07 April 2008


Miles Davis' "Second Quintet" of the 1960s (featuring Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, and Tony Williams) does not quite get the attention it deserves at times. It is overshadowed in memory by John Coltrane's and Ornette Coleman's groundbreaking quartets, and is sometimes seen as merely a bridge between Miles' straightforward hard bop of the 1950s and early 1960s and his wild fusion experiments later in the decade. Jeremy Yudkin, a musicologist at Boston University, thinks this band, and especially the album Miles Smiles, deserves a place in the pantheon of Miles alongside his other celebrated works like Kind of Blue and Birth of the Cool. Moreover, Yudkin thinks Miles Smiles is best understood as the album in which Miles solidifies the style of postbop, making it an unrecognized pillar of The Jazz Tradition. In this book, Yudkin both attempts to understand Miles Smiles within the development of Miles Davis' artistic development and to employ Miles Smiles as a codification of postbop, a heretofore "slippery title" which other scholars of jazz have used in a temporal, but not necessarily stylistic sense.

Yudkin is at his best when placing Miles Smiles in the context of the Miles Davis canon. He deftly compares Miles' use of space in Miles Smiles to earlier examples in his career like "Boplicity" from the Birth of the Cool sessions in 1950 and "Bag's Groove" in 1954. He also identifies Miles' use of pyramidic structures and modes as points of continuity between Miles Smiles and Miles' earlier canon. Miles Smiles emerges from this study as a logical continuance from Birth of the Cool, Milestones, and Kind of Blue. Miles Smiles emerges as a work with deep roots in Miles' past, which reveal themselves as the foundation of his style evident throughout his evolution as an artist.

Yudkin falls short, however, in demonstrating how Miles Smiles translates into a specimen of postbop, and not just another link in the Miles Davis chain. Defining postbop as "freedom anchored in form," he concludes that Miles developed "a new approach to music, an approach that was abstract and intense in the extreme, with space created for the rhythmic and coloristic independence of the drummer--an approach that incorporated modal and chordal harmonies, flexible form, structured choruses, melodic variation, and free improvisation." Under this definition; flexible, abstract-yet-melodic, modal and chordal; postbop continues to seem like a catch-all definition, the kind which Yudkin dismisses as "slippery" at the outset of his work. The definition offered by Yudkin seems better utilized as a classification of Miles rather than a definition of postbop.

Indeed, the difficulty with defining postbop as a style underscores the impossibility of classifying jazz at this point in the music's history. After the rise of free jazz and the avant-garde, jazz loses its linear narrative form. Countless styles abound, finding strange connections. Roswell Rudd goes from playing traditional dixieland to free jazz; Stanley Crouch transforms from free jazz drummer into the intellectual godfather of jazz neoclacissism. Yudkin illustrates the complicated nature of classifying a mature and diverse art form like jazz: in which it is easier to position an artist within a web of influences than it is to unite a group of artists under a stylistic banner.

Nevertheless, many will find this book useful. Yudkin includes some very helpful transcriptions from Miles Smiles, and, as anyone who has tried to figure out the chord changes to Nefertiti can attest, deciphering the music of this group is no easy matter. More than that, though, Yudkin has shined a spotlight on a body of work which can never get the amount of attention it really deserves. We owe him thanks for reminding us what pure genius Miles Smiles is, and remains.

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David said...

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