One very interesting genre of music which is as popular before as it is today is Jazz. Jazz is often termed as the music of the soul, and it tends to manifest in words and melody the feelings of the heart. This music started as early as the 1800, with the birth of the blues by the African-American community. The blues, which are songs that are derived from hymns and work songs, became the foundation of jazz. The full-blown birth of jazz came about at around 1900 at New Orleans.
Jazz in here is depicted as a blend of different types of music – opera, military bands, church music, ragtime, African drumming, and even some dance styles (Marsalis, 2008). Through the time, jazz has evolved in itself, giving birth to a number of sub-styles such as bebop, dixieland, swing, and modern jazz. This evolution also brought about a number of great composers, and hundreds of great songs.
Miles Davis is one of these composers. He was a pioneer in cool jazz, a type of experimental jazz which involves voices unfamiliar to traditional jazz. One of his famous songs holds his name in it – Milestones. This track was recorded at around 1958, and is an advent on Miles’ take on working with modal jazz – another type of jazz (Biography, 2005). In this essay, I will try to expound more on this recording by discussing some important elements found in it, namely its melody, harmony, and rhythm and how they blend together to form a jazz sound.
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Melody is simply defined as a flow of notes, a flow of tones which sounds pleasing to the ear. In regular jazz music, there are usually two kinds of melody. One is melody being played at the start and end of pieces. These are usually notated, and strictly followed.
The second one is the melody produced when a soloists improvises. Improvisation is very important in jazz, and the melody produced in here must be exciting at the same time pleasant to listen to. It should not be boring and must never outshine the other instruments too much. In the song Milestones, there is a distinct difference heard between these two melodies. Its first melody flows smoothly, creating a feeling of easiness, being subsided by notes. Then, the solo kicks in with a series notes alternating between fast and slow speeds. These contrasting melodic patterns give a great deal of interest for the listener. It creates a relaxed sensation at one moment then gives a slight tension at another.
If melody is the horizontal aspect of music, harmony is its vertical counterpart. It comprises of notes being played together, such as triads, major chords, fourth and other intervals. In the song Milestones, harmony is best described as an accompanying effect to the soloist. Better known as “comping”, this provides a bed on which the soloist improvises on. The song’s harmony has a very strong and tight feeling. This is due to the modal take of the song, wherein the song uses a single scale.
Thus, both the soloist’s melody and the harmony of the other players fit perfectly with each other. Also, the harmony is not only played as strict flow, but it is constantly modified. For example, it plays on counts 2 and 4 for some bar, and then suddenly shifts to 1 and 3. The harmony also plays syncopated notes, notes that are off beat the normal rhythm. This gives an additional excitement to the overall feeling of the song. But most importantly, it supports the soloists and never tries to overpower it.
Milestones also portray another important element common to jazz takes – its swinging rhythm. This is usually attained by the rhythm section by playing triplets, or three notes at a count, and omitting the middle note. This rhythm gives a forward feeling and tends to move along that direction. It is very different from common contemporary songs, where the downbeat or the quarter note is very much accented.
In Milestones, the downbeat is almost lost; in fact the first count of every bar is usually unaccented both by the rhythm section and the soloist. In a whole, the rhythm of the song produces a slightly danceable feeling, but in a cool and slow way. The song’s tempo is not that fast, but the swinging rhythm gives it a kind of push that tends to create a continuous flow of music.
These elements give the song a traditionalistic view since it holds the very foundation of jazz music. The swinging rhythm, the accompanying harmony, and the soloist’s melody are the main components of a good jazz song. Miles Davis expanded more on this by creating a much more intricate solo filled with varying tempos and dynamics. The other band members were also able to add to the flavor of the song by playing their parts in a very interesting manner yet still being in perfect fit with each other. In a nutshell, Miles Davis was able to fuse traditional jazz elements with a great deal of experimentation, producing the masterpiece Milestones.
Marsalis, M. (2008) History of Jazz/Black History in America. Retrieved February 22, 2008 from http://teacher.scholastic.com/activities/bhistory/history_of_jazz.htm
Miles Davis Biography (2007), retrieved February 22, 2008 from http://www.milesdavis.com/bio.asp
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