[Pt. IV Proj.2] – Moving into the Twentieth Century – Project 2- New harmonic fields – Research Point 4.4- ‘So What’- Miles Davis and Impressionism.

[Pt. IV Proj.2] Research Point 4.4- ‘So What’- Miles Davis and Impressionism. Debussy’s musical investigations led him to engage with the newly emergent art form
of jazz in the early Twentieth Century. Reciprocally jazz has learned from the harmonic discoveries of Debussy. Listen to the first track, So What, from the 1959 Miles Davis album Kind of Blue. The opening thirty seconds or so contains direct references to Debussy’s Voiles before the main theme enters. This album is considered to be the first ‘modal jazz’ album and the influence on it of Debussy and French Impressionism in general runs throughout. What are the parallels between this jazz piece and Debussy’s compositional style would you say? Aim to write around 250 words in your learning log.

So What

‘So What’ from Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue album opens with composed riff used for interplay between the double bass and the band in the intro leading up to the main sections. In the main section, which is in the D Dorian mode Miles Davis plays a very unusual improvised solo. Placing notes with great intuition in a way, that quite frankly defies description. John Coltrane’s solo is equally as impressive, but in a more agile and busy way. All the players in this band were pretty much at a genius level of musicianship.

 It is the intro however which most resembles Debussy’s ‘Voiles’, owing to the use of a parallel chord sequence in the bass moving in parallel 4ths with the bottom note outlining the whole tone scale.

 There is some debate as who had actually written this portion of the theme. Some suggest that it was Gil Evans, who was working with Miles Davis who wrote it for piano player Bill Evans. Gil Evans was working as an orchestrator and arranger and was a fan of Manuel de Falla’s Impressionistic music. Bill Evans the pianist was himself classically trained and had played in George Russell’s orchestra. Russell wrote the 1953 book ‘Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization; which went on to be instrumental in inspiring Miles Davis and others to develop modal jazz. Hence, there seems to a few converging influences via several band members which could have resulted in any of them writing the parallel chords outlining the whole tone scales. They were actively searching for ‘cool’ new tones, creating new extended chords and using different modes, like the D and Eb Dorian in So What, to come up with a new sound. All these techniques had very much in common with Impressionistic music in general and Debussy in particular.