It’s About That Time for Miles Davis’s ‘So What’
Richard Cook, author of It’s About That Time: Miles Davis On and Off Record is the editor of Jazz Review. In It’s About That Time Cook looks at landmark Davis recordings such as Birth of the Cool, Miles Ahead, Kind of Blue, The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel and many more, and relates them to events in Miles’s life as well as to wider currents in music. In the following excerpt Cook looks at the song, ‘So What’ off the album, Kind of Blue. Click ‘play’ on the video above to listen along as you read.
…’So What’…actually opens the completed album. It is far and away the most famous piece on the record – the most famous piece of music Miles Davis was ever involved with. Structurally, there is nothing very radical about the piece. The track opens deceptively, with Evans seemingly noodling through a few chords, as if warming up at the piano, with Chambers behind him. They play a unison figure before a couple more piano phrases, a bass arpeggio; then Chambers suddenly picks up the melody line which introduces the tune proper. The eight-note figure is answered by a two-note tag, an ‘amen’ sound, played
at first by the piano alone; then on the second eight bars Evans is joined by the horns. The bridge repeats the trick, but this time it is played up a semitone, landing on the D flat major scale; then on the final eight bars they revert to the tonality (a C major scale) they began with. That is basically all ‘So What’ is concerned with. It broods on for a little over nine minutes, taking in solos from each of the horns as well as Evans before going back to the original theme. So we have a thirty-two-bar AABA format -an invincible part of standard songwriting – which obliges the musicians to fashion statements from a field which is constructed out of two simple scales.
The mystery of the piece is its air of elusive, almost secretive possibility. One feels that the solos could go anywhere, could follow any path, could drift on without stopping, and not feel ‘wrong’. It is a definition piece of jazz, if one identifies that music as something played by intuition and living on its instincts. For once, there seems to be no contrast in the solos played by Davis, Coltrane and Adderley: they move seamlessly together, as if each man were playing his part in a predetermined plan. Evans’s accompaniments are handsomely shaded, although one has to strain to follow him: the ear is drawn irresistibly to the horns and what they are saying. On his own solo, which features some surprisingly dissonant voicings that he plays on the bridge, the horns riff behind him. In the end, the music drifts back towards Chambers and his ostinato melody, Jimmy Cobb ticking impassively at his ride cymbal, Evans playing the so-what tag, and the entire piece fading away into silence. In the studio, preserved on the master tape but not on the record, Cannonball Adderley broke everyone up by suddenly crooning the first line of ‘With A Song In My Heart’.
Who actually wrote ‘So What’? As with everything else on the record, Davis claimed credit for it, but the mysterious hand of Gil Evans may have played a part: several of those involved, including Jimmy Cobb, Gil’s widow Anita and Teo Macero, have all suggested that Evans was the one who wrote the little prelude which prefaces the melody, and as Cobb remarks, ‘Man, it sounds like Gil’s stuff.’