Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Miles beyond be-bop...

Over the next series of these I’m going to look at some key idioms of jazz through the life of Miles Davis, however his is not a biography of him in anyway. Right at the beginning of his career, was bebop, so this is what we’ll look at first. Miles was by no means a key innovator in this era, but featured in, perhaps the quintessential bebop line-up. Davis came to New York in 1944ish, will bebop already in full-swing [excuse pun].

I wrote a small piece on bebop back in 2006 or so, the music fascinated me. It seemed so unreachable, on this pedestal above many other forms of music. Yes, bebop requires an almost virtuosic grasp of not only your instrument, but improvising and musicality in general, but is often approached from the wrong angle.

Some commons misconceptions about bebop is that it employs hugely difficult chords, bizarre comping patterns and widely ‘out’ melodic content. Some of this may be true in some cases, but we have to understand a bit about where bebop came from to analyze these facets.

The truth about bebop may be buried in the mists of time. With few to little of the key musicians being alive, it’s a combination of speculation and educated guesses. I wrote in my paper that it was partly a reaction to the growing popularity [and commercialisation] of Big Band and Swing. Which I think, in a sense is true. But bebop had to happen.

Players had started adding more and more inflections and articulation to the melodies, combos were getting smaller because of financial reasons [and organisation probably too]. Some key figures in were Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, George Shearing, Charlie Christian, Coleman Hawkins and Thelonious Monk. Monk himself, had perhaps the most instantly recognisable style, and, although he came from around the bebop era, his style for many years to come stood shoulders above other pianists.

Monk’s comping style was similar to that of stride pianists, but without the coy harmony they could sometimes portray. His truly understood the effect of the chromatic scale and utilized it well in his many compositions. His right hand was capable of delicate Ahmad Jamal like legato, but he could play the blues like Art Tatum. He was to many, a complete pianist.

Charlie Parker on the other hand, was a late starter. Apparently didn’t touch the Alto sax his mum saved up for him properly until his late teens. He was from Kansas, and this reflected in his rhythmic styles. He was nick-named bird, because of his flurried legato passages. Between himself and Dizzy, they probably defined more what bebop is than anyone else.

So let’s look at the key element and try to break them down. Bebop’s compositional styles were essentially based on taking old ‘changes’ and re-harmonizing them. Gershwin’s ‘I got rhythm’ was staple, most Broadway tunes with simple changes in-fact got the bebop treatment.


Here we can see in the first figure, Gershwin’s ‘rhythm changes’ and in the figure below, some simple substitutions. The VI chord can be changed for a diminished chord leading nicely between the I and ii. Also tri-tone substitutions were beginning to be employed, leading chromatically between chords. Here, C becomes Gb, D becomes Ab, G becomes Db and so on.

The comping patterns, often described as ‘hot’ in-fact were off-beat stabs, usually borrowing a lot from Latin music, which was beginning to have more and more effect on Jazz. On key factor or the comping style in the bebop era, is that the ensembles were much smaller, so duty was left to piano, bass and drums to deliver harmony and rhythm. In Big Band, you may have an entire brass section delivering chordal stabs, so it would have to have been notated too and guitar or piano would take off-beat stabs. Now the piano or guitar could improvise with both different rhythm patterns and extended harmonies.

Miles replaced Dizzy in Charlie Parker’s band. Here we see something that commonly happened in Jazz bands around this time, the band leader taking credit for others compositions. Charlie Parker is credited with the composition ‘Donna Lee’ although Jazz scholars widely accept it was probably a Miles Davis tune. Here, we can examine the melody of the first 8 bars to look at how bebop melodies were constructed.


The above figure is the first 8 bars of the aforementioned Donna Lee. A fairly simple pattern decorated with chromatic [often passing notes, rather than synthetic scales] triplets and other ornaments. The fact the rhythm section would be improvising over simple changes, meant there was greater harmonic material in-which to generate lead patterns. The horn section would play this in unison usually.

Next I’m going to look at Miles’ ‘Cool’ period, before getting onto the Modal stuff, then his Fusion in the 70s and ending with a surprise! More to come.

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