November 20, 2008
Miles Davis, Miles Smiles, and the Invention of Post-Bop
Indiana University Press
Justly celebrated for his decades of musical innovations that encompassed the 1950s Birth of the Cool sessions, 1960’s modal jazz with Kind of Blue and the electric fusion of 1970’s Bitches Brew, additional praise for trumpeter Miles Davis’ contributions would seem to edge from appreciation into hagiography.
Jeremy Yukin, a professor of music at Boston University, has neatly sidestepped this trap by making a case to add to the cannon music created by Davis’ quintet of 1965-1968 – tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams – especially on what he sees as the band’s seminal LP: Miles Smiles.
Devoting more than half his book to an infinitesimally detailed analysis of the quintet’s work, which is mostly a track-by-track technical dissection of the LP’s six tunes, Yukin succeeds in his narrow goal. However his insistence on preceding the musicological analysis with a potted rehash of Davis’ earlier achievements – in the main from secondary sources – makes what could have been an interesting and well-reasoned monograph into a book that, despite its brevity, feels padded.
Valuably measuring most of the compositions on Miles Smiles against previously recorded versions, Yukin demonstrates in all cases, how conventional bop was transformed by Davis’ editing and re-imagining skills into post-bop. As he notes about Shorter’s tune “Footprints”: “Davis has reworked an already interesting composition into something more intense, freer and more sophisticated”. This is achieved by using a more urgent tempo and continuation of the bass vamp, plus metric shifts, unusual harmonies, disjunctive phrases and a profound use of silences.
Yukin makes a similar case for the other tracks on Miles Smiles and by extension that band’s entire tenure. Those interested will likely be impressed by his second-by-second play-book-like track run-down and his song transcriptions – 23 in all. Sometimes though, it appears as if analysis has turned to obsession, as when notation of Hancock’s “Circle” solo alone takes 4½ pages or when a schematic diagram breaks down the ABCBA structure of “Dolores” by exact solo and accompanying instruments.
Furthermore, when not using notated examples or describing the sounds in precise technical terms, Yukin almost invariably falls back upon standard clichés. Musicians are described as playing “beautifully” or “brilliantly”, with music “fiery” or a “wash of colors” leading to tracks “emblematic of the magical interplay among these five gifted musicians”.
While he alludes to truncated tracks plus studio fades, and notes when dealing with Kind of Blue that programming of the tunes was “clearly an artistic decision rather than a purely practical one”, because he’s a traditional music professor, Yukin unfortunately underplays the contributions of the one person he appears to have interviewed first-hand: Teo Macero, Davis’ producer for almost three decades. Macero, who was also a saxophonist and a Julliard-trained composer who produced about 3,000 albums, states that the trumpeter left all editing decisions to him.
Considering that many of the subsequent Davis-Macero session were edited and pieced together from raw tapes recorded by the trumpeter’s various bands, Yukin missed an opportunity to discuss the germination of this influential organizational method. After all, its birth coincided with Miles Smiles and other Davis quintet and sextet LPs.
— Ken Waxman
— In MusicWorks Issue #102