MILES DAVIS, Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959)
PERSONNEL: Miles Davis (trumpet): John Coltrane (tenor sax); Julian “Cannonball” Adderley (alto sax); Paul Chambers (bass); Bill Evans (piano); Wynton Kelly (piano on “Freddie Freeloader”); Jimmy Cobb (drums)
- So What
- Freddie Freeloader
- Blue In Green
- All Blues
- Flamenco Sketches
In terms of his lifetime, I was late to the Miles Davis party. I showed up in 1986, five years before his death, when I was 20. Even then, I was focused on Davis’s new “electric pop” albums, like Tutu. True “jazz,” as defined by my father and traditionalists (no electric instruments whatsoever), had not yet reached me. That would happen two years later.
Miles left Columbia Records — his label for 30 years — for Warner Brothers in 1985. Columbia commemorated the relationship by releasing a 5-LP box set called The Columbia Years, 1955-1985, in ’88. Every aspect of Davis’s output was covered in these records, categorized by “Standards,” “Blues,” “Originals,” “Moods,” and “Electric.” To be honest, those categories meant little to me when I bought the compilation. I just took the music for what it was, record by record. But I knew what I liked, and a couple of tracks completely blew me away.
The first such tune was called “All Blues,” a tranquil bit of 3/4 that seemed to bounce even as it remained exquisitely mellow. The song opened with a lovely vamp from pianist Bill Evans and the dual saxophones of John Coltrane and Julian “Cannonball” Adderly. Meanwhile, the bass of Paul Chambers and the brushed drum strokes of Jimmy Cobb established the tempo. Davis’s muted trumpet tone seemed to cry out achingly as it gently wrapped the listener in its warmth. I was captivated by what I was hearing. If this tune’s theme isn’t one of the most iconic of all time, I don’t know what is.
I would come to learn that “All Blues” was featured on an album called Kind of Blue, released in 1959. It is widely regarded as Miles Davis’s greatest (and most popular) release. I seem to recall it being featured as one of the only jazz records to appear in Rolling Stone magazine’s 100 Greatest Albums of All Time. (I paid a lot more attention to Rolling Stone back then.) I couldn’t get to the record store fast enough to get a copy of the record. What I heard on that album officially cemented my love for jazz. It also made my dad really happy.
Kind of Blue contains some of the most hypnotic music ever recorded. There is not a bad note to be found, including the couple of times when Davis didn’t hit the note he was aiming for perfectly. Those stumbles sounded like they were supposed to be there! This was made all the more stunning when I learned the musicians improvised their solos with little to no prior knowledge about the songs. Miles gave them written theme statements for each tune, and then turned them loose. this album contains the very definitions of “talent,” “soul,” and “professionalism.”
I brought the record home, all geeked up to hear “All Blues.” But that tune was the opener for Side Two. First, I had to hear what the first side had to offer. What a glorious moment that was. The needle drops, and “So What” sets the tone perfectly with another iconic theme statement, this time a call and response between Chambers and the rest of the band, who can be heard playing the equivalent of “so what’ on their instruments in response to the bass line. The conversational tone established, the band goes about soloing beautifully one after another, without hesitation or strain.
Kind of Blue is beautifully paced, never running away from the listener or overwhelming them with tempo shifts. It also does a great job at using space, leaving each soloist more than enough room to wander about musically without interference from the others. Not that there is really any wandering. Each and every solo is tight and on the money. This seems particularly remarkable given Coltrane’s tendency to wander in search of his ultimate musical message (a quality that would truly manifest itself in the coming years).
I often read these days about album sessions taking weeks, months, or even years to come together. To be certain, times were different in 1959. Still, it absolutely floored me to learn that this iconic album was recorded in two days. The first session, on March 2, yielded the album’s first three tunes, making up the first side. Side Two was recorded nearly two months later, on April 22. Nearly every tune used on the album was the song’s first take. (Consider also that in between those sessions, Coltrane recorded one of his most legendary albums, Giant Steps. Damn!)
An album is only as strong as its weakest tune. For me, that tune on Kind of Blue is “Blue in Green.” And that song is incredible! While Evans, Chambers, and Cobb establish the key and tempo, Davis wastes no time bringing forth another aching and tender solo that seems to float right over the top of the rest of the band. In a change of pace, Evans takes the second solo (he usually went last), playing a tasteful single note run over the perfect tender chords. Coltrane steps in for a moment, then gives way to Evans again before Davis puts a bow on it. Speaking of bowing, listen carefully for Chambers’s lovely playing as the tune runs out. Everything is said and done in less than six minutes, but there truly was nothing more to say or do.
Kind of Blue‘s closer, “Flamenco Sketches,” represents the ultimate ending, a gentle romantic nudge toward the door that gives the listener plenty to think about on the way out. Chambers’s bass line is so low-key, one would think he was nearly asleep. Evans echoes this sentiment on the piano. But there is no need for them to push any harder or go any faster. They are doing exactly what the piece requires. Everything else takes care of itself.
How many ways have I collected this album? It’s almost embarrassing. There was my original album (which I later learned was mastered at the wrong speed, and it STILL worked), my first CD, a digital download, a second CD (mastered at the correct speed this time), my second LP (ditto), and the 50th anniversary box set (containing a blue vinyl copy of the record, a CD, a DVD, and other goodies). I’ve also gifted this album to friends at least ten times. When I’m asked about how to “get into” jazz, this is the album I use as the perfect entry point.
In the back of the CD booklet, there is an iconic photo of Davis, seated before a microphone and music stand, with a big smile on his face. This was not something that was photographed every day. Davis had a reputation for being … intense. Apparently, things were going pretty well when this particular photo was taken.
Given Kind of Blue‘s ultimate output, I don’t blame him a bit.
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