Being Cool And Playing The Blues – A Lesson From Miles.
Everybody knows that Miles was the coolest, even lying in bed wearing polka dot pyjamas and holding a bright red trumpet, he was still the coolest. In this lesson I’m going to try and help us all learn from the master and be that little bit cooler when we’re playing the blues.
Last week I was listening to the classic album Someday My Prince Will Come and a particular chorus of Miles’ solo on Blues No.2 caught my ear, the simplicity and swing feel just blew me away, check it out below (00:45)!
In the transcription below the first thing you’ll notice is about half of the time Miles ISN”T PLAYING!
1. Leave space in your solos.
Using space in your improvisations provides contrast to the long lines of eighth notes jazz musicians are prone to as well as giving you time to think about what you’re going to play next.
Listen again to the solo below, but this time don’t just listen to Miles, listen to Wynton Kelly. The space that Miles leaves enables Kelly to play in a very conversational manner with both players improvising using call and response. When it’s my turn to solo I feel responsibility lies in creating good music first and a good solo second.
2. You don’t always have to make the changes.
Analysing this solo using the usual chord-scale method may not be the most useful way of thinking, to me it feels much more like Miles was thinking in broader terms using F Mixolydian with an added #9 (G#) in mm.6. The freedom of not having to play every chord in a blues allows you to create more natural melodies and develop your ideas without being boxed in by quick chord changes. Miles took the same approach on more complex tunes too, in a 1958 interview with Nat Hentoff he said,
“The music has gotten thick. Guys give me tunes and they’re full of chords. I can’t play them. You know, we play My Funny Valentine like with a scale all the way through.”
This is a difficult one to verbalise or notate but an easy one to hear. When you are learning this solo make sure to spend time listening before you jump in to playing it. It’s not technically demanding and most of the solo is made up of only two notes but trying to emulate Miles’ great feel and articulation is another story. Pay close attention to which notes are slid into, which ones are played long and which are played short. In particular, the run in mm. 8, marked with a slur, sounds like a straight slide up to the Eb but on closer inspection you can hear Miles pick out the scale tones running up to the note. When you get this just right on the bass it is a great way to make regular old scale based material sound super cool.
4. Phrasing and developing phrases.
Phrasing goes hand in hand with articulation and also comes in many shapes and sizes. For this example I am just looking primarily at the rhythmic devices used.
The phrase is established in the first bar by playing two root notes (F) on beat one. As David Baker lays out in his How To Play Bebop books, finishing phrases on the ‘and of 1’ or the ‘and of 3’ sounds super hip.
Now that our phrase is established, we have two main options for development, rhythmic or melodic. For measure 2, Miles chooses melodically and changes the first note from an F to a G.
The 3rd measure sees Miles play both these phrases again but displaces the second by a beat, landing it on beat 4 of the measure. Listen to Miles develop his two note phrase through the first eight bars and remember Miles’ own philosophy on music…
5. Don’t be scared of root notes!
The final tip in our mission to be as cool as Miles is a simple one, don’t be scared of root notes! When trying to establish an F Mixolydian key centre the most useful note to use will be F! This along with tip number 2 about making the changes goes against what a lot of jazz education sources (including this one!) often teach. Remember that you always have options and if you want to take a chorus where you abandon the changes and just play root notes, as long as it’s swinging and you pay attention to tips 1, 3 and 4, chances are it’s going to sound great!
I’ve included a PDF of the notation below plus a version that you can play using the Knowledge Rocks Player. The KR Player is a free app that allows you to loop, change tempo and change key of the audio sheet music and is an awesome tool for learning! This KR file contains three audio tracks so you can practice with just my bass, me and Miles, or just Miles. You can turn off all audio and practice along with a metronome. Check out the screen shot below of the app in action!
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