Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Electric Mr. Davis

I'm only on my second blog post and I'm already writing something that doesn't exactly go along with new music theme. However, Miles Davis is always both hip and controversial. The breadth of his music makes him very hard to pin down--it is hard to say definitively what Miles was all about. The following is my attempt to make sense of the great stylistic shifts in Davis's career, especially from his 1960s quintet to "In a Silent Way" and "Bitches Brew," with an emphasis on the latter.

Listening to trumpeter Miles Davis’s seminal album “Bitches Brew” is never an easy or comfortable activity. From the eerily dissonant opening chord on the album’s title track to the churning, fluctuating tempo of the final tune, “Feio,” there are few musical ideas for the listener to hold onto. The music is complex, foreboding, and long-winded (with some tunes stretching into the twenty-minute range). But what gives this music its true shock value is its departure from Davis’s previous music. Davis was as concise a trumpet player as there was in jazz at the time. In his early career in the 1940s and ‘50s, Davis became attracted to the playing of pianist Thelonius Monk, in particular Monk’s use of space. Where some jazz improvisers would play seven or eight notes, Monk would play only two or three, but the placement of those few notes made them just as meaningful as the many of other musicians, particularly bebop improvisers like the saxophonist Charlie Parker. Davis applied this approach to his trumpet-playing and was lauded for his unique style, which combined lyricism with a strong sense of swing. The critics and fans who had supported Davis’s work throughout the 1950s and ‘60s felt betrayed by his use of rock rhythms and electronic instruments on “Bitches Brew.” In their minds, the concision and simple beauty of such albums as “Kind of Blue” were nowhere to be found in “Bitches Brew”.

Even long after its initial release, “Bitches Brew” remained controversial. In the early 1990s, jazz critic Stanley Crouch wrote a scathing analysis of Davis’s jazz-rock fusion music in an article titled “On the Corner: The Sellout of Miles Davis.” In the article, Crouch universally praises Davis’s work through 1969. But for him, “Bitches Brew” bears no resemblance to Davis’s previous work and lacks its strong musical values. Crouch questions why Davis changed his music so radically in 1969 and comes up with a simple conclusion: Miles Davis sold out to rock music by adopting its rhythms and instrumentation to become more popular and sell more records. Certainly, Davis achieved those ends with his fusion recordings; “Bitches Brew” was his first album to receive gold record status and Davis played for enormous crowds around the world, including at rock and roll festivals. While his assessment turns Davis’s life into a dramatic Faustian narrative, Crouch is too quick to dismiss Davis’s fusion and the shared values that “Bitches Brew” holds with the rest of Davis’s music. “Bitches Brew” was not a dumbing down of jazz for rock audiences, but a necessary next step in Davis’s musical development, part of a continuance of innovations Davis had used throughout his career. Because he lacked technical facility on the trumpet, Davis could not just play in the accepted jazz style of his era and compete with his more gifted contemporaries, but had to rewrite the rules of jazz in order to be heard.

Miles Davis’s lack of technical facility on the trumpet could not have been due to a lack of formal training. At the age of 18, Davis arrived in New York City from East St. Louis, Illinois in 1944 to study music at the Juilliard School. However, Davis’s real musical education took place at late-night jam sessions with such players as trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. These two musicians were the foremost progenitors of a new style of jazz called bebop, a hard-edged masculine style that placed great emphasis on technical virtuosity and harmonic complexity. In the world of bebop, one’s technical virtuosity was judged by how fast, how loudly, and for how long one could play. A devotee of Parker and Gillespie, Davis shadowed the two players, trying to learn their solo vocabularies and eventually played alongside Parker on several recordings. However, Davis was never truly comfortable or proficient playing in the bebop style. On a recording of “Crazeology” with Charlie Parker, Davis’s solo features many bebop styled licks borrowed from Parker, but it lacks the confidence and clarity of a Gillespie solo. Davis’s solo lines are a mediocre facsimile of Parker’s and his sound is thin and quiet, staying within the trumpet’s middle range—almost the antithesis of what Gillespie would do. Davis could not keep up with the best beboppers and he knew it. But instead of admitting defeat and remaining a second-tier bebop player, Davis decided to rewrite the conventions of jazz to showcase his true strength as a player: his diaphanous and expressive tone.

Davis’s transformations of jazz conventions can be separated into two main categories: alteration of group sound and texture and the simplification of harmonic language. These changes contrasted sharply with bebop, a style that featured many chord changes at breakneck speeds and relatively standard instrumentation (usually one or two horns accompanied by piano, bass, and drums), illustrating Davis’s attempt to break out of the style. As a bandleader, Davis frequently experimented with unusual instrumentation outside the accepted norms for a jazz group. On his first major album as a leader, “Birth of the Cool,” recorded in 1949, Davis used instruments like the baritone sax, tuba, and French horn. By using these instruments, Davis placed less emphasis on his own individual improvisation and more on the unique group sound: the blending of the different instrumental textures with his trumpet tone. This use of texture proved effective in creating different moods, especially on the impressionistic ballad “Moon Dreams,” whose Debussy-influenced harmonies certainly create a scene that reflects the song’s title. By placing such emphasis on texture and mood, Davis was able to create lasting and interesting jazz without needing to satisfy the bebop concept of technical proficiency. This album helped launch Davis’s popularity, as listeners loved his romantic lyricism that was featured so prominently. As such, listeners did not see him as a failed bebopper who was attempting to get noticed, but rather an alternative to the overtly aggressive bebop style. By playing jazz that accentuated his lyrical, expressive tone and not his speed and power, Davis created music that proved just as innovative as bebop, spawning a new jazz style known appropriately as “cool.”

Throughout the 1950s, Davis continued to experiment with different musical textures within his groups. In a series of collaborations with the arranger Gil Evans, Davis was backed by a twenty-piece big band that featured atypical jazz instruments, like flute, and textures derived from European classical music. But as he experimented with instrumentation, Davis also began experimenting with new forms of improvisation that would once again bring out his strengths and cover up his technical deficiencies. First on his album “Milestones” and then on his seminal recording “Kind of Blue,” Davis performed tunes that were not based on complex chord progressions but instead based on modes, different formations of the standard major scale. Instead of chords changing once or twice a measure like in a common jazz standard or bebop tune, these modes would stay in place for as much as eight measures at a time. This slowing of the harmonic motion created more improvisatory freedom as the soloist could concentrate on phrasing, melody, and alterations in sound instead of trying to navigate complex chord progressions. This freedom made modal tunes much easier to play from a technical standpoint, as a soloist did not need a strong vocabulary of learned licks or even a comprehensive knowledge of harmony to produce an interesting solo. In this way, modal improvisation once again played to Davis’s strengths and minimized his weaknesses. The slow harmonic motion allowed Davis to stretch the space between the notes of his solo, making the listener concentrate not on what he was playing in terms of notes and rhythms, but how he was playing it—the volume, tone quality, and inflection.

Davis uses the space allowed him by the modal improvisation approach most effectively on the final track of “Kind of Blue”, called “Flamenco Sketches.” Although the piece lacks a preconceived melody, Davis’s opening solo is so intensely melodic that it comes off as composed and not improvised. As in many ballads he played, Davis uses a Harmon mute in his trumpet, creating a thinner and more fragile sound that begs the audience to listen in more closely. By changing this tone in such a way, Davis puts the audience’s attention on the quality of his sound, rather than the number of notes he is playing. For example, in Davis’s opening solo as the band transitions from the first to the second mode, Davis blurts out a high note, not piercing like a bebop sound, but again fragile, appearing to falter. Later in the third mode, Davis reaches another high note, but instead of hitting it cleanly, he bends up into it, giving the note a more vocal quality. The fact that these single notes are so notable shows how Davis used modal improvisation to distract the audience from his technical defects. Although the subsequent solos of John Coltrane on tenor saxophone and Cannonball Adderly on alto saxophone feature many more notes and greater technical prowess, their solos are not any more interesting or expressive than Davis’s. Because of the simplicity and freedom of modal improvisation and his exquisite melodicism, Davis was able to play at the same level as more virtuosic soloists.

But while “Kind of Blue” marked a new development in improvisational freedom for Davis, the improvisations on it were still restricted by the use of the traditional swing rhythm. On “Flamenco Sketches” drummer Jimmy Cobb simply lays down the rhythm at an even tempo. While Davis is able to place more space between his notes than in bebop, he can only do it in relation to the steady dictated tempo. In the next decade, Davis would expand improvisatory freedom in terms of rhythm with his quintet featuring the young phenom Tony Williams on drums. In the period between 1964 and 1968, Williams blew up the traditional jazz rhythm as it had been known. Instead of playing the standard ride cymbal pattern with the hi-hat cymbal on beats two and four, Williams freed up all of his limbs and merely implied the time, sometimes implying multiple tempos on top of each other. Again, this freedom in rhythm allowed Davis more freedom in his solos—to stretch and shrink the tempo as desired. And once again, this freedom drew attention away from Davis’s lack of technical virtuosity. This improvisatory freedom and Williams’s propulsive drumming even coaxed Davis to play long, almost bebop style runs, convincing many listeners and critics, Stanley Crouch among them, that Davis did indeed have technical mastery of the trumpet. However, these licks are not as virtuosic as they first appear, as they are not used to connect fast-moving chords like in the traditional bebop style, but rather are just flurries of notes that do not imply harmonic motion like bebop runs do, and are therefore less demanding in a music theoretical sense. What Davis’s playing in this period does suggest, though, is a shift to a more aggressive, blues-influenced style. Williams’s drumming certainly played a part in this development. For example, the performance of “Freedom Jazz Dance” on the album “Miles Smiles” features Williams playing a dressed-up R&B/Funk beat, rife with heavy backbeats and active bass drum patterns. While the aggression of Davis’s music suggests he could capably play in the aggressive bebop style, the music is not more technically demanding than previous kinds because it is based in the simple chord progressions of the blues. Because Davis had exhausted the rhythmic vocabulary of traditional jazz, the potential textures achievable with acoustic instruments, and the greatest simplification of traditional jazz harmony, Davis had few musical directions in which to go in 1969 if he wished to continue to make progressive music.

In this way, Davis’s foray into jazz-rock fusion was not only a viable next step in his artistic progression, but his only choice based on his technique. Many younger trumpeters, most notably Freddie Hubbard, were adopting the style of Davis’s late ‘60s quintet and because of their technical mastery, were doing it better than Davis could. In order to stay ahead of the pack, Davis had to once again rewrite the conventions of jazz and he did it in the same way he had throughout his career: by altering texture, improvisation, and rhythm. The title track on his album “Bitches Brew” is a prime example of his new style, as it features all of the new developments in his music. Firstly, from a textural standpoint, Davis’s use of multiple electric keyboards and guitar gave the music a startling new sound, a sound that like on “Birth of the Cool” took the emphasis off Davis’s trumpet playing and onto the individual sounds made by each musician. Davis settled on these electric instruments not to relate to younger rock-savvy audiences, but because they helped him achieve a clarity and fullness in the accompaniment Davis had only previously been able to achieve in the large big bands orchestrated by Gil Evans. Davis also changed his own trumpet sound, adding percussive articulation to mimic the blues guitar of James Brown’s band and electric wa-wa and delay effects to create an eerie, floating mood in the beginning of the “Bitches Brew” title track. Secondly, from an improvisation standpoint, Davis, instead of merely simplifying the harmony, did away with it entirely. The solo sections are not based on a sequence of chords, but are rather based on a repeating bass line ostinato that allowed both the soloist and accompanists to improvise freely. Again, this improvisation placed emphasis on Davis’s sound, not improvised runs and patterns. And on this album, he was even freer to play what he wanted from a rhythmic standpoint. The first section of “Bitches Brew” is out of tempo entirely, with the multiple drummers and percussionists adding textures instead of dictating rhythm. Once again, Davis was able to mask his playing deficiencies and in the end produce intriguing and popular music.

But for some of Davis’s longtime fans and critical supporters, this last musical development was not a next step for jazz, but a giant leap into another genre of music that was far below his previous work in terms of artistic quality. A critic like Stanley Crouch would argue that Davis’s mid to late ‘60s music was already extremely progressive, as Crouch says Davis’s first quintet album with Tony Williams, “E.S.P.,” still sounds fresh today. Davis did not need to use electronic instruments or rock rhythms to stay ahead of the pack, and he only adopted these techniques to gain popularity and increased record sales. However, Davis would not have been able to make more acoustic jazz albums without stagnating, not just from a technical standpoint, but because of Davis’s itinerant musical personality. At the end of the ‘60s, Davis had been playing jazz that was heavily influenced by European classical music for twenty years, be it the instrumental textures of Gil Evans, or the use of European church modes. “Bitches Brew” was also Davis’s attempt to recapture his musical roots in the blues, especially in the vein of James Brown and B.B. King, whose music Davis frequently listened to. This act is not a sellout, as stated by Crouch, but rather an honest reassertion of his African-American musical heritage. Ironically, Crouch himself acknowledges that “…blues should be the foundation of any innovation in jazz,” and Davis’s innovations on “Bitches Brew” are much more blues-based than any of his others. In the end, Crouch’s criticisms are merely based on his predilections against the sound of electronic instruments and free jazz improvisation, which are mere preferences and not grounds on which to make an artistic judgment.

While Miles Davis will never be remembered for the licks he left behind, his stature as a giant in jazz was in effect caused by his less than remarkable technique. Innovation became a necessity for him and over the length of his career he reinvented jazz multiple times, spawning new styles and inspiring a host of imitators and acolytes. Although critics like Stanley Crouch may always see Davis as a sellout, his legacy among and influence on other musicians is not in doubt. For example, trombone player Conrad Herwig has recorded a “Kind of Blue” tribute album with Latin reinterpretations of those Davis tunes. Davis’s embrace of sounds and rhythms outside the jazz tradition is carried on by countless forward-thinking jazz musicians today from Dave Douglas to Robert Glasper to Darcy James Argue. By never settling for being just another trumpet player, Davis helped open up jazz to new influences that traditional jazz players, comfortable in the accepted style, would not have thought of.


  1. I think I told you once that you should write for The Street or some other campus-based publication that includes music reviews.

  2. with any other critic can be arrogant and jaded. at least he says he's a musician. anyways i hate the fact that critics are taken so seriously. that they are supposed to be our guides, they think we can't figure the music out for ourselves. but if you look at bitches brew for the musicianship and who played on the album, any musical talent stanley possesses pales in comparison to even the newest youngest musician that miles hired. so fug stanley and his opinions.

  3. Very interesting argument. Always loved Miles' style, but thought I heard some technical deficiency. His stylistic changes from one album to the next are extraordinary, so it makes sense that a lack of technique could have forced him to innovate or risk being overtaken, as you say.

  4. but the placement of those few notes made them just as meaningful as the many of other musicians, particularly bebop improvisers like the saxophonist Charlie Parker. classic rock albums