The next step in the recent How To Listen To Jazz series is to see/hear the concepts demonstrated. So, everybody should go to iTunes or Amazon or whatever and download the first track from Miles Davis’ 1959 release, Kind Of Blue. The track is called “So What,” and honestly, you should just get the whole record. Click the record title about to see what Wikipedia has to say about it.
Anyway, when I began the email correspondence with Bryan, I used “So What” as an example of how true Jazz improvisation works. Here’s what I told him about the track before he listened to it…
“So What” as an Example of Head-Solo-Head Improvisation
So, now on to that Miles Davis tune. I’m curious to see if you can follow along with the form and the head/solo/head structure. The beginning is a drawn-out intro orchestrated by a friend of Miles at the time (Gil Evans), but the head starts at 0:33, and the solos start at 1:32. The form is 32 measures (typical), separated into 4 phrases of 8 bars. It’s only a single chord/scale (D dorian) for measures 1-8 and 9-16, and then measures 17-24 (1:03) are a different chord that’s only a half step up from the original chord/scale (E flat dorian). Measures 25-32 (1:18) return to the original D dorian. I should note that this head is somewhat unique because of this sparse chord progression (two chords in the whole song). Also, it’s unique in that the bassist is actively involved in playing the melody of the head. You hear him doing that “ba-doo ba-doo ba-ba ba-doo” thing, which is the main melody, and then the horns just have a two-note response. Following the form in the solos is kinda tricky because you’ve got 24 measure in a row of the same chord, layed out over the last 8 bars of the form and the first 16 bars of the next time through it. If you listen carefully though, you’ll hear these musicians clearly doing things at the beginning of each time through the form that stand out as a way to signal the start of another time around the loop. The band on this track is a sextet, with the solo order of: Miles > John Coltrane > Cannonball Adderly > Bill Evans (piano). If you’re listening with headphones then you’ll hear Coltrane and Cannonball (both guys play sax) panned left and right, respectively.
The trick with this is to avoid “mathing out” and counting everything as you attempt to follow along. Just listen to the head at the top and try to just feel it… with the 17-24 section that has a different chord and what not. You might even try humming the melody (what the bass plays at the head) and horn response hits to yourself during the solo section to help you hear the whole thing as a composition. Can you tell how many times through the form each soloist takes? Also, listen for how the rhythm section responds to the soloists, especially Bill Evans on piano. He provides super interesting chord voicings to support what each soloist plays. And then, when it’s his turn to solo, the trumpet and saxophones put the response horn line from the head behind him, as a way to give some harmonic backing to his solo beyond the walking bass line. Also interesting is the fact that the rest of the band apparently misses Evans’ cue that his solo is ending, and they just tread water for first 8 measures of the head at the end (also known as the “out-head”… 8:03). However, true to the form, they put the E flat dorian right where they should (8:31), which means that they only played the original D dorian melody for one phrase (bars 9-16), instead of two phrases (16 bars) like they’re supposed to… because they missed the chance on measures 1-8. This confused me for a while when I was younger, because I couldn’t figure out why the “out-head” at the end (the “out head”) was shorter than the “in-head” (the one played at the beginning). But, once I began actually following along with the form during the solo section (instead of just blindly listening), I noticed the treading water thing and the fact that they miss Bill Evans’ cue and therefore miss playing the melody over the first 8 bars of the out-head. What’s really cool about this is the fact that they not only kept the take, but used it as the album opener. This is just more evidence that the head merely bookends the REAL point of the music: the improvisation during the solo section.
In Part 5 I’ll post Bryan’s response after listening to “So What” and looking for the improvisation.