The singular genius of Miles Davis

I mentioned this neat little tidbit in a conversation with a friend yesterday, and I was inspired to go look it up: from Paul Tingen’s book Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991 -

The results of this session were compiled… in the first track on Jack Johnson, called “Right Off.” It begins with [guitarist John] McLaughlin, [bassist Michael] Henderson, and [drummer Billy] Cobham grooving along on the “boogie in E,” with McLaughlin’s inspired comping at times bordering on solo guitar. At 1:38 the guitarist takes down the volume, and at 2:11 he modulates to B-flat to heighten the dramatic effect of Miles’ entry. However, Henderson misses McLaughlin’s modulation, and carries on playing in E. In the middle of this clash of tonalities Miles decides to make his entrance, at 2:19. He starts by playing a D-flat (C-sharp), the minor third in B-flat and the major sixth in E. It is an ingenious choice because the note is effective in either key. Miles then plays twelve staccato B-flat notes, phrasing them on the beat to drive the band on, and also as if to nudge Henderson towards the B-flat tonality. Henderson gets the message, comes into line by modulating to B-flat at 2:33, and Miles carries on, giving one of the most commanding solo performances of his career, with fast runs reaching into the higher register, and a loud, full, powerful tone.

Writer Stuart Nicholson rightly called Miles’ entry in “Right Off” “one of the great moments in jazz-rock.” It is also one of the most impressive examples of the “there are no mistakes” adage that Miles learned from Charlie Parker in the 1940s. Most musicians would have regarded the point when Henderson and McLaughlin were clashing with two such incompatible keys at E and B-flat as an embarrassing mistake and would have either stopped the band or instructed to producer to remove the section during editing. Very few would have considered, or have had the courage, to come in at such a moment. And even fewer would have been able to make it into a resounding success.

The passage continues on and cites a common quote usually attributed to Miles: “If you play a note you didn’t intend to play, what determines whether it sounds like a mistake or a moment of inspiration is the note you play after it.”

Incidentally, this is a great book. Tingen gives a great overview of Miles’ fusion output during the latter part of his career, going into great detail about each recording while still managing to keep a momentum throughout that keeps the entire book fascinating. I would easily recommend this book to anyone interested in this phase of Miles’ career - which should be many of you reading this site. I actually meant to post a full review when I initially read it, but it was in the middle of exams last spring and so I never got around to it. If and when I reread the book, I’ll be sure to write about it then.

Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply