‘So What’ Solos: an irreverent analysis

From time to time I will be analysing a jazz tune or performance. I won’t be overly dry or academic about this, nor overly reverential. Where (thanks to my excellent teachers) I can find a technical analysis which fits the way I hear the music, I will share it with you. Sometimes I may simply try to tell you what the music says to me, without being able to describe how the effect was achieved. In any case, I am very, very aware that we do not all hear music the same way, and that an analysis that works for me may not work for you. This will be my personal, irreverent take on a tune. I would love to hear yours.


I will start, rather unoriginally, with a couple of solos from So What, on the classic 1959 Miles Davis album Kind of Blue. The recording is so well known that I won’t bother embedding a Youtube clip, though this link should enable you to find the original and other versions, even if you are reading this some years hence.

The horn players (Miles, John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley) get two choruses each, but the rhythm section gets less exposure. Jimmy Cobb does not take a drum solo. There is no bass solo, unless you count the first eight of the final head, where Paul Chambers tries out a different bassline under the piano riff. Bill Evans on piano gets a single chorus before the final head.

Here is an annotated transcription (PDF 95kB) of Miles’s trumpet solo. In Adobe Reader, click on the speech bubbles to read comments.

When I have time, I would love to go through the whole 9½-minute recording with an analytical ear. Meanwhile, here are my thoughts on Bill Evans’s understated miniature of a piano solo, which begins at 7m05s.

Over the whole solo, there are regular, delicate two-note horn stabs (trumpet and alto, I think, in harmony), and Bill starts out just filling the space between these, with simple phrases and close-position chords. It’s as if he is gathering his energy and getting in the zone for the bigger stretches that follow.  At the second A section he launches into broad, open arpeggio-like phrases using the notes DEAB. This creates a pentatonic sound, shot through with ringing perfect fifths.  (Those four notes are the roots and fifths of the famous ‘so what’ chords E-11, D-11 that we heard on the head.)

At this point the piano line is open, neither major nor minor: Bill carefully avoids playing the giveaway third. But the feel stays minor, thanks to a few mentions of the third (F natural) in the bassline.

On the B section Bill goes to the opposite extreme. From airy arpeggios he collapses everything down to tight cluster chords moving up and down in small steps. For the next 16 bars, small intervals dominate. Most of the notes aren’t ‘out’, but they are more densely packed than in the usual voicings. There’s some very close diatonic parallel movement here, and a sense of compressed energy. But no explosion follows.

The last 8 bars are minimalist. The melody wavers up and down in small steps, entirely within the space of a perfect fourth. Each note is smudged with its diatonic lower neighbour. It’s very Bill Evans, but not without an echo of Monk.

Bill seems to be repeating the narrative of Miles’s trumpet solo: after a brief surge of optimism on the bridge, the final A section speaks of confinement and dashed hopes. It’s as if the pianist is playing in handcuffs. Existential anguish – overlaid, I like to think, with mild annoyance that the band leader did not allow the great Evans a second chorus.

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