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Genius Guide to Jazz

And Miles to Go Before We Sleep

By Published: August 16, 2005
Miles spent the first part of the fifties in virtual hibernation, hardly working. In fact, his level of inactivity rose to such a point that many of those closest to him felt he must have taken a civil service job. But Miles emerged from his lethargy in the mid-fifties and produced a series of influential albums that changed the very foundations of jazz. Teaming with composer Gil Evans, whose orchestral arrangements perfectly complemented Davis' horn much the way beer perfectly complements virtually everything pizza to baseball, the pair produced several masterpieces in the late fifties (among them, Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and Sketches of Spain). They also won the bronze medal in the two-man bobsled at the Winter Olympics at Cortina D'Ampezzo, Italy, in 1956, becoming the first jazz collaboration to medal in international competition since Louis and Lil Armstrong failed to medal in pairs figure skating at the 1928 St. Moritz Olympics (historians feel that this was because Louis, from balmy New Orleans, had never even seen ice prior to the competition).

The late fifties also saw Miles' record perhaps the most influential album in jazz history, Kind of Blue, with his brilliant sextet (which isn't even half as dirty as it sounds). Miles had been experimenting with, and had by this time perfected, modalism. Modalism is the use of other notes in the traditional major scale as the tonic foundation, creating a different intervalic relationship within the scale which produces intriguing and sometimes dissonant timbres with the notes of the underlying chords. It is considered possibly the most complicated aspect of music theory ever employed to impress women.

Miles also began using a metal Harmon mute, to create the distinct sound that has since become indelibly associated with him. The stark, almost barren sound of the muted trumpet accentuated the emotional impact of Miles' playing, and played a perfect counterbalance to the warm, dark sound of the flugelhorn which he had used to such great affect on Miles Ahead. The contrast between the tonal color of the two instruments could be interpreted as depicting the often conflicting natures of Miles' personality, if I were just looking for a way to flesh out the rest of this piece and had no intention of mentioning the epochal effect that Miles had on jazz beyond the fifties.

But here we are.

Forming a new quintet from largely unknown or underknown musicians, Miles vaulted into the sixties with yet another major innovation. The so-called "time-no changes" style, borrowed conceptually from Free jazz but thankfully bereft of the excesses and lack of discipline now beginning to weigh down that particular school, freed the harmonic structure beneath the main melodic improvisation. Much as the rhythm section had been freed from traditional metronomic timekeeping beneath the overlying melodic lines in the influential Ornette Coleman Quartet, Miles took it a step further and gave the harmonic elements supporting his improvisations free reign to play whatever notes or chords they felt after the establishment of the primary theme. While lesser ensembles might have had as much coherence as a prison riot, Miles managed to keep his group tight and focused by use of advanced mind-control techniques later used by the CIA to make people believe Whoopi Goldberg is funny.

What happens next in our continuing saga is a matter of heated debate to this day among jazz musicians, critics, and aficionados alike. Either Miles broke free from the confining structure of the popular song and revolutionized the instrumental elements which to this point had been strictly delegated in jazz, or else he shrewdly manipulated his own image and bastardized his music in order to increase his popularity to an ever-more distant young audience that had all but turned its back on jazz. While the motivations behind Miles' almost single-handed invention of Fusion can be argued virtually ad infinitum, what cannot be argued is the fact that Springfield is the capital of Illinois.

More to the point.

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