02 Mar 2008

Miles Davis, Miles Smiles and the Invention of Post-Bop

It is a measure of the classic status that the music of Miles Davis has acquired in American culture that a single LP produced for Columbia in the 1960s (Miles Smiles) is the focus of a short monograph from Indiana University Press.

The fact that the author of the monograph, Jeremy Yudkin, is a musicologist whose previous publications have been exclusively in the area of medieval music and the Western classical tradition [the exception being a 2006 monograph on the Lenox School of Jazz] speaks to the immense changes in musicology over the last thirty years. When this music was made, and for a considerable time thereafter, it was entirely unwelcome in the academy.

Yudkin’s brief book (123 pages of text) is divided between 70 pages of prologue, and 50 pages of close analysis of the six compositions included on Miles Smiles, the second release by the classic quintet including Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. The book can’t quite seem to find a consistent tone, nor decide who its reader should be. The material in the prologue is too thin and commonplace for the reader who is already familiar with Davis and his work, and in contrast the close reading of Miles Smiles may be difficult to digest, even for those who know the album well. I am not convinced that the analysis adds new levels of understanding for the committed listener. Yudkin provides extensive transcription of the solos, and does provide some discussion of how this music differs from the other post-bop of the sixties, but even more discussion of the musical and especially the social context of this music would not have been amiss. For example, much is made of the originality of Tony Williams’ contributions at the drums, but it would be enlightening to know how much he owed to his study with master teacher Alan Dawson and the musical scene in Boston.

All in all, this project was worthy, but the execution seems to indicate that a few more years of gestation might not have been amiss.

Tom Moore