[3 December 2008]
Is There Anything Left to Say About Kind of Blue After 50 Years of Adulation?
It is—by nearly universal acclamation—the Greatest Jazz Album of All Time. Maybe the Greatest Album, Period, of All Time. And, not insignificantly, it is also the best-selling jazz album of all time. In short, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue is that rarest thing in art: a work that is as popular as it is critically acclaimed, at once revolutionary and easy to enjoy.
Because it has been heard and enjoyed by so many people for nearly 50 years, Kind of Blue is near-impossible to hear with fresh ears. But perhaps that is precisely why it needs some re-examining.
All the Stuff About Kind of Blue That You Probably Already Know, Explained Fast and Easy
What Is It? Kind of Blue is a jazz album made in 1959 for the mighty Columbia Records by the trumpeter Miles Davis and his sextet. It features five tunes, mostly mid-tempo. The group is an all-star ensemble of the time: John Coltrane on tenor saxophone; Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on alto; Bill Evans (and, on one track, Wynton Kelly) on piano; Paul Chambers on bass; and Jimmy Cobb on drums.
Miles Davis—I’ve heard of him, right?
You should have. Miles died in 1991, but he is still one of the most famous and powerful of American musicians. He started his career playing as a sideman with Charlie Parker and learning from his hero, Dizzy Gillespie, then he went on to make a series of brilliant albums and to lead a string of legendary bands. He had a knack for changing with the times, an ability to coalesce the music of the moment in ways that made it both beautiful and daring. He was also one of the first African-American artists both to be taken seriously as an artist and to insist on being paid commensurately.
So…What makes Kind of Blue different from the other 75,000 jazz albums I don’t care about?
Good question. A list:
a. Great make-out music! Beautiful, seductive, slinky
b. A perfect primer on jazz—four of the best (Miles, Trane, Cannonball, and Evans) all collected on one disc and playing at the height of their powers
c. Actual hummable melodies, unlike a lot of jazz
d. Knowing about/owning Kind of Blue makes you seem smarter—it’s like the Hamlet of jazz, but not four hours long
e. It is actually an important and “revolutionary” work of art because it demonstrated how jazz musicians could improvise in a new way, using “modes” rather than chords
“Modes”? OK, now this is starting to sound boring.
Ack, I know. Don’t worry about it. Normally, jazz musicians improvise over a tricky string of changing harmonies, making their playing gymnastically difficult to do but not always flowing or lyrical. With Kind of Blue, Davis and Evans collaborated on composing themes with less harmonic “motion”—meaning that the players were asked to solo over “modes” (basically scales) that didn’t change as quickly. The result: less gymnastics but more freedom—jazz with a cool breeze blowing through it.
So, Kind of Blue is a great album. Got it. Ace.
Some Stuff Worth Writing About Kind of Blue, Even 50 Years On
Kind of Blue deftly blends being a revolutionary act and being pure pleasure, and this is still remarkable. Because it has sat happily in so many jazz collections over so many years, because it has been played in endless college dorms and suburban rec rooms and martini bars, it is all too easy to dismiss Kind of Blue as some kind of easy-listening jazz. It is easy to listen to. But easy isn’t the half of it.
Most revolutions tear down a structure. The crucial act of change is destruction. In music, this always meant being “ugly”, at least for a time. Pops Armstrong could not stand the stuttering angularity of bebop at first—he called it “Chinese music”. People threw tomatoes at Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and Papa Jo Jones allegedly took the nut off his crash cymbal and heaved it to the floor the first time he heard Ornette Coleman.
So how can Kind of Blue be revolutionary if it has always sounded so smooth? What did it tear down?
It felled the hegemony of bebop. It struck down the notion that modern jazz was an art built around the virtuosic act of spinning improvisation around complex chord changes. This was true liberation. For as good as Charlie Parker was at making this kind of magic seem natural, most bop players were just brilliant technicians. There was a sameness to the playing born of the outrageous rigor of the art.
Kind of Blue swapped bop’s web of chords for long stretches of unchanging modes that could be played with relaxation and deliberation. The jazz soloist, in essence, was freed and challenged at once. No more tricky tap-dancing, but now a (perhaps) more sublime challenge: to create something logical and beautiful atop a less cluttered musical canvas.
What we hear on Kind of Blue, then, is the hatchet of serenity. All the usual flurry of bop is gone, and replacing it is a focused lyricism of clarity and immediacy. It’s the sound of a beautiful woman bringing a professional wrestler to the mat with the batting of her eye. It’s the twinkle of that eye catching yours.
The Lyricism of Kind of Blue, Examined
Okay, Mr. John Coltrane, your serpentine runs across a series of quick-moving chords are now against the rules. What have you got? Cannonball Adderley—blues-tinged bop is not on menu. What’s to eat?
This was the challenge of Kind of Blue, posed jointly by bandleader Davis and his just-former pianist Evans. (Evans had left Miles’s working sextet shortly before Kind of Blue was recorded, and the new pianist Wynton Kelly was apparently taken aback when he saw Bill at the studio for the date. This is the kind of nice, inside-jazz stuff you will learn in reading the box set’s elaborate liner notes and watching the fan-friendly DVD feature.) Though Davis’s most wonderful collaborators tended to be contrasting personalities (Parker and Coltrane, particularly), Evans was directly on Davis’s wavelength—each was fascinated by classical music from the Impressionist strain and played jazz with plenty of swing but also a wounded songfulness. Together, they composed the five sketches that would be presented to the band at the Kind of Blue recording sessions.
The reactions of Coltrane and Adderley, both protean improvisers of different kinds, are at the heart of Kind of Blue. Without abandoning his own sound, each pulled back from his usual razzle-dazzle. Faced with a simpler set of harmonic constraints, each soloist discovered freedom. Instead of reacting to the musical crossword puzzle of bop, they were left to compose their own melodies relatively from scratch. And the results are the most songful, most singable lines created up to that time by either man.
The most famous tune on Kind of Blue is “So What”, with its impossibly catchy bassline, echoed by the three horns calling back the title phrase. After the floating Evans introduction and the theme, Miles plays a justly famous solo. It is so balanced, logical, and memorable that other musicians have copied it, orchestrated it, and written words to it. It achieves immortality with a tiny range, little speed, and a minimum of virtuosity. Coltrane’s turn brings, of course, more complexity, but also a series of unique passages in which the saxophonist discovers a set of interval jumps that seem flatly original. Adderley picks up almost seamlessly, using blues phrasing and licks but working within the new framework to build unaffected melody.
“Flamenco Sketches” and “Blue in Green” equal the ballad beauty of Gershwin or Richard Rogers, but in this new way. Based somewhat on Leonard Bernstein’s “Some Other Time” and Evans’s own “Peace Piece”, respectively, they are given proper “melodies” only by Davis’s own opening improvisation. Adderley’s turn on “Sketches” is so perfectly composed that every time you hear it, it has the ability stun you. And Coltrane’s solo on “Blue” works with Evans’s accompaniment so seamlessly that it, too, seems pre-written in its perfection.
There are a dozen more perfect moments on Kind of Blue, but these spots serve to remind us that it is a “beautiful” record not because the playing is easy or smooth or delicate but, rather, because the playing is as hard as stone: it has the logic of a collision between genuine freedom and forced simplicity.
The year before the Davis Sextet recorded Kind of Blue, the same group recorded four tunes in a three-hour session produced by Cal Lampley at Columbia’s 30th Street Studio. These tracks—at only 32 minutes of music maybe not quite enough for a proper album—were not released together but rather scattered over several albums through the years.
As a result, prior to the release of Kind of Blue, a critical year in the life of Davis’s music gets somewhat lost. The story is this: Davis reformed his group to include both Coltrane and Adderley, plus his classic rhythm section of Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and “Philly” Jo Jones in December of 1957. Early in 1958, they record Milestones, the first LP suggesting that Davis was rethinking the way his band should improvise. Milestones, however, was still a fairly conventional jazz album, with some bop, some blues, a modern jazz classic (“Straight, No Chaser”), and a show tune. Only the title track featured the modal concepts that were coming.
That spring, two pieces of the sextet were dramatically swapped out. Jimmy Cobb brought a lighter kick on the drums and Evans replaced Garland on piano. Within the month, they recorded “On Green Dolphin Street”, “Fran Dance”, “Stella by Starlight”, and “Love for Sale” with a wholly new sound. And even though Evans left the group before 1958 ended, Miles plainly could not get that sound out of his head, bringing Evans back for Kind of Blue months later.
Heard in tandem with the great 1959 record, the May 26, 1958 recordings sound even better. While these are not original songs in a modal form, they share a great deal with Kind of Blue: They are dominated by the wholly new and different accompaniment of pianist Evans, and they have a unified sound, suggesting that Miles was beginning to think about his albums as thematically consistent works.
All of the 1958 tracks are dominated by Evans’s dramatically impressionistic playing. His chords and attack sound like no other jazz musician who came before him, yet his phrasing is a pliant kind of syncopation. Each starts with Evans setting the mood before Miles enters on muted trumpet with a dramatically elided version of the melody. The harmonic palette established by Evans is not necessarily modal, but his chord voicings have an open quality so that each soloist seems to have an wide set of choices for measures at a time—and with the tempos on “Green Dolphin”, “Stella”, and “Fran-Dance” all being medium or slow, the tyrannical procession chords that is normal in bop is essentially vanquished. All three horn players take advantage of this, playing affirmatively weird notes when it suits them, yet Evans catches each and every one in his web of pedaled chording.
The 11-minute “Love for Sale” amounts to a forgotten masterpiece. The meter and groove is stronger here, but Evans is still taking the role of the impressionist, freeing up Miles to jab like his hero Sugar Ray Robinson. The longer solos—including Evans’s own—are driven by Cobb at his best, shifting his snare click from the fourth beat to the second beat in dazzling combinations.
It’s easy to see why Miles asked Evans back for the two Kind of Blue recording dates in ‘59. While other pianists in the band may have been more versatile or swinging, none so effectively created a unifying mood as Evans did. In the 1958 recordings and in Kind of Blue, Davis was plainly seeking to use the album form to his advantage, creating a unified architecture of sound that had intellectual interest but also a mood.
As much as anything, Kind of Blue was an album-length tone poem. How lovely that the sextet warmed up for its best work with a similarly homogenous session that we can now enjoy anew.
The Ongoing Problem of Kind of Blue.
Problem? What could possibly be the problem with a masterpiece? Particularly a masterpiece that is both revolutionary and beautiful? The problem is this: The Miles Davis Sextet made modal improvising sound so good—and they made it sound so easy—that just about everyone has abused the privilege since. Every two-bit knucklehead with a saxophone or a guitar who has fallen under Kind of Blue‘s sway has demonstrated that playing with this much freedom is, oh boy, way harder than it sounds.
Here is the truth: playing accurately in a bebop setting (not even brilliantly but merely accurately) requires massive skill. Most players simply can’t do it. But what they can do is to blow freely over a single scale for long stretches. Kind of Blue, alas, suggested to the world that this could not only be done easily but also easily be done brilliantly.
The Miles Davis Sextet took the modal settings and used the freedom with daring and imagination. Freed to play only from a limited scale, Coltrane created improvisations of lyric power. Adderley found the blues within the modes, and he slowed down his thinking to make the art more purely gorgeous. Davis and Evans seemed to have found their Home Sweet Home.
Musicians of less protean skills, however, just played lots if notes. In his liner notes to the new boxed set, critic Francis Davis notes, “Beginning with the Byrds, the Doors, Carlos Santana, and the Allman Brothers, most rock improvisation has been modal.” In more recent years, long-form modal soloing in rock has, essentially become its own genre—the jam band. Trey Anastasio of the band Phish is a highly capable guitarist, but you don’t have to listen to many of his solos—some as long as many a jazz record—to know that he is running modes. Anastasio and his many followers (as well as his obvious predecessor, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead) mask the sameness of their extended modal improvisations in the cloak of the collective jam, making the groove itself the centerpiece.
Musicians who have made too little of Kind of Blue‘s modal approach are hardly confined to rock. In “serious” music, the first minimalist composer, La Monte Young, adopted a modal approach almost immediately after Kind of Blue appeared: “Young’s Dorian Blues in B flat” (c. 1960 or 1961); “Young’s Dorian Blues in G” (c. 1960-1961-present); “Young’s Aeolian Blues in B flat” (Summer 1961). This work, along with Terry Reilly’s modal In C (1964), was a huge influence on the more famous Phillip Glass and Steve Reich. The patterned monotony of minimalism is certainly, in some sense, Kind of Blue run extensively amok.
Within jazz, Kind of Blue quickly established the expectation that every player be fluid in a modal approach. Coltrane spent years exploring this territory (his tune “Impressions” is essentially a variant on “So What”, and his famous version of “My Favorite Things” combines Kind of Blue with Indian music to spectacular modal effect), and Herbie Hancock is just one of many younger players who profited from considering and copping Evans’s floating impressionism as well as straight-up modalism. In lesser hands than Trane’s or Herbie’s, though, how often was modal jazz flat or meandering?
Davis himself famously abandoned modal jazz at first. Though he kept several of the Kind of Blue tunes in his working repertoire through 1968, it was not to be a conclusion or a dead end for him. When he began adopting rock rhythms and then funk music in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, however, he would return to playing over static harmonies. And so his own modalism was combined with funk music and probably had an effect on the extended jams of folks like James Brown and George Clinton, not to mention some of the endless (and endlessly fast) playing that started as fusion, overlapped with rock, then devolved into smoothness.
My point is not to find fault with Anastasio, Reilly, or anyone else, but rather to note that few if any expressions of modalism have had the lasting appeal and specific musical success of Kind of Blue. And as the imitators, both flimsy and worthy, have wallpapered the music world, the question has been this: Is Kind of Blue lost in all the static, or is it all the more remarkable that it can still sound fresh and “present” a near-half century later?
The Box Set, a Monument
To make that determination, you could just get out your old copy of Kind of Blue—you probably already have one, right?—or you could invest in the spectacular 50th Anniversary Collector’s Edition box set. You get the disc, with all the hyper-entertaining but ultimately beside-the-point studio chatter, and you can compare it to a new version of the LP itself, but this time the plastic itself is BLUE. Pretty cool.
You get the 1958 sessions collected in one place, with a 20-minute live “So What” thrown in for good measure. (The last piece is Trane-tastic.) And you get a lovingly produced documentary on the album with plenty of jazz greats (not to mention Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, among a few other non-jazz folks) attesting to its centrality. And you get the insanely lovely book of essays and photos, which will inform you and remind you of how untouchably cool Miles really looked in 1959.
But what do you really need with all these extras? Kind of Blue itself, unadulterated and un-stretched, remains the very thing.
For me, owning the box set is a way of lifting Kind of Blue above the flood of my other music. I can already close my eyes and hear it—the lyric strains of “Flamenco Sketches” or the popping blues of “Freddie the Freeloader”—any time I like. It’s like a movie for which I’ve memorized every line of dialogue.
But it’s still nice to own that Director’s Cut DVD with all the special features. More often than you’d guess it’s good to go back to the special ones and pretend that they are brand new and that you’re about to experience them for the first time.
And when the first strains of “So What” hit your eardrums…it’s still bliss.
Miles Davis - So What