The Forgotten Side of Jazz Phrasing: A Lesson With Miles Davis

Phrasing is one of those things that everyone talks about, but most cannot clearly define. Like the concept of “swing,” it’s something you can feel and hear, but as soon as you start trying to use words to describe it, things get pretty ambiguous.

First, let’s talk about musical phrases…

In music, a phrase is similar to a sentence. You can write short sentences, medium sentences, or long sentences. And they can have a variety of punctuation marks like commas, quotes, or semicolons.

They might end with a period or an exclamation mark, or use text effects like bold or italics

Now, each sentence contains some sort of idea it aims to convey which contributes to the larger meaning of the story, so it makes sense to try to structure and organize these sentences in a way that best communicates the story you want to tell…

A musical phrase is the equivalent of a musical sentence…

Like sentences, musical phrases come in a variety of lengths with different “punctuation” or effects within them—the articulation a player uses.

And like sentences, each phrase hopes to communicate a musical idea that fits into the overall musical story that’s unfolding as the player solos.

So, it’s pretty clear what a phrase is, but what is musical phrasing?

Browsing the web or a classic musical dictionary, you’ll find most definitions lean toward phrasing as the interpretation of a musical phrase – how a performer articulates a specific passage of music, where they breathe, where they slur…essentially, how they play each individual note within a group of notes.

And that might be how you currently think about phrasing, that it’s how you play a phrase, but in jazz, it’s way more than that…

After all, you can’t just take a scale, add some “jazz articulation” like accents on the upbeats and magically create a beautiful phrase.

It’s not that simple.

So this classical music theory definition of phrasing centered around articulation is far too limited for the concept of jazz phrasing.

Phrasing is more than that

In jazz, we have to do a lot more than simply interpret written phrases—no offense to other genres, jazz is just a bit different—we have to create phrases in real-time and craft them in a way that contributes to our solo as a whole, so our concept of phrasing has to expand to handle this…

Jazz Phrasing Versus Articulation

If you think about it, It makes perfect sense that phrasing is an ambiguous term for us jazz musicians because like many music theory terms, it wasn’t meant to handle everything that happens in jazz music, like improvisation.

And this goes for a lot of music theory…

Jazz music and jazz musicians are always pushing the envelope and to some extent operating outside the scope of traditional theory, so we constantly have to take the musical concepts, names, and ideas that exist and adapt them to our universe.

You see, in jazz our task is more complicated than just shaping a piece of written music. You actually have to create phrases and you do this based upon what you just played, where you’re going, and what you’re trying to communicate at that moment.

And to me, the term phrasing encapsulates all of these ideas…

When it comes to phrasing for jazz improvisation, I like to think of phrasing as having two separate but related pieces:

  1. Phrase Articulation – This is how you articulate a phrase, what kinds of accents, slurs, and effects you use, where you breathe…
  2. Phrase Construction – This includes how you create a phrase, where you place it within the form and in relation to other phrases, how you rest between phrases or lead into the next phrase, the rhythmic content and note values, and all the little details that go into telling a story.

Unfortunately, most musician’s idea of phrasing seems to be focused on phrase articulation and completely forget about phrase construction, the part we’re going to be talking about today.

And it’s this essential part of phrasing that every jazz musician really needs to understand because without it, you’re forgetting one of the most important elements of jazz – Rhythm!

Rhythm first

Phrasing—remember, when I say phrasing in the lesson we’re talking about the phrase construction part of phrasing, not articulation—is the thing that turns a bunch of notes into musical ideas that actually say something, and to accomplish this, it’s all about rhythm.

  • Where you place your phrases within the form of the tune
  • How you rhythmically architect and organize your phrases both on an individual level and as a whole
  • How you use rest within and between your phrases
  • How you lead into and out of your phrases
  • The specific rhythmic content within your phrases

So before we go any further, make sure you understand that jazz phrasing is more than articulation. It’s about phrase construction, placement, and rhythmic content, and this is the part of phrasing that we’re going to focus on today – the part everyone forgets about…

Jazz Phrasing – A Simple Framework

Even after telling you that phrasing is an ambiguous term and that it has this whole piece to it that most people are missing, I imagine it’s still a bit foggy as to what this part of phrasing actually is

And so before we dive into the brilliance of Miles Davis, let’s go over some basic jazz phrasing concepts that will help you get the most out of his solo.

The most important concept to understand today is The 2 Bar Phrasing Concept – the idea that at a base level, phrasing can be broken down into 2 bar units, and that it can be understood, heard, and conceptualized in relation to these units.

Let’s dive into this…

Macro Phrasing View – The 2 Bar Grid

The easiest way to think about this 2 bar phrasing concept is by imagining a 2 bar grid set over the entire form of a tune that breaks it into 2 bar pieces.

Now, as a jazz soloist or even a composer, awareness of this 2 bar grid gives you a reference point to understand where you want to place your lines within the form of the tune.

For example, perhaps the tune is 12 bars long like a blues…I might play 3 ideas that lay over the grid in a very predictable way, like this:

Or perhaps I want my 3 ideas to lay over the grid in a less predictable way, allowing some of my ideas to extend to the middle of a 2 bar unit, or begin at the end of one…

Of course none of this is predetermined before you solo…

Instead, the point is that with this 2 bar grid firmly in your mind, you start to hear and feel these 2 bar blocks of time, giving you an underlying structure that you can frame your ideas on top of.

So rather than just placing your ideas randomly, you build an awareness to where you are and how your musical phrases lay over the form of the tune.

As we get into the perfect playing of Miles Davis, you’ll notice how easy it is to understand phrasing when you have a reference point like the 2 bar grid.

Micro Phrasing View – The Details

Now the other side of the coin is what’s going on within each phrase and how the phrase interacts with the phrases directly before and after it.

Leaving articulation out of the equation, these details make the phrase sound the way it does. Things like…

  • The specific rhythms that create a sense of forward motion
  • How a player extends an idea over a 2 bar unit into another one
  • How a player connects two 2 bar phrases to make a single 4 bar phrase

All of these little phrasing details are what frame the notes into a clear musical idea.

As we dig into the Miles solo, we’ll break down what he’s doing from both of these phrasing viewpoints, macro & micro, giving you a clear picture into how beautiful jazz phrasing works.

Let’s get going…

Miles Davis: Genius Phrasing on Bye Bye Blackbird

If I had to think of one player that exemplifies the side of phrasing that we’re talking about today, it would have to be Miles Davis.

Every phrase Miles plays is part of a larger plan, crafted with intention, purpose, and pure confidence

Just listen to his effortless playing on Bye Bye Blackbird and you’ll hear it in action…

Today, we’re going to isolate the first chorus of his solo and look at his playing phrase by phrase, understanding it through the phrasing framework that we’ve been talking about.

Going through each section of his solo, we’ll illustrate how everything relates to the 2 bar grid and we’ll break down all the little phrasing details so you can learn to hear and conceptualize jazz phrasing in the style of Miles Davis.

The Solo Break & First A Section

The A section

Have a listen to the break going into the solo and how Miles plays over the first A section…do you hear how everything he plays is in clearly defined phrases as if he were speaking?

A great first step you can do when you’re transcribing or trying to understand a solo is to breakdown what you’re hearing into individual phrases.

Now, where you fence these off could be up for debate, as everyone hears differently, but do your best to break the music up into the way you hear the individual phrases.

I’ve broken this passage into what I hear as 5 distinct phrases:

Next, we’ll take our phrases and put them through our macro-phrasing-view to get a better look into how each phrase of this section lays over the 2 bar grid and what kinds of phrasing tactics Miles is using to add forward momentum, unpredictability, and interest to his solo…

As you look at the next example while you listen, you should start to hear and conceptualize phrasing in a more concrete accessible way because the visual will help your ear understand what it’s hearing–Yes, just like you train your ear to hear chords and melodies, you have to train it to hear phrases and rhythm, too.

And remember, that’s the whole point of today’s lesson – to visually help you conceptualize, hear, and feel what this part of jazz phrasing consists of.

Throughout this lesson, use the color-key to understand the 4 primary aspects of what he’s doing:

  • Playing
  • Resting
  • Extending a phrase into the next 2 bar unit
  • Leading into a phrase by starting before a 2 bar unit

By really spending some time with these examples and listening to them closely, you should start to hear how the elements of playing, resting, extending, and leading into, create the overall impression of how a soloist phrases and lays out their ideas over the 2 bar grid.

Now let’s zoom in on a few of the little details within these phrases…

The first tactic that jumps out at me that Miles loves to use everywhere is the phrasing technique of extension – he constantly extends an idea past the end of a 2 bar unit and into the next 2 bar unit by holding the last note of his phrase over the bar line, usually with a quarter-note or a half-note.

Most people would start their second phrase here on beat 1 of the 3rd measure, but not Miles. He extends his first phrase by holding out the last note for a half-note before beginning his second phrase.

This tactic is so simple, yet so effective!

But it’s only possible to use when you’re aware of the 2 bar grid. If you can hear and feel the grid, then holding notes over the bar line like this will always be an available option for you.

The next phrasing detail that really stands out in the section is the unique rhythm that Miles uses to open his solo, which I’m calling the short-long rhythm.

Rather than a steady stream of eighth notes, which is what most people would play, especially during a solo break, he lays back and plays a simple short-long rhythm that pushes the music forward with his own swagger.

And, pay attention to where he starts this rhythm, right on beat 3 of the measure. This starting point affects how the rhythm sounds in this context and contributes to the overall sound of the phrase.

Finally, in this section, I want to point out a great way that Miles adds syncopation into his lines. It’s subtle, but you can see it right at the beginning of the 4th phrase…

By starting a phrase with an eighth rest, followed by a quarter note, you flip the accents and shift the stress to the up-beats. This is a simple syncopation-setup that easily allows you to inject these type of syncopated rhythms into your playing.

All you have to do is rest for an 8th note, followed by a quarter note and suddenly, you’ve shifted to accenting the up-beats.

It sounds easy but takes a little practice. Work it into your playing gradually, and sooner than you realize, syncopation will become as natural to you as playing on the beat.

Phrasing Takeaways & Practice Ideas from The First A Section

  • Master the 2 bar grid – For your phrasing to become clear and intentional, you have to gain an awareness of the 2 bar grid. Of course there are other phrasing grids or ideas you could use, but this is a simple and effective way to gain phrasing awareness quickly.
  • Understand the Macro Phrasing View – It helps you hear and feel what’s going on within the phrases as a whole, and gives you an idea to how everything fits together.
  • Practice extending your phrases – Learn to hold the last note of your phrases over the bar line for a quarter-note or half-note. This also shifts where your next phrase will start, so it has added benefits as well.
  • Integrate unique rhythms – The short-long rhythm might not be something you’d play or even think of. Make it a habit to catalog, practice, and integrate rhythms that grab your attention.
  • Use simple syncopation set-ups – Most people overcomplicate syncopation. Start to get it into your playing by using an eighth rest followed by a quarter note.

The 2nd A section

The 2nd A Section

So, are you starting to understand how we’re conceptualizing phrasing?? Be aware of the 2 bar grid, figure out where the phrases are, then put them through the macro-phrasing-view, which allows us to put some of the finer phrasing points under the microscope…

Let’s go ahead and take a look at the 2nd A Section of Miles playing over Bye Bye Blackbird

And to clarify, this A section is slightly different than the first A section, but it’s not different enough to call it not an A section. So most people call this, A’, pronounced A Prime, which lets you know it’s an A section, but slightly different than the first one.

Okay, listen to this section. Can you hear where the phrases are? How would you mark them off?

I’d break it into 2 phrases like this…

And putting this section through our macro-phrasing-view, you can see how Miles leads into the first phrase and ends the second phrase in the bar after a 2 bar unit, when the harmony resolves to the Tonic.

Now an interesting phrasing strategy Miles uses right here is the whole idea of framing your musical ideas with rest, and playing over the part of the 2 bar grid where units would overlap.

You can see, Miles rests on both ends of this phrase and plays right in the middle of 2, two bar units. This phrase placement creates interest and intent in his line that comes off clearly to the listener.

Like all the phrasing concepts we’re talking about today, this is subtle! But, it’s important, both in terms of soloing and composition.

Thinking about, practicing, and becoming aware of where you place your phrases within the 2 bar grid and how you frame with rest will do wonders for your jazz lines.

And one other rhythmic detail that I have to mention here is how Miles loves to find a rhythm that swings or feels good, and repeat it over and over…

Again, repeating a rhythm like this seems pretty straightforward, but getting away from standard eighth note lines and coming up with more original rhythmic content is by no means easy.

Phrasing Takeaways & Practice Ideas from The 2nd A Section

  • Become aware of your phrase placement – Where you put your phrase in relation to the 2 bar grid has a tremendous effect on how it sounds. Play around with it and learn to hear how it sounds when you straddle a phrase in the middle of 2, two bar units.
  • Frame your ideas – As you become aware of your phrase placement, you can begin to frame your ideas with rest at the start and end of them. Experiment with how much you rest and whether you play on the downbeat or the up beat.
  • Repeat rhythms – When you play a rhythm you like, rather than jumping to the next idea, consider repeating the same rhythm a few times. Dig into it like Miles does, vary it a little bit, and play with the articulation.
  • Aquire a rhythmic vocabulary – The reason Miles can find great rhythms to repeat all the time is because he has a large reservoir of great rhythms to draw from. Just like acquiring melodic vocabulary, aim to gather and practice some of your favorite rhythms. They don’t need to be complicated! Just take a rhythm you like, write it down in your notebook, and practice it every which way!

The Bridge

The Bridge

Next we’ll take a look at what Miles does on The Bridge, the B section. He keeps it pretty simple here for the most part…have a listen…

You might break this into 4 phrases like this…

And, on The Bridge, you can see that he phrases almost entirely within the confines of the 2 bar grid.

So if he’s playing within the bounds of the 2 bar grid during this section, what makes his phrasing sound interesting here?

Well, within each 2 bar phrase, he uses several tactics, some of which we’ve already talked about today, to take his phrasing to the next level.

In the first phrase, it’s the specific rhythmic content along with holding the note over the bar line that makes all the difference. Yes, just a little eighth-note hold over the bar line like this can really elevate your phrasing…

And in the second phrase, he actually uses the short-long rhythm again, but instead of starting in on beat 3 as we saw previously, he starts on beat 2 which makes it sound slightly different, and shifts the repetition of the rhythm over the bar line, into the next measure…

Moving on to the next couple phrases, he uses two tactics to add interest to these phrases. The first tactic we’ve seen before – placing an 8th rest right before a quarter note to create a syncopated start to a line….

And the second tactic is the notion of balancing out the rhythmic values that you’ve been playing.

For example, if you’ve been playing a lot of quarter-note and half-note material, you might balance it out by playing a phrase with something faster, like eighths or sixteenths as Miles does here…

Becoming aware of the note-durations you’re using and adjusting your phrases to create balance throughout your solo can do wonders for architecting a musical story.

Phrasing Takeaways & Practice Ideas from The Bridge

  • Play over the bar line constantly – Even within a 2 bar unit, playing through the bar line is key to creating musical flow and forward momentum in your solo.
  • Change up your starting beats – If you find a rhythm that catches your ear like the short-long rhythm, don’t settle for playing it the exact same way each time. A great way to mix up how you play it while retaining the rhythmic content is to start it on a different beat. This will change the flavor of the line and how it lays against the grid of time.
  • Use balance – You can apply the concept of balance to note-duration like Miles did in the fourth phrase here, or take the idea of balance to other things having to do with phrasing: long and short phrases, syncopation and on-the-beat rhythms, over the bar line phrasing and contained predictable phrasing. Becoming aware of all the variables within the phrasing world will allow you to adjust the balance of them as your solo progresses.

The last A Section

Last A section

In the last A section of this chorus on Bye Bye Blackbird, Miles again introduces a couple more phrasing tactics that are very useful to know.

And like our second A, this A section is also slightly different. Many people call this, A”, pronounced A Double Prime, which again tells you it’s an A section, but slightly different than both the first A, and A’.

Have a listen to this section and try to hear the phrases…

I’ve divided this section up into two phrases, however, as you’ll see shortly, the first phrase could easily be considered two phrases.

Putting this section through our macro-view, check out the specific phrasing elements, as well as the specific places that create interesting phrasing…

The first point to highlight is the constant playing in the first 4 bars, which I’ve broken into two separate 2 bar pieces here so you can clearly see – it’s really 2 two bar phrases that have been joined together to create a 4 bar phrase.

This 2 bar phrase-joining tactic is one of the most valuable phrasing tools to understand because it allows you to create 2, 4, and 8 bar phrases with ease.

All of these longer phrases break down into 2 bar phrases. Master the 2 bar grid and the ability to create phrases within it, and then you can simply join these phrases to your heart’s content.

And another very interesting phrasing strategy Miles implements in this section takes place right at the end of the second phrase…

The key to seeing and understanding what Miles is doing here is grasping how the quarter note on beat 4 of the first two bar unit leads into beat 1 of the second two bar unit – this quarter note sets up a forward motion rhythm that he repeats all the way to the end of the phrase.

As he repeats each quarter note, he creates a push from beats 4 to 1 and 2 to 3 that continues throughout the phrase.

Instilling your phrases with rhythms that drive toward Beats 1 and 3 like this is absolutely essential to creating a sense of forward motion in your playing.

Phrasing Takeaways & Practice Ideas from The Last A Section

  • Master the macro-view – By now you should be pretty comfortable with the macro-view of phrasing that we’ve created. Take it and learn to apply it to the solos you’re transcribing to better understand what the players you love are doing in terms of phrasing.
  • Join 2 bar phrases to make longer phrases – Once you’re aware of the 2 bar grid and can easily create 2 bar phrases over it, try joining these phrases to make 4 and 8 bar phrases.
  • Use rhythms that move you forward – Rhythms that drive you forward, especially toward Beats 1 and 3 of the measure, will create a sense of momentum in your playing. Miles crafts his phrases around these types of rhythms.

Putting It all together: The Full Phrasing-Macro-View of Miles Davis on Bye Bye Blackbird

Now that we’ve studied each section, I want you to listen to the entire chorus while looking at the entire macro-view of the phrasing Miles uses.

This should give you a whole new appreciation, as well as understanding and insight, into how Miles Davis phrases – how he constructs phrases, where he places them, how he balances them in relation to one-another, how he creates interesting rhythmic content, how he uses repetition, and how he creates a constant feeling of forward motion throughout his solo.

Listen closely through your new-found jazz phrasing perspective…

Miles Davi Full Macro View

So where do you go from here?

Take your time absorbing today’s lesson and use it to gradually reframe how you think about phrasing…

  1. Understand that there’s more to phrasing than articulation
  2. Get used to hearing and feeling the 2 bar grid. Everything comes from this 2 bar awareness and 2 bar phrasing concept.
  3. Then review each section we went over today – understand the phrasing tactics at play in each one and use the suggested practice ideas at the end of each section to begin your phrasing journey.

As you review this lesson, choose a tactic that really speaks to you and work on it for a week or two. Integrate it into your soloing concept consciously and with patience.

Then a couple of weeks after that, try integrating another phrasing concept…

Remember, phrasing is one of those things that’s a little deceptive. It sure seems easy in theory, but it’s tricky in practice. Use Miles Davis as a model, and with some dedicated thought and effort, you too can master the art of jazz phrasing.