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Beyond Version: Miles Davis' "So What" Live in Berlin Review

Miles from Berlin 1965 album cover

Miles Davis's 1965 live version of his song "So What" from the album Miles in Berlin shouldn’t even be called a live version but a new being. When the album popped up in apple music after I searched for Miles Davis, looking to listen to something while I showered, I came across this album that I've never heard. When I heard the familiar sounds of "So What" I grew delighted. My shower got better. I started dancing and singing the tune. I also noticed the difference in this live version from the original and other live versions I've heard, and initially I liked this version. But after listening to the album and this song for three days, I couldn't call it a version. I couldn't just categorize it as a live performance. And there are live performances of songs that are so good they're better than the album version. These live songs even sound like new songs themselves but still have enough touch of familiarity of the original that it's not quite it's own record. But when I listened to this "So What" I thought, could something meant to be a version actually be it's own entity and does that make it a good or a bad song?

This performance of "So What" is faster than the album version and most if not all other live performances of the song. In this performance, Miles, along with his band, which happen to be his new band at that time, who'd come be known as Miles Davis' Second Great Quintet, are improvising more than Davis' first band with whom he recorded the song "So What" for his album Kind of Blue. With this live version played in Berlin in 1965, (he and this same band performed this song live in 1964 as you'll see later in this piece) it feels like Miles is trying to get the song to another possibility rather than to perform it for an occasion. This--not version--let's just say performance for now, has the same foundation as the original. One half of the song's composer is apart of the performance (the original tune was written and composed by the pianist Bill Evans, brought to Davis who directed it into the song that would become "So What"). The Berlin version also has recognizable features: delight, originality, its direct, and its conservative in sound even though it’s pretty much all improvisation. But that’s it.

Miles Davis and the Second Great Quintet. fr L-R: Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Miles Davis, Tony Williams

I love the original "So What" and always have. I've played it for people, I've studied it, it inspired my writing and music, it's helped me understand not only bebop, but jazz as an art form, and listening to it has helped me develop my own theories of jazz and has inspired me to want to express what I think about jazz. With listening to this song for a good amount of years, I've also listened to the concert performances and other live versions of it. The original itself and the various ways its been played are so good and different from each other, that on the third day of having the 1965 live version playing, I thought to myself that there should be some kind of a "So What" multiverse, and if there was one, this Berlin performance would be one among these others. But the more I've listened to this track, it became clear that it's possible that while performing a version of a song, an entirely new song independent of its foundation can be produced. It could be apart of the multiverse, but it could go beyond that kind of existence. Then what would be the value of it? How could I judge what is supposed to be a version? Why would I judge it? I write this because the difference in this song from the other "So What" universes is so striking that I started to think about this song, then try to understand what Miles and his band were trying to do on this track. From listening to what I'll call, "So What, 1965, Berlin", it's really unclear of why this new being was born, which makes listening to it an interesting time.

It could be that Miles was tired of playing, "So What". He always wanted to move forward with his music, try out different sounds, and innovate from album to album. When it came to his live performances, he is famous for sometimes turning his back to the audience and playing his different sounding versions of tunes that people knew, purchased, and loved deeply, because he felt it was more important that he as an artist work through something he wanted to work through, rather than entertain. He was like this until he passed away, all about making sure the artist could be an artist. But Miles in Berlin is the group's first album as a quintet. He had made six albums before this one, so its curious why he wanted to play older songs, even if he was on tour. And it's also interesting as to why he chose to still perform such an impactful song as 1959’s “So What" even though he had been performing it for nearly half a decade and with different line ups playing distinctly different versions from the original and from other live performances.

It also could be that this “So What” from 1965, Berlin, Germany, is so different than the others because it was said that when this new band played the same songs and standards of Davis' previous music, they approached them with a structural and rhythmic freedom that was not found in the music's previous constructions. But listening to "So What, 1965, Berlin" you wonder if Miles cares about the song, and the history of its impact. There's so much rhythmic freedom that there's barely a rhythm and instead sounds like the beginnings of a jazz record sampled for a hip hop song: raw and looped. Miles along with Wayne Shorter on sax, Herbie Hancock on piano, Tony Williams on drums, and Ron Carter on bass, do sound free in their improv and truly unpredictable in their play, but it's the kind of freedom that seeks to possibly detach from tradition, detach from the world and worlds of "So What" rather than to establish it's own world. If this was their goal, then they end up creating something new that sounds lost in its own universe. But that may not necessarily be a bad thing. The loss is important though, because of what the original did for jazz music when Kind of Blue was released. Let’s reflect on the past experience that brought us here the way filmmakers the Daniels did in their multiverse tale, Everything Everywhere All At Once and less like Marvel’s Doctor Strange, which was a fun way to be lost, but didn't go towards finding any deep truth about its character or the multiverse of the character. To talk about “So What” you have get deep.

In 1959, Miles was going for what he imagined jazz should sound like. According to an interview with jazz historian Ashley Kahn in the documentary, "1959: The Year That Changed Jazz around that time, Davis was concerned with where to take bebop because he felt bebop: the predominate sound in jazz, had become cluttered. His way to deal with the clutter, which ultimately created a new and influential sound in jazz after Kind of Blue was released, was to make music focused on creating a space so musicians could express freely and precisely. In order to do this, Miles and Bill Evans came up with a sparse foundation in their compositions made of scales-- core chords, and a plan for when the musicians would play their solos. The scales served as a kind of launching pad for the band to play whatever they felt from the composition. Whatever the musicians feelings, thoughts, ideas about the world, ideas about themselves they wanted to express through their instruments became the song. There's also a term for this which is called modal jazz. The original, I'll call, “So What, 1959, New York” is one take of five musicians just playing together. With the original "So What", modal jazz became the expansion of bebop and was a way jazz moved into the future.

Recording of Kind of Blue: fr L-R: John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, and Bill Evans

In the aforementioned documentary, which ironically features Hancock, Herbie says of Kind of Blue, “When Miles did Kind of Blue, it opened up a whole new direction in jazz. More introspective; a new way of thinking about the creation of jazz and jazz composition.” Like the opening chords on the song itself, the original “So What” being the intro for Kind of Blue, presented this new way in which the artist could communicate clear as possible and the audience could better receive the message of the artist. This is evident in the beginning of "So What”1959, New York." The improvisation of Evans piano play and Chambers' double bass create a doorway for the riff doubling as the core composition, to ground the listener in the story of the music and prepare them for what these artists were going to explore. At the same time, the decluttered composition and simple drum roll and crash at the hight of the riff allow Miles, John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley to come in uninhibited and express themselves freely. What's also important about the song is that the the riff communicates the impression of the sound of a question, that is, “so what?” But if you take your time with the feeling and bounce of the melody of said riff, the song becomes a literal question, then as it grows, the question turns into an attitude: so what? As we go through the door and sit with Davis, Coltrane, Adderley and eventually Evans, a philosophy is born: “So what?” It's the lightness of the riff, the catchiness of it, the intentional weight of the drumming (Davis asked drummer Jimmy Cobb to make the drums sound like they are “floating”) and the individual expressions simultaneously serving the artist’ cause and the song’s cause, supported by the original foundation of the scales, that brings out that philosophy into something one could live by: “So what? Think deeper about that what you think you know. This could refer to bebop, this could refer to Miles himself, this could refer to society.

When you listen to the track “So What, 1965, Berlin" it sounds like its not interested in communicating the way the original desired. It’s not interested in getting the listener to think about the world like in this version. It’s not interested in bringing out the expressions of the players, like this live version. It also doesn't show the potential of the Second Great Quintet as much as this 1964 live performance of the song. With “So What, 1965, Berlin", Davis and the band are doing something so different that the term “version" is not applicable.

The original composition in this song, though recognizable, has difference in piano key, signaling a departure from just performing or even doing a different version of the old music. When I've listened to the albums of Miles and his second quintet like E.S.P. or Sorcerer, or Nefertiti it's some of best music let alone jazz I've heard. Miles’ partners after 1962 make his previous music, as well their music for their own albums, feel untouchable. Putting Wayne Shorter, a pioneer in hard-bop and someone who expanded on Coltrane’s earlier style of improvisation with harmonic implication (playing every possible chord and every possible scale for that chord) and long phrasing, with a young Herbie Hancock who with Miles sounded more like Thelonious Monk than Watermelon Man Herbie Hancock, along with the sharp and robust bass playing of Ron Carter and the always experimenting Tony Williams on drums, the universe of "'65, So What" was going to be different, but not this.

The core chords are less of a support system for expression, less of intention to do something that will change jazz music and more of a piece of music to get through. The bar structure remains the same until only 35 seconds, then Davis inches into his solo like an eager child on time out seeking permission to go play. And when he does, he sounds directionless, though sonically pleasing. His sound lacks his usual soul and his solo is too short. Throughout, he sounds interested in experimenting and pushing boundaries, possibly inspired by the same concerns Shorter had in his music, or possibly because Davis probably played this song so many times. This is isn’t music to shape jazz or communicate complex human emotions, or to help us challenge what we know of our world. Even a “version” could still do these things. If Davis is even thinking about the audience or trying to communicate, he might as well have his back turned.

Miles Davis

Most of the band follow him in this disinterest to relate to the listener. Shorter’s solo works, but is a sample of what he does in his own music and with Miles. His solo lacks his personality and his searching of different ways to speak through the saxophone that one will come to know from a Shorter performance. The most interesting of the solos comes from Hancock who incorporates a variety of major chords, compelling key changes, and even dips into a other music styles brought with his improvisation. He’s trying say something with his playing and changing up of tones and moods, but his solo is cut too early. Carter’s bass and Williams’ drums are just there to keep the rhythm and remind the listener that they are still apart of the many universes of “So What, 1959, New York." And yet, the band's playing and the difference in sound to other live versions of "So What" suggests this group was trying to make it's own piece of art in this moment. It seemed like they wanted out of the "So What" multiverse and have their own existence.

Miles Davis seemed to like to put himself around musicians who wanted to expand jazz as an artistic form. Hancock’s quote about Kind of Blue should also be applied to his own musical career and his genius. The same is true of Wayne Shorter, who embraced and created in different genres within jazz, always trying to make compelling music, up unto his latest release before he passed away this year. Ron Carter is just as essential to jazz music as he is to hip hop as he is to black power politics. He played bass on A Tribe Called Quest’s classic Low End Theory and made music to further the cause for equal rights for black Americans. Tony Williams brought different forms of music and drumming into jazz by engaging with what music he connected with at the time he recorded. “So What, 1965, Berlin" though not fantastic and for some reason is the song chosen to be apart of the band’s first album, is an example of a group of musicians still trying stay true to what jazz is--thanks to Miles and other jazz legends of 1959—which is a space to push for something so new and create something that is it's own thing. That aspect of jazz is what makes jazz what it is and what helps this music to still be moving and affecting art form.

This performance is so far from what Miles and the Kind of Blue personnel were going for, probably intentionally. And because it's so different that like the films about the multiverse, this track is not about better or worse, or even just existing among many versions to be discovered or not. It's about valuing what you already have. And unlike those films or the current cultural discussions of the multiverse, it feels like a piece of music unto itself and its own goals. It's beyond the multiverse. It's a part of the present and makes up it's own destiny. Whether the goals of the band on that night were accomplished or not, or if the music is very good but not phenomenal, it doesn’t belong to “So What, 1959, New York" like other performances. It just belongs to itself. It’s just “So What” by Miles Davis from the album Miles in Berlin. It’s worth a listen.



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