Miles Davis: Formless Form

In a recent post, I talked about my perception that Miles had realized emptiness and how I could hear it in his music. Today I want to discuss some of the consequences of that realization on the form of his recordings.

Miles’ early works in the bop era are extremely competent, but not all that original. His unique voice really began to emerge in his cool or blue period—the comparison with Picasso is impossible to avoid. For like the influential Andalusian artist, Davis went on to pioneer several stylistic innovations.

He was very sensitive to the magical effect of silence in music. In early recordings like Kind of Blue and the iconic Sketches of Spain, you can practically hear the living, breathing space of intense listening he inspired in his sidemen.

But Miles’ compositions from that period are still symmetrical, classic ABA or AABA forms. The solos are still pretty, sometimes precious, even heroic attempts to explore the harmonic and expressive nuances of the tune. The beauty and delicacy of silence is still framed in the structure of the ego.

However, with albums like In a Silent Way and especially Bitches Brew, a more complete and mature realization of silence and emptiness begins to emerge. John McLaughlin sounds exactly like what he was: a kid thrown suddenly into the deep end of the pool. But the interplay between Miles, Chick Corea and veteran soprano saxophonist Wayne Shorter reveals a deep mutual understanding of the space of silence, leading to the realization of the formless form.

The released tracks of In a Silent Way were edited to give a comforting sense of conventional ABA form. You have to listen to the unedited complete recordings to get a sense of the breakthrough here. Just like Corea’s vamp in It’s About Time , it never repeats itself. There is no chorus, no bridge, no reprise. All the formal elements of conventional jazz and classical music are gone. The musicians are relaxed, taking it easy like the successful world-class cats they are.

This formlessness reaches its full expression in Bitches Brew. Like many musicians who grew up on Miles’ early recordings, at first I hated it. It broke every unwritten rule of jazz. And maybe that’s the point: those rules, originally intended to bring jazz to a wider and more respectable audience, had become a stylistic prison. Miles was staging a jailbreak, and it was strong but not necessarily beautiful, at least in the conventional way.

The effect of Bitches Brew on the jazz world was similar in many ways to the effect of Igor Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps on the classical world. Violently opposed and condemned at first, it eventually created a new standard against which everything afterward would be measured.

Its message, in retrospect, is clear. If art mirrors life, then there is no need for repetition. Life unfolds ever-new forms, echoing  and sometimes rhyming but never repeating.


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Dev Jacobsen

Musician, author and yogi, developer of Palingenics.

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