“Oleo” by the Miles Davis Quintet: Guitar Play-Along

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 5 min.

“Oleo,” originally composed by Sonny Rollins, is the fourth track on the 1958 album Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (Miles Davis, trumpet; John Coltrane, t sax; Red Garland, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Philly Joe Jones, drums).

Rick Beato’s excellent video about the song inspired me to learn, on guitar, Miles Davis’s intro and first solo.

Here’s a video of me playing along with the recording. You might prefer instead to watch it at Soundslice, where you’ll find interactive notation/tablature:

At Soundslice, I’ve included comments in the score. Here are some additional thoughts.

My goal was to match and learn from Davis’s astonishing phrasing. I also transcribed Garland’s first piano ad-lib for comparison; definitely worthwhile, but I didn’t perform that in the video.

I found Davis’s loose intonation especially challenging and illuminating. His notes sometimes “break” (e.g., into what sound to me like a triplet) or dip as he travels from one note to the next. Such flourishes led me to transcribe notes that I haven’t seen in other transcriptions. At other moments, Davis inserts so much distinct character into the parts of a given note (attack, sustain, etc.) that it feels appropriate to notate them as separate events. Such nuances are usually left out of transcriptions, but are for me the main point, even if approximations are the best I can manage.

A cruder way to put this is that Davis often goes “out of tune.” But it sounds great. This is a terrific lesson in the importance of phrasing and timbre, and a reminder that the words “in tune” always amount to some context-dependent operational definition.

For instance, under one sort of operational definition, “in tune” means “makes my headstock tuner go green” or “makes my strobe tuner’s output read ‘0 cents’.” This is a great example of our general tendency to impose on the world simplified models that make that world easier for the human mind to navigate—e.g.,  ‘A’ modeled as 110, 220, 440, etc. Strictly applied, this model entails that the naturally occurring overtone series is out of tune with itself (an odd thought, no?).

(I touch on related topics here, with emphasis on our experience of frequencies as pitches: “Infinite Divisibility of Frequencies, Notes, Pitches.”)

Under another sort of operational definition—one that is hard (if not impossible) to quantify or formalize—”in tune” just means “sounds great.” By this measure, Davis’s intonation is spot on. I think many musicians these days (myself included) overly worry about being in tune (in the quantifiable sense), when we should be attending to a broader range of factors that make for a vibrant performance. We call the sum total of such factors “phrasing.”

There’s also much to say here about the importance of timbre—i.e., the relative amplitudes of the frequencies in a given expression of the overtone series—in our experience of intonation, but I’ll leave it at: timbre, usually referred to by guitarists as “tone,” is important.

One can make similar observations about the words “on beat” (what’s the analog here to the overtone series?). It’s interesting to reflect, however, on something I recall reading from Davis in a (guitar magazine?) interview in the ’80s: he said he loved drum machines because they never get off beat. Maybe he was being snarky, as I’ve also known him to emphasize the importance of the drummer-trumpeter bond.

Speaking of “on beat,” another challenge for me was matching Davis’s timing during the solo—particularly coming in when he does, because he leaves so much space around his phrases. What helped me the most was, not counting (which I don’t want to do anyway), but rather singing along away from my guitar (like while washing dishes) and, especially, listening attentively to Chambers’s bass (which I’ve also notated).

Interestingly, if you import MIDI files of these parts into a DAW, the bass aligns well with an unaltered MIDI track loaded with a bass or piano sample. Chambers provides a great anchor or compass or choose your metaphor, giving Davis lots of freedom to roam without getting off course.

Also important is to match how Davis ends his notes, both in terms of timing and pitch (though I might vibrato too much), not to mention dynamics (something else I won’t elaborate on here). Phrasing, again, is the sum of all parts.

A corollary of all this was the technical challenge of playing the “extra” notes on guitar. I put some of these in parentheses because they might not really need to be there . Others I included without parentheses because I consider them required. Feel free to disagree or suggest corrections (Soundslice has a comment section). I’ve also included pick-stroke suggestions for some of the trickier lines.

My interest in playing jazz is new, and comes after about 10 years away from music (during which I got a degree in philosophy), and it’s been far longer than that since I’ve worked on my guitar skills. My interest in both is growing; or perhaps what’s growing is my interest in improvisation, and jazz* seems to provide the best program for developing that, while guitar is the only instrument I’m good enough at to have any hope of seeing progress.

(*Improvisation seems, unfortunately, to be a mostly lost art in the “classical” world. To quote Wikipedia’s entry, “Musical Improvisation“:

Throughout the eras of the Western art music tradition, including the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods, improvisation was a valued skill. J. S. Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, and many other famous composers and musicians were known especially for their improvisational skills.

I often like to point out that, had any of Chopin’s pieces gone to the publisher a day later, we might have something quite different on record. Anyway, I’ve encountered plenty of improvisation [let’s not define that word here but I will say that I’m not counting spontaneously choosing which objects to throw at a piano or how many times and with what force you clink a teacup with a spoon] in “new music” settings, but as far as I know, it’s not, within the classical domain, something that’s emphasized or explicitly encouraged as an elaborate skill composers and performers are expected to cultivate.)

Rather than learning other people’s solos to the degree I have here, though, I’m especially interested in developing my own vocabulary, or, more like it, expanding the sensibilities I’ve developed over the years as a composer and songwriter into bases for improvisation. To that end, I’m working on ear training, rhythm training, listening to lots of music, perusing scores, reading books, watching lots of YouTube videos, and coming up with frameworks in which to play. I’m also working on finishing new songs. More about all this later.

(Though, to be clear, as a listener I’ll any day take an amazing pre-composed solo over a really good improvised one: for whatever reason, the mere fact of something being improvised adds nothing to my aesthetic experience of the thing. This is probably why, for the vast majority of jazz-tune renditions, my favorite part is the head. That’s not the case with this rendition of “Oleo.”)

At any rate, there’s much about which I’m naïve and ignorant jazz-wise and music-wise overall. Working on it :) Starting with a lesson in phrasing from Miles Davis.

Here again is the Soundslice link: www.soundslice.com/slices/Y3tfc

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