[10 March 2005]
Jazz is an exceedingly tricky genre in the musical world. Descriptions run the gamut of terminology—so much so, a Thesaurus wouldn’t do it justice. A majority of adjectives would sound very arty and pretentious to those not submerged in its nuances and twists and turns. Recently, a term used to describe a certain type of rock that makes one think has appeared on the radar screen: “math rock”. If that’s the case, jazz is a plethora of calculus, logarithms, trigonometry, algebra and geometry rolled into one complex bundle of sounds both consequential and inconsequential.
Jazz has always seemed elitist, going back to the days when be-bop started becoming the “it” thing. Simple, discordant notes were supposed to have far-reaching ambience, yet remain somewhat esoteric. If that’s confusing to you, that’s certainly understandable. Wander to your major chain record store, and there’s a ton of jazz selections available, from its earliest days to the present. It has an underground following… well, maybe “underground” is not quite the right term. FM stations on the low end of the frequency (i.e. college radio) have jazz programs. Jazz clubs are prevalent in every major city, and they do a nice business. Jazz has always extended itself to crossovers with vocalists from Tony Bennett to Norah Jones. Jazz also covers swing music, and even finds itself in elements of rock (hello, Steely Dan!).
The problem with all this is, if one is not interested in jazz, or one has an ugly preconceived notion as to what jazz is, there’s no bait in the world that would lure one to attach themselves to the hook. And since jazz flies off in all different directions, types, sub-genres, etc., it’s extremely difficult to find one piece of work that would encompass what jazz is all about, and yet allow someone to examine it painlessly. Hell, Ken Burns couldn’t pull off that trick.
Even with that, there are several monikers that a non-jazz person will associate with jazz, once uttered. Names like John Coltrane (Trane), Ornette Coleman, Dizzy Gillespe, Buddy Rich, and Count Basie are known to young and old alike. But two of the biggest names in jazz who managed to transcend its loose boundaries are Louis Armstrong (because of his versatility in other genres, such as blues and ragtime) and Miles Davis (because of his willingness to take chances). Both gentlemen are talented as all hell, and just as savvy. But as Armstrong was the leader in the swing/ragtime early era of jazz, Davis became the lightning rod in the more recent past.
Davis was a visionary, who didn’t mind sticking his neck out on the chopping block, pissing off purists along the way. He was the jazz version of Bob Dylan, when Dylan decided to amplify. Davis not only crossed over into rock, he dove head first (Bitches Brew). So why wouldn’t Davis take chances within jazz’s wide circle? And all he did was create an album that is so revered, it’s known as the one jazz album non-jazz fans own, the 1959 release Kind of Blue.
Davis, an ego-centrifugal force in the studio, came up with the idea of playing Kind of Blue in modal form, where the focal point of playing was a series of scales, rather than the standard use of chord or rhythmic changes. This was one of the many breakthroughs that Davis engineered in the jazz world. But in order to do this, he needed a group of musicians he could trust implicitly to follow his initial concepts, yet have the freedom to improvise well under those given standards. And in baseball parlance, Davis assembled a lineup equitable to the New York Yankees of jazz.
For starters, try Coltrane himself on tenor sax. Then add Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on alto sax. Lesser in popularity, but no less in stature here are pianists Bill Evans and (for one song) Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb, the only member of this all-star lineup still breathing. Davis chose each member carefully, so much so that Kelly, his regular pianist at the time, was only used on one track, “Freddie Freeloader”; reason being that the scales were based on a 12-bar blues theme, and Davis knew Kelly was a better blues pianist than Evans.
With the lineup set, Davis wrote his instructions mere hours before showing the rest of the musicians. There were no rehearsals—everything was done spontaneously, with total trust. And with the exception of the final song, “Flamenco Sketches”, everything was nailed on the first take, with no overdubs and no do-overs. (“Flamenco Sketches” took two tries, the one that didn’t make the original album was released later on as an alternate version on subsequent re-releases.)
The absolute classic song is the opener, “So What”. After a bit of noodling byplay between Evans and Chambers, they lock into a repetitive groove, as Cobb brushes his cymbals, and then Davis joins in for the one-two punch following along with Evans. Davis then breaks into a cool, laid-back solo as Evans’ piano counters. Then comes Coltrane’s turn, and he keeps things just as easy, following the established groove and aura. And then it’s Adderley’s turn to do same. What makes the song isn’t the solos themselves, though they are quite tasty for an improvisational theme—it’s the entire ensemble. Evans, Chambers and Cobb are just as vital to making this song work as the brass and woodwind folks. It’s very easy here (as it is for the rest of the album) to follow along with any one of the players, and hearing how their playing meshes with the rest of the group.
The music is relaxed—the sextet’s playing never sounds forced, even as it’s being done on the fly. “Freddie Freeloader” (named after someone the band knew) again starts off with a melodic bent before the first solo, this time by Kelly. And even with modal playing, there is a melody that one can follow easily in every song except “Flamenco Sketches”. Also, unlike many recordings under the “be-bop” banner, this one has simplicity to its rhythm. Cobb rarely twists the established beat, so it’s certainly less problematic for a neophyte to follow a song from start to finish.
“Blue in Green” is the perfect piece if you want a smoky jazz club for a background setting. The solos here are mighty restrained, as Davis sets the tone, and Coltrane and Adderley follow suit. “All Blues” is waltz-like, but by no means boring. It’s in the realm of “So What”: it lays down a bottom melody and rhythm, and then the exploration begins. “Flamenco Sketches” comes closest to common free-form. The difference between the one that made the initial album release (track five on the CD) and the alternate (track six) is simply the solos. Davis implored everyone to be a bit more melodic in their soloing, and the compare/contrast method bears this out.
The DVD is an interesting watch. The testimonials are heartfelt, and usually too many become monotonous, but the passion for which artists and fans like Shirley Horn, Q-Tip, Bill Cosby and Herbie Hancock (among others) is startling. The most enjoyable moments are the interviews with Cobb on the making of the album and the man himself and the archival TV footage from the 1959 CBS special The Sounds of Miles Davis. Hancock is also great at breaking down some of the nuances and hidden pleasures, but remember earlier when the “math rock” comparison was introduced? It’s kind of weird to hear some of these people (Cobb included) break down a simple cymbal crash that preceded Davis’ opening solo on “So What”. (Was the cymbal hit too hard? Did it take away from the mood?) Talk about math jazz…
Legacy is an apt name for the label reissuing Kind of Blue. The album is a legacy in its own right, the artist is a legacy amongst his peers, and if there’s one album for jazz to hang its figurative legacy hat upon, it’s this one (with apologies to Trane’s A Love Supreme). There likely will never be a more talented, patient, and willing ensemble cast put together to make such vibrant music again, especially under their given circumstances. Yes, it’s trite and cliché, but it still rings true, after 46 years of shelf life: if you’re interested in starting up a jazz collection, or if you want to have just one jazz album that encapsulates “cool”, then Kind of Blue is your weapon of choice, and the DVD is the icing on this very rich cake.