BlogJacob deGroot-Maggetti

Listening Guide: "So What" by Miles Davis

from Kind of Blue, 1959

Recorded March 2, 1959, at Columbia's 30th Street Studio, New York City



0:00 – Bass plays three-note calls, to each of which the piano responds with two chords.

0:15 – Bass and piano play a melody in unison. The piano then plays a series of chords in free time, which the bass answers with its own free-time melody.


0:35 A – Bass plays four similar melodic calls, each answered by two piano chords. The chords are mostly composed of a stack of perfect fourths, giving them a very open sound. Jimmy Cobb begins swinging along lightly on the cymbals. The mode for the A-sections is D Dorian (D E F G A B C D).

0:49 A – The bass melody and piano chords repeat, with the trumpet and two saxophones doubling the top three notes of the first three piano responses.

1:02 B – The A-section is repeated, but the melody and chords are all transposed up a semitone. The saxophones and trumpet reinforce the piano chords for the first three responses. The mode for the B-section is Eb Dorian (Eb F Gb Ab Bb C Db Eb).

1:16 A – A return to the original key of D Dorian. The horns reinforce the upper notes of the piano chords for the first three responses. Miles Davis plays a 1-bar solo break over a drum fill at 1:31.

Solo: Miles Davis, trumpet

1:32 A – Miles Davis begins soloing on the trumpet, leaving plenty of room between his notes for a listener to hear Paul Chambers' walking bass line. Bill Evans plays accompanying chords on the piano, at times playing in the gaps in the trumpet melody and at other times playing in the same rhythms. Jimmy Cobb plays a swing rhythm on the ride cymbal. Davis plays with some of his notes slightly behind the beat, adding to the solo's laid-back feel.

1:46 A – The solo continues in the same style.

2:00 B – The song shifts into Eb Dorian, and the trumpet solo becomes a little busier, with Davis playing series of eighth notes with fewer gaps. Davis chooses some chromatic notes, which are not part of the Dorian mode, in his last phrase, transitioning into the third A-section.

2:14 A – Back in D Dorian, Davis' playing becomes more spare.

2:29 A – Davis begins the second chorus of his solo by exploring an arpeggio, the notes of a chord, instead of his more melodic phrases earlier in his solo. On the bass, Chambers alternates between the D root and other notes of the mode. Evans comps on the piano with close-voiced, dissonant chords.

2:43 A – Davis returns to melodic phrases, with Evans playing less dissonant chords. The bass begins walking again, with Chambers climbing above the instrument's usual range.

2:57 B – The trumpet plays a descending melody over the first half of the B-section, pairing it with a rising melody in the second half. Davis ends the section by playing part of a D Dorian scale half a bar earlier than expected, creating a dissonance that is resolved when the rhythm section switches back to D Dorian at the beginning of the last A-section.

3:11 A – Davis returns to the arpeggio he played at the beginning of his second chorus, with the piano playing similarly close-voiced chords. The bass continues walking as Davis finishes his solo with a rising melody and a falling response.

Solo: John Coltrane, tenor saxophone

3:26 A – John Coltrane begins his solo by improvising on a D minor pentatonic scale, a subset of the notes of the D Dorian scale. The rhythm section proceeds in a similar manner as during Davis' solo.

3:39 A – Continuing to use the pentatonic scale, Coltrane begins running up and down through it very quickly. Evans plays two chords per bar, playing most of each chord staccato while letting two notes ring for the full two beats.

3:53 B – Coltrane continues to play very quickly, climbing repeatedly into the saxophone's upper range with most of his notes part of the Eb Dorian scale. Evans returns to his usual syncopated comping style, while Jimmy Cobb adds syncopated rhythms on the snare drum.

4:07 A – Coltrane takes a portion of the Dorian scale and plays it three times, adding a different ending each time. Cobb adds more syncopated notes on various drums while keeping the beat on the ride and hi-hat cymbals.

4:20 A – Coltrane takes another musical idea and repeats it with variation this time using a descending pattern down to a D, then skipping up to a D an octave higher. Chambers plays an alternating bass note pattern similar to at 2:29.

4:34 A – Coltrane plays fast ascending scales. The bass returns to a walking pattern, climbing high on the fingerboard near the end of the section.

4:48 B – The saxophone line becomes more melodic, with Coltrane using fewer scales and instead choosing a common note on which to end each of his phrases. Evans plays in a more sustained, legato manner. The saxophone line rises above the usual range of a tenor sax at the end of the section.

5:02 A – Coltrane begins with more high notes and then descends. As he runs down and up scales in the second half of the section, Evans plays a chord per beat below him on the piano.

Solo: "Cannonball" Adderley, alto saxophone

5:17 A – Cannonball Adderley begins his solo with an array of phrases in double-time, playing four notes to the beat instead of the swung two notes per beat suggested by the drums.

5:30 A – Adderley smears up to key notes, then continues to play patterns in double time. The drums are played more simply, with fewer of the syncopated embellishments than during Coltrane's solo.

5:42 B – Adderley moves into the key of Eb Dorian a bar before the B-section begins, creating dissonance that is resolved when the rest of the musicians join him. The saxophone phrases still have a double-time feel, without swung eighths. Adderley begins choosing chromatic notes, especially in the last two bars of his solo, and is back in D Dorian a bar before the third A-section begins.

5:57 A – Adderley plays a swinging melody for a few bars before reverting to a double-time feel.

6:10 A – Adderley swings for a few bars, choosing fewer notes, before playing an ascending scale in even sixteenth notes. He then decorates a downward melody with trills. On the bass, Chambers climbs into the instrument's upper range as he did in the first two solos.

6:25 A – Adderley smears up to a note, then moves down an arpeggio, before continuing onto more scales, decorating the highest notes of the melody with chromatic tones. The saxophone launches once again into Eb one bar before the rest of the instruments.

6:38 B – Adderley plays a high note, and drops off of it, moving into some swinging, blues-inflected melody before returning to double-time scales. On the bass, Chambers' bass line climbs into the higher octaves again. Cannonball Adderley returns to D Dorian a bar earlier than the accompanying instruments.

6:52 A – The final A-section begins with more even-eighths scale and arpeggio patterns, before trailing off with some swinging melody with some smeared notes.

Solo: Bill Evans, piano

7:06 A – Davis, Coltrane and Adderley play the top three notes of the piano chords from the head, but with a different rhythm. Between the horn responses, Bill Evans plays calls of dissonant, clustery chords, describing a melody with the top note of each chord. Jimmy Cobb accentuates the fourth beat of every bar with a quiet rimshot on the snare drum.

7:20 A – The trumpet and saxophone chords continue as Evans plays a sustained, legato melody with few, ringing piano chords beneath it.

7:34 B – The simple trumpet and sax riff continues, as Evans returns to clustery chords. Evans' phrases consist of adding and removing consecutive tones in the Eb Dorian scale.

7:48 A – Back in D Dorian, the accompanying chords continue. Evans plays a simple melody, harmonizing it in dissonant seconds.


8:02 A – The trumpet and sax chords stop and Evans takes up the chords from the theme. The bass, however, keeps walking instead of playing melodic calls. The bass line is slightly more decorated than during the other musicians' solos, so the first A-section qualifies as a subtle bass solo.

8:16 A – The bass melody returns, and is answered by chords in the piano, trumpet and saxes.

8:30 B – The theme repeats in Eb.

8:44 A – The theme repeats in D.


8:58 – The bass and piano continue playing the A-section, with no horns. Cobb stops using the hi-hat cymbal and keeps the rhythm lightly on only the ride cymbal. The song fades.

This listening guide began life as an assignment for Carol Ann Weaver's Introduction to Jazz course at the University of Waterloo.

Posted: Oct 17, 2020. Last updated: Apr 15, 2021.