the musical structure, "So What" represents the pinnacle of "modal jazz," and the thirty-two bar format in which the song was written makes the song far more accessible, as this is the style in which most pop songs are composed.  In terms of both structure, as well as the deployment of the backbone of the song, there is simply nothing that can compare to "So What."

While one can argue the unparalleled level of talent within the rhythm section, the trio that round out The Miles Davis Sextet is nothing short of unbelievable.  Standing as three of the most iconic names in all of jazz, on "So What," one finds Davis' trumpet complimented by the alto and tenor saxophone of Julian "Cannonball" Adderley and none other than John Coltrane respectively.  Both Adderley and Coltrane take a turn working around Davis' theme, and there are few other moments in music history where one can so easily listen to the differences in stylistic approach of three jazz icons.  Adderley and Coltrane are both given all the space they need to deploy their sound, and there is a very light, likely unintentional echo that surrounds both of their performances, and this gives "So What" an almost ethereal mood.  Yet while both Adderley and Coltrane perform in phenomenal fashion, it is the composer, Davis himself, that delivers the most stunning performance.  After setting the opening pace and mood, Davis steps completely away from the track, letting the others work the song, but rejoins them all to help deliver what may very well be the "coolest" two minutes ever recorded.  Repeating a two-note progression as "So What" closes, Davis proves that it is often what you don't play that becomes more significant, and as "So What" ends, his matchless talent as both a composer and player become impossible to argue.

With his name alone, Miles Davis instantly demands the highest level of respect from any musician from any genre from any era.  Unquestionably one of the two or three most important musicians to ever record, it is impossible to fully capture how much impact Davis had on the development of music in general.  While one can take a recording from any of the many phases of his musical career, it is his 1959 album, Kind Of Blue, that truly rewrote the books on music.  Due to both his own musical vision, as well as the fact that he was surrounded by five other legends of jazz, the album remains the quintessential jazz recording more than five decades later.  Though each of the five tracks on the album are brilliant in their own right, it is "So What" that perfectly displays everything that makes both Davis and this grouping so extraordinary.  Looking at "So What" as a whole, while the song itself is rather simple, it is the unsurpassed manner in which each of the musicians approaches the arrangement that makes it so impressive, and it is perhaps this brilliant simplicity that makes the song so amazing.  The combination of the unwavering "cool" from Cobb behind the powerful, yet controlled performances from the horn section is something that must be experienced firsthand to be properly appreciated.  Though his name alone is often intimidating to "casual" music fans, in every sense of the word, Miles Davis' 1959 recording, "So What" is as essential and musically perfect as one will find anywhere else in the entire history of recorded music.

1 comment:

Nate said...

Great blog. I love Miles Davis and your "so what" article falls on the anniversary of his passing. A great homage to a master.