Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Miles Smiles and Invents Post-Bop

Miles Davis, Miles Smiles, and the Invention of Post Bop
By Jeremy Yudkin
Indiana University Press

Of all the various styles of jazz, “post bop” has been the slipperiest to define for my SCPS classes. I have often heard the term used in context with bop-based musicians of the late twentieth century, who have been largely inspired by the second great Miles Davis Quintet (1965-1968). Jeremy Yudkin offers a somewhat different definition of the sub-genre, but identifies Miles Davis as its originator in Miles Davis, Miles Smiles, and the Invention of Post Bop.

Yudkin in effect argues post bop is something of a hybrid between hard bop and avant-garde free jazz, identifying Miles Smiles as its inaugural recording. He sums up post bop in the following terms:

“an approach that incorporated modal and chordal harmonies, flexible form, structured choruses, melodic variation, and free improvisation. It was freedom anchored in form. We can call it post bop.” (p. 123)

It seems debatable whether Miles Smiles truly broke this new ground, when artists like Andrew Hill were already straddling free and bop terrain on recordings for the Blue Note label. However, the influence of Smiles can surely be granted.

Yudkin logically spends a good length of space analyzing this recording, providing many previously unavailable transcriptions that will make his study valuable to music students. Yudkin effectively captures the group dynamic that produced Smiles, as when he describes the recording of Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints:”

“Three times Davis signals an ending (at the ‘right’ place after twice through the head and at the end of both ‘extra’ repeats), either by slowing down on the three eighths at the end of measure 10, or by elongating his final pitch, or by effecting a fade, apparently by backing away from the microphone. In all three cases, one or another of the members of the rhythm section carries on regardless.” (p. 94)

Yudkin is strongest when analyzing the title record. While he offers some helpful transcriptions and interesting observations on the Davis recordings which preceded it, Richard Cook’s It’s About That Time: Miles Davis On and Off Record would be a more useful survey of the trumpeter’s discography for general readers.

Miles Davis has long been recognized as the prime innovator for many stylistic developments in jazz. In effect, Yudkin seeks to codify Miles Smiles as the post bop cornerstone, alongside Birth of the Cool for cool jazz, Kind of Blue for modal jazz, and In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew for fusion. It is an intriguing argument I would have liked Yudkin to have fleshed out more, explicitly describing the influence of Smiles on succeeding post bop artists. Yudkin writes on the music of Miles Davis with authority, but he does not quite nail down post bop’s place in the Davis canon.