Overview: Post-Bop

The music of the Miles Davis Quintet in the 1960s exemplifies a style that has come to be known as post-bop.

In some ways, post-bop jazz is not dramatically different from the bebop tradition. Like bebop, it is played by a small acoustic group (typically two horns--say, trumpet and tenor sax--plus a rhythm section of piano, bass, and drums). The music usually unfolds in the time-honored "string of solos" format (individual solos for each horn player, preceded and concluded by a composed head).

So why post-bop? The answer lies in several areas, all reflecting the influence of the jazz avant-garde. :

  • harmonic language. With avant-garde jazz and the advent of "free improvisation," the whole idea of using a harmonic progression as the basis for improvisation comes under attack. Post-bop jazz retains the idea of a harmonic progression, while moving beyond the firmly tonal harmonic world of bop. In post-bop jazz, the chords are often built differently than in bebop: e.g., quartal harmonies, based on the interval of the fourth rather than the third, and "slash chords," which superimpose a simple triad onto a root not in the triad, producing a sharply dissonant, but relatively stable, combination. Post-bop harmonic progressions are usually tonal, but considerably ambiguous: that is, one senses that individual chords are relating somehow to a tonal center, but exactly what that tonal center is is often not clear. When post-bop groups do improvise atonally, they usually retaining the basic rhythmic texture of a bebop combo, with the drummer "keeping time" on the ride cymbal and the bass playing a walking bass line. This technique is known as "time, no changes."

  • the role of the rhythm section. In avant-garde jazz, the hierarchy between "soloing" and "accompanying" instruments often breaks down: all instruments participate in the process of improvisation on a more or less equal footing. Post-bop jazz retains the idea of a rhythm section, but in comparison to bebop accords the supporting instruments, especially the bass, considerably more freedom. In post-bop ensembles, the bassist can at any time shift from the usual walking bass line to other patterns. Drummers like Tony Williams contributed more to the overall sound of the band by adding textures through his imaginative cymbal playing than by providing a steady rhythmic foundation.

  • repertory. In bebop, most tunes, even the "originals," were based on pre-existing chord progressions, drawn from the 12-bar blues or popular songs such as "I Got Rhythm." Post-bop ensembles depend more on highly original, abstract compositions, featuring the new harmonic language described above.

The classic mid-1960s Miles Davis quintet

Miles Davis Quintet, 1965
from E.S.P. CD 6127
on-Grounds version | off-Grounds version
Form diagram

By the mid-1960s, long after John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, and Bill Evans had left to pursue their own careers, Miles had completely reconstituted his quintet. Wayne Shorter (tenor saxophone, also often doubling on soprano saxophone) joined him as a solo voice and contributed heavily as a composer, while the rhythm section consisted of Herbie Hancock (piano), Tony Williams (drums), and Ron Carter (bass). These younger, more adventurous musicians helped him keep pace with the currents of musical modernism that were reshaping the jazz world without capitulating entirely to the avant-garde. Albums like E.S.P may sound conservative in comparison with contemporaneous performances by Ornette Coleman or John Coltrane, but they are strikingly different from the 1950s Quintet in their approach to jazz improvisation and composition.
"E.S.P." by Wayne Shorter, is a 32- bar composition in ABAC form (i.e., two 16-bar sections with identical beginnings and slightly different conclusions) with an ingeniously ambiguous, open-ended chord progression. The band plays the head before a string of solos (Shorter, Miles, Hancock). Note that Miles's solo begins in his usual middle register, but quickly explodes into the upper register: perhaps inspired by the company he was keeping, his solo improvisation became more fiery and extroverted in the 1960s.

The road to fusion: 1968-69

"Filles de Kilimanjaro" [excerpt]
Miles Davis, 1968
from Filles de Kilimanjaro CD 6126
on-Grounds version | off-Grounds version

"Miles Runs the Voodoo Down" [excerpt]
Miles Davis, 1969
from Bitches Brew, CD 995
on-Grounds version | off-Grounds version

In the late 1960s, Miles began to break through the barriers separating jazz from contemporary pop music. The personnel for Filles de Kilimanjaro is the same as on E.S.P., but the piano and bass are now electric, and Tony Williams now tends to play the even eighth notes of rock.
The title track to Filles de Kilimanjaro consists of an odd succession of melodic fragments, beginning jauntily, but soon delving into more complex harmonic twists. We hear the tune three times -- the first time over a syncopated bass figure, the next two times (1:15, 2:52) over a pulsating pedal point that is occasionally interrupted by a descending four-note figure. Finally (4:00), Miles begins to solo over this mix -- or more precisely, to engage in a free- floating call-and-response with Herbie Hancock's piano chords.

"Miles Runs the Voodoo Down" heard here in a brief excerpt, comes from the landmark fusion album Bitches Brew, recorded in 1969 and released to acclaim and great commercial success in 1970. It is discussed in McCalla, pp. 163-165.

Miles in the 1980s

Miles Davis, 1986
from Tutu CD 5640
on-Grounds version | off-Grounds version


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