By Sam Griffith
Miles Davis composition Milestones is among a handful of jazz tunes that contain only two chords. Jazz theorists define these compositions as “modal”. Other modal compositions include Davis’ So What, John Coltrane’s Impressions and Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage.
Milestones has a few quirky elements. The first being that the melody seems to be based in F major and the harmony is G minor. This could be an example of Davis’ exploring a different mode right away. Secondly, the form is A (16 Bars) – B (16 Bars) – A’ (8 Bars). This can be uncomfortable because the soloist plays 24 consecutive bars of G minor spread out between two choruses (the last A’ going into the A of the next choruses).
A 16 bar bridge can feel like an awkward length and cause confusion. If the musicians lose focus (easy to do when there are only 2 chords) or don’t effectively mark the form, the song can quickly develop into monotonous G minor chaos.
The B section is sometimes listed as A minor or as A Phrygian. There is a difference between these two sounds and their implications. Some texts say that this tune was conceived as an opportunity to explore using different modes in improvisational. A phrygian is the third mode of F major, the key of the piece. As an accompanying instrument, it is important to consider this in your voicing and support the soloist if you hear them exploring this mode.
Some Notes About The Recording
The original recording of Milestones with Davis’ sextet is outstanding. First off, the melody playing is outstanding. It is very easy to take playing quarter notes for granted, however it will sound especially sloppy if the musicians aren’t playing them together.
Cannonball and Davis combat the difficulty of playing a modal piece in two ways. First off, the brilliantly use motivic development in the A sections. Playing little phrases, then altering them or creating “response”-like phrases, seems like a limitless solution to playing over the A sections. Secondly, the refer to the style of melody captured in the B section. The B melody is built on longer sounds that cover multiple bars (juxtaposing the A section ideas that are neatly contained into individual beats or bars). Both Cannonball and Davis apply this melodic conception to their playing over the bridge. Davis sticks with ideas that are very close to the actual melody. Both of these soloists use this construction and create very effective (and memorable) solos. Coltrane, well, he just goes for it.
Milestones is a fun song to play when EVERYONE is paying attention. Otherwise, it can be monotonous. The lack of harmony and the long B sections can make this song feel like its lasting forever. If the soloists (and compers) have strong melodic plans, then this song can be very successful. If not, you’ll probably waste a lot of time wondering if you are on the last A, or the first.
Spotlight is our opportunity to discuss a jazz standard in depth. Included in our discussion will be our experiences playing the tune, pedagogical advice, suggested recordings and other observations. Find out more about Sam through his website – samuelgriffith.com