The Shape of Design

Frank Chimero’s The Shape of Design is a delightful page-turner even on the iPhone. His response to design thoughtful and the connection with jazz improvisation is insightful. The reference on Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue alone is intriguing. Definitely worth a few rereads. Here’s an excellent excerpt on framework and the work of Miles Davis:

A framework for improvisation allows us to get into the process of making things more easily. Perhaps the most famous example of an imposed framework was created by jazz musician Miles Davis during the recording of his album, Kind of Blue. Davis, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Jimmy Cobb, Paul Chambers, John Coltrane, and Cannonball Adderley packed into a CBS recording studio in New York in March of 1959 without any songs pre-written. Jazz musicians routinely tolerated this sort of ambiguity, because they made their living by winging it. But it’s unlikely that any of them predicted that jazz would be reinvented that day.

The predominant style of jazz at the time, called Bebop, was frenetic and lively, but had a tendency to overstuff songs with notes. The abundance sometimes hindered the musicians’ melodic expression by occupying all the space in the song. Bebop has been described as musical gymnastics, because the style’s flourishes and showmanship forced musicians to negotiate complex structures. In spite of the artistry necessary to maneuver in the Bebop style, it can become too large a load to carry. It’s hard to swing if there’s no room to move. Davis wanted to let the air back into the songs, to give the musicians more space to play. They were asked to improvise with simple scales and modes rather than Bebop’s chord progressions.

The recording session began with Davis handing each of the seven men a small slip of paper where he had written down a description of their part. None of them had seen any of the songs before coming to the studio, but with the guidance of the slips of paper, they recorded the whole day, and booked a second day a few weeks later. After two sessions, the album was finished.

Kind of Blue is unequivocally a masterpiece, a cornerstone to jazz music created in just a few short hours by altering the structure of the performance. The musicians accepted the contributions of one another, and ventured out into a new frontier, using their intuitions as their guides. Davis amassed a stellar group of musicians, and with a loose framework of limitations to focus them but plenty of space for exploration, he knew they would wander with skill and play beyond themselves.

Davis’ example is a bit misleading though, if only for its efficiency. Improvisation is a messy ordeal, wasteful in its output, and it should be accepted as such. The key is to generate many ideas, lay them out, and try to recognize their potential. Don’t be concerned if you improvise and don’t use most of the ideas. There’s always a significant amount of waste when mining for gold. (Unless you’re Miles Davis, apparently.)