Even if you’re not into jazz, you’ve probably listened to or heard of this song. So What is a Miles Davis composition that was first recorded as part of his world famous 1959 album Kind of Blue — probably the best-selling jazz record of all time. Miles plays with his famous first great sextet: Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly (piano), Jimmy Cobb (drums), Paul Chambers (bass), and John Coltrane and “Cannonball” Adderley (Sax). With this amazing ensemble, the original So What version is, with no doubt, a masterpiece. Especial mention to the soft and enigmatic piano and bass intro written by Gil Evans. It bothers me a bit that Miles, Coltrane and Cannonball are a bit inconsistent among themselves in this version. Miles sounds much more in the proper mood for the tune: less notes but the right ones. Coltrane, on the other hand, is doing something else. He’s just doing his own thing — which is awesome but not really matching Miles’ purpose for the album. Cannonball is somewhere in the middle. All in all, So What became a standard and has been recorded by several artists and with different arrangements and styles — including different versions by Miles himself.
Among all versions of So What that I had the chance to listen to, my favourite one is the one recorded by Miles with a band very similar to his second great quintet in an album called Live At The 1963 Monterey Jazz Festival. Let me share why.
First of all, the personnel is amazing: Herbie Hancock (Piano), George Coleman (Sax), Tony Williams (Drums), and Ron Carter (Bass). Definitely one of my favourite Miles band. This album was recorded in 1963, a transition period for Miles between the first and second great quintet (the only difference from the second quintet is Coleman in place of Wayne Shorter). The sound of the band is tight and furious. Their connection is amazing, it’s like they can predict what the others are about to play. It’s one of the last Miles acoustic bands. The second Miles quintet — which is well represented here — was focused mostly on standards and bebop tunes. They kept reinventing old tunes. It was a very inventive, creative, and genius group.
Secondly, this So What version uses a really fast tempo. That was another important characteristic of Miles’ bands of that period: they loved to accelerate the tunes. Quoting Miles own words in his autobiography:
What was funny was this: the tunes that we used to record live that we played every night were just getting faster and faster., and after a while the speed really limited what we could do with them because they definitely couldn’t get no faster than what they were.
The third reason I love this version is the performance of the rhythm section (piano, bass, drums). When they start to play, you really wonder if they are going to keep up the pace. Doing that famous bass riff in that speed in an acoustic bass is quite challenging. But Carter does it sharply. The Williams’ drum beat is fucking awesome. The complex bebopian beat and the random snare and bass drums bombing really gets you. Last but not least, Hancock’s use of silence and space combined with unexpected harmony hints glues everything together.
The last aspect is the solos by Miles, Coleman, and Hancock. Miles solo is the first. The use of space is precise (and groovy). His solo if full high pitched arpeggios. He sounds acid, aggressive, hot. It’s the evil face of Miles. When Coleman starts his solo you can hear him coming from the back of the stage getting closer to the mic, bringing an informal atmosphere. His solo follows a smoother approach. He does some really neat riffs, playing same notes with different rhythms and articulations (intuitively followed by the rhythm section). Hancock’s solo is classic Herbie. Extremely melodic. You feel like he’s composing a tune on demand. Everything fits together like it was planned. Nothing feels out of place.