JAZZ: Gary Giddins, W.W. Norton & Company
"Giddins on jazz"


"So What" seems to be a destination point in Davis' approach to modal jazz - why is this such an important breakthrough piece and was there an ingredient key to the process of its invention?

"So What" is the record that makes it easiest to understand what modal improvisation is and it's the piece that popularized it. Now modal improvisation had been around for a while. The great defender and theorist of it was George Russell. George Russell had been a drummer; he suffered from tuberculosis. He had two very long stays at sanitariums and to keep his sanity he created this theory of modes, which are scales, and finding out what the relationship between the scales is, and that by stacking these scales you had a complete kind of harmonic freedom. And you had a tonal variety that was very different from playing one chord after another. Instead of, instead of thinking of music in terms of a kind of vertical movement - chord to chord to chord - there was a horizontal stacking that allowed a whole different way of thinking about improvisation.

Now his theories were so complicated that when he wrote them nobody could understand them. But he was close to Miles Davis. Miles Davis talked to him about it all the time and he did a piece called "So What." Now the reason "So What" is easier to understand is first of all, technically, it's a 32-bar pop song. That's the format. Eight bars, A section. Repeat the same 8 bars. That's 16. Then the bridge, the B section, a new harmony and tune and then a repeat of the section. A, A, B, A: 8, 16, 24, 32. Except, that instead of having the usual chord changes you would have on most 32-two bar songs, like "I Got Rhythm," there's only one chord or one scale - one mode - for each section.

The A section is basically as a D minor mode so that means if there are three sections, 24 bars are improvising on only the tonalities associated with a D minor. One chord - that means, without any harmonic variety, you have to fall back on melody. You have to invent a melody that is so interesting on the D minor that nobody's even thinking that there's no harmonic movement. And then for the B, it's another mode that's only a half step away from the D minor. So if you listen to Miles' solo, when he begins he goes [Giddins demonstrates]. It's all D, F, A - he's literally playing the three notes of the D minor triad. Now Coltrane comes along, and Cannonball Adderley - they're playing a zillion notes. But they're always coming back, they're always resolving them on the notes of the D minor. And this was, this was such liberation. When young musicians heard this it was just a completely different way to think about improvisation. You didn't have to be Charlie Parker. You didn't have to master those incredible hurdles, you know, of two, three, four chord changes a measure.

Then John Coltrane took it to the ultimate in "Giant Steps." When jazz is taught in universities today, among players they always get "Giant Steps" as a homework assignment 'cause it's the ultimate one, because each note of the melody signifies a different chord. [Giddins demonstrates.] Each one of those notes means you have to change the chords. If you listen to the first recording, that's on our set, of Coltrane's "Giant Steps," you will notice that the piano solo by Tommy Flanagan - one of the greatest pianists in jazz - he can't do it. He's never been confronted with that many chords. And he gets lost. Killed Tommy that that record would be out there forever and ever, because of Coltrane's great solo, and years later Tommy Flanagan made his own album of "Giant Steps" in which he just killed, I mean, he had had a few years to think about it. But if Tommy Flanagan couldn't do it, a bebop virtuoso in the idiom of Bud Powell, you can imagine how difficult it was. So now Miles is creating the opposite - and Coltrane [unintelligible] of Giant Steps, goes back to modes too. Let's get rid of the million chords. Why do we need them? Let's focus on melody. And the best way to focus on melody is to clean out the harmonic stables. Get rid of all the extra chords. Think in terms of scales.