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Kind of Blue Revisited: The 50th Anniversary of the Greatest (Jazz) Album of All Time

A staple of modern music 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.

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.

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