1 August 2015

Improv Column: Wayne McConnell on Four and More by Miles Davis


Pianist Wayne McConnell looks at Musical Interplay: Miles Davis’s Four and More album


This album (the complete concert) by Miles Davis is fascinating for many reasons.  First and foremost was the geniuses that he had in his band.  Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, George Coleman and a very young Tony Williams.  This rhythm section would change the course of jazz through their almost telepathic abilities. Interestingly the band had an unfortunate start to this particular gig.  Miles hadn’t told the band that they weren’t going to get paid as it was for a fundraiser for the registration of black voters in Louisiana and Mississippi.  Tickets for the concert were very expensive ($50 in 1964).  Miles in his autobiography suggested that the magic of that concert was in part down to the heated argument they had moments before going on stage.   


Playing Standards in a Different Way

In this genre of music the material played was not the main purpose like it was in the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s.  Miles was seeking a new way of playing this music.  The material was no longer the important element; the emphasis was on conception not composition.  In fact they wanted to get away from the standard format of playing jazz which could be viewed in the following stages:


  • Introduction – Vamp on some chords/pedal note or piano/guitar playing introduction
  • Play the Head straight or multiple instruments
  • Each instrumentalist takes a solo on choruses of the chord changes (maybe slightly altered changes from melody)
  • Maybe trading 4s or 8s with the drummer (not always though) over the form.
  • Playing the Head.
  • Vamp to end or play a pre-determined chord sequence to end the piece (many variations on endings have evolved).  Some tunes like Waltz for Debbie have written endings.     


 The band’s main objective was to seek out a new pathway through the music rather than go down the same old route every time.  The material used in jazz at that time was by its nature very conductive to this exploration.  The simple well known forms and chords made it perfect to re-harmonise and alter.  This band’s music has often been called as ‘time-no-changes’ a phrase used to describe the lack of conventional form and structure.  In fact as we will see there is structure and form and their harmonies (although elaborate) still reflect relationships to the original chord changes.  Their own compositions tended to be freer in this sense but still had structure of some kind.  Structure is not necessarily concerned with the form of a song, structure can be found in recurring melodies and rhythms,  repetition plays a big part in creating a sense structure in a piece.  Miles’ band exploits this fact in their compositions and sections of pre-composed tunes that contain standard-song form structure. This reflects the need to codify a ‘fourth dimension’ alongside melody, harmony and rhythm.  

This aspect of interplay and musical gesture formulate a new system of analysing this facet of music.  Up until the 1960s the usual method of melody, chords and rhythm was satisfactory.  The Miles Quintet of the 60s are one of the most influential bands in modern jazz and the level of communication and interplay that they achieved remains a direct influence on many bands today.    

The concert of 1964 at the Lincoln Centre’s Philharmonic Hall, in my view is a prime example of musical awareness and ‘hearing’ the musical ‘conversation’ of the musicians.   Miles’s new rhythm section spawned this conception; Ian Carr describes this in Miles's biography:


“So far as straight 4/4 time-playing was concerned, it was to prove itself to be possibly the greatest rhythm section of all time, and Hancock, Carter and Williams seemed to have an inexhaustible variety of ways of creating and releasing tension, expanding and contracting space.  This interaction between members of the rhythm section was also a continual dialogue with whoever was soloing.  In fact, there was no longer the idea of a soloist and rhythm section.  When a horn was playing it was a quartet functioning on equal terms[1].”


Aside from the musical aspect of interaction there are other factors which influence how a band plays.  The interaction between the musicians alone provides a very complex and varied combinations of texture, mood, timbre and depth.  But to make this even greater, more external factors (which are beyond the scope of this paper) also affect how they play and respond to each other.  The audience and atmosphere of the auditorium can make the difference between a good performance and a timeless classic recording.  On this particular recording there was some tension between the players.  It was the first time they had played in the prestigious Philharmonic Hall.  The concert was for a charity and Miles had told the band members moments before they went on stage that he was donating their pay to the charity.  This of course caused conflict and changed how they all played.  These are all valid factors; however in this paper I am approaching it from a musical standpoint.  Musically speaking each member of the band can be a source of inspiration to each other.


In an interview with Herbie Hancock he explains about the focal point of the music:

“We relished the unknown, we loved getting lost, Miles paid us to focus not only on what we were doing individually but collectively”. 


There is enough evidence through the musicians themselves to suggest that there is no doubt that the focal ideas about the band were the collective aspect of improvisation rather than a focus on the soloist.  But they still had individual solos and they still soloed over the chord changes to the tune, yet they did not sound like a typical band.  The material they played suggests that the band played straight-ahead American songbook jazz.  In many ways that is exactly what they did, but upon hearing the music it was not like anything else before.  It could be described as free-bop, a term Alyn Shipton uses in his book ‘A New History of Jazz’ to describe music which ‘Took the formal structures of bebop as a starting point of free improvisation’.  Strictly they did not play free jazz like Ornette Coleman but they did free-up the restraints of standard song form.  It was though manipulating and abstracting the harmonic, rhythmic and melodic flow which produced this interplay.  Free jazz represents music which is completely free of harmonic, and sometimes rhythmic and melodic form.  In this music there are no chord changes, no set rhythmic patterns or melodies to play.  In a sense this music is an ‘outside-in’ deconstruction of conventional form where they create something out of nothing.  Whereas the music of Mile’s 60s band is an ‘inside-out’ deconstruction of form where they create something from something.  In many ways the band had two forms occurring simultaneously – on the one had they play through the form of the tune but try to deconstruct it through musical gesture and abstraction.  By the deconstruction of form they create their own form (a form within a form) which can change direction at any moment.  This method frees the musicians to be more expressive and creative.  Again often we find recurring patterns and signature phrases by the musicians which they have grown to know and even pre-conceive, this heightens the sense of form and reassures the audience that they know what they  are doing so to speak. Through scrutinising the theories raised in this paper the deconstruction of form carried out by the Miles band happened in the following ways:


  • Alteration of melody (of the tune) playing the melody over bar-lines instead of playing the melody as the composer wrote it.  This changes the way the listener hears the composition as a whole.  A melodic phrase might be stretched to fit over two bars rather than the written one bar.  Changing the rhythmic focus of the melody so that the melody falls in different parts of the bar.  How the player (in this case Miles) plays the melody with changing timbres and dynamics.  All of these have the potential to dramatically alter the melody of a tune.  Miles often does this to draw less attention to the form.
  • Alteration of the precomposed chord progressions.  Elaborate chord extensions, substitutions and changing chord quality can bring unexpected changes to an otherwise anticipated set of sounds.  This can happen through the melody and thus re-harmonising it. But it also changes the possible pathways for improvisation giving the soloists more colour and scope for changing mood and texture.  More dissonant voicings against certain notes create tension which may or may not resolve.  More often in this band the dissonances did not resolve but were followed by more dissonances depicting an intense section of the music.  This also creates structure, the more this happens the more the ear becomes accustomed to it, expectations change.  It would of course eventually resolve and release into another section.
  • Changing rhythmic feels – The band changes rhythmic feels unexpectedly – for example they go into double time in bar 19 rather than at the beginning of the form or next section of the tune.  They also change from a two feel to a four feel in unusual places.  The rhythm section often double up and slow down the time in relation to the original tempo change grooves and then resolve back to the original feel.  The drummer rarely plays ostinato patterns but is constantly varying timbre and playing disrupted sub-divisions while maintaining forward motion.
  • Absence of structural markers outlining form – Miles starts his ‘solo’ well into the second chorus, there are no obvious drum fills indicating the end of the form nor do specific turnarounds outlining the movement back to the tonic occur.  In fact Miles also ends his solo not in the usual beginning of the new chorus but into the solo of the next soloist.


 Interplay will always remain an important musical attribute and without it music is almost impossible.  The Miles Davis band pushed the boundaries of interplay further than any other band and resulted in gaining titles such as one of the greatest bands in history.




Wayne McConnell

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