On August 17, 1959, Columbia Records issued what would become one of the best-selling and most influential recordings in jazz. Over the next half-century, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, featuring a cadre of up and coming jazz stars including those named Coltrane, Evans, and Cannonball, wriggled its way into nearly every aspect of popular culture — filling in the backgrounds of numerous movies and TV shows, seeping into the music collections of every romantically-inclined college student, and rising to the top of countless all-time greatest lists. As Ashley Kahn describes, in the introduction to his excellent and exhaustive book, Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, people seem to vividly remember the first time they heard Kind of Blue in the same way that they remember significant life events. The album means that much — to jazz, to music, to popular culture, and to history.
It’s no surprise, then, that the centerpiece for the 41st Barcelona International Jazz Festival should be the 50th anniversary of this landmark piece of American musical history, with a number of musical tributes by artists from around the globe. The most significant of these tributes in the month-long festival was the November 9 concert by drummer Jimmy Cobb’s So What Band.
Cobb, at 80 years of age and the only musician from the Kind of Blue sessions that is still living today, is perhaps the least known of the album’s legendary cast of stars. Whether due to personal style or personality, or simply due to the enormous personalities of Davis and his other bandmates, Cobb’s stick work on Kind of Blue is the least discussed and most underrated piece of the album’s deceptively simple musical puzzle. In hindsight, Cobb seems like the only true choice for Kind of Blue. His subtle, subdued polyrhythms, exquisite brushwork, and lockstep time-keeping are the record’s bedrock, the foundation from which all the magic takes place.
The grand setting for Cobb’s performace was a perfect match for Kind of Blue. The Palau de la Música Catalana is perhaps the most stunning Modernista edifice in a city teeming with them. The ceiling, with its myriad stained glass faces, threatens to drop like a single tear onto the eager audience. Brightly colored tile mosaics sweep across the theater’s walls, insulating you from the hustle and bustle of Barcelona’s neon nightlife. An enormous stampede of horses hangs ominously over the stage. All in all, it’s the perfect stage on which to take stock of a jazz masterpiece.
Despite a perfect setting, an eager audience, and superior musicians, the actual concert, entitled “Kind of Blue @ 50” — which started with an up tempo version of “So What”, ended with Davis’s arrangement of the Thelonius Monk standard “‘Round Midnight”, and included by-the-book versions of the four remaining tunes on Kind of Blue — was forgettable. The star-studded band — Buster Williams on bass, Larry Willis on piano, Javon Jackson on tenor saxophone, Vincent Herring on alto saxophone, Wallace Roney on trumpet, and Cobb on drums — was never completely in sync, and seemed genuinely afraid to explore Davis’s sparse compositions. “So What” and “All Blues” felt rushed. Transitions between solos on the remaining tunes were shaky, especially considering these musicians have been performing these songs together since May.
Throughout the concert, Roney, Jackson, and Herring would walk to the side of the enormous stage whenever they weren’t playing, and these roundtrips distracted from the music, which most of us are used to hearing in clubs with no stage at all or lounges with stages barely big enough to fit six musicians. Only Roney’s work on “Blue in Green” and Cobb’s solo on “Flamenco Sketches” — his only solo of the night — seemed to exude passion for the music. None of the musicians addressed the audience in the sold out hall until the 90-minute show’s conclusion, when the fit-looking Cobb, dressed in suspenders and a baseball cap, sheepishly thanked the audience for its extended ovation. There were no stories from Roney about his studies with Davis in the ‘80s, from Jackson about the influence Davis’s music has had on his playing, or from Cobb about working with Davis during the Kind of Blue sessions. Perhaps fittingly, there was just the music.
In hindsight, any performance of Kind of Blue, especially one that closely adheres to the album’s arrangements, is bound to be disappointing. As listeners, we’ve had 50 years to inhale every note, every harmony, every chord change (of which there are comparatively few) on the recording. Even the mistakes — those glorious missteps — like Davis’s apparent slip-up 2 minutes and 13 seconds into “So What”, have come to be cherished and attributed to musicians finding their footing on the wholly new and rocky terrain of what would come to be called modal jazz, what would lay the ground work for the free jazz and fusion and jam bands and classical minimalists and movie music to come. So it seems unlikely that any performance of the music on Kind of Blue could live up to the original recording — the best a musician can do, and what Cobb’s band certainly accomplished, is to evoke in the listener that feeling that he or she had when he or she first heard Chambers’s introductory bass phrase on “So What” as recorded way back in 1959. And at the end of the night at the Palau de la Música Catalana, uproarious applause rained down upon not a performance, but the artistic legacy of what one musician and his bandmates did some 50 years ago.