On the 17 August 1959 a record album was released which would go on to change the world of Jazz and establish itself as a milestone in the history of recorded music. The record was, ‘Kind of Blue’, by Miles Davis. Exactly 59 years after its release the questions as to its allure and mystery still endure. What is it about this 5-tune album that makes it one of the highest selling Jazz records of all time, if not the greatest, and be regarded as a genre-shifting moment in modern music? Some of the answers may lie in what it wasn’t as well as with what it actually was.
“It’s not just a cornerstone record for Jazz. It’s a cornerstone record for music.” – Herbie Hancock on ‘Kind of Blue’
If life is a spectrum of the Blues, with swing thrown in for good measure, then perhaps it was this unintended reflection on the human condition within ‘Kind of Blue’ which gave the record its enduring character.
Contrary to what is generally thought of as ‘Kind of Blue’ being a Jazz bolt-out-of-the-blue, it wasn’t. There was an incremental shift in Miles Davis’ understanding of where he wanted to take Jazz. Following his tumultuous yet indispensable stay with the Charlie Parker Band at the height of the Bebop era (1940s), Miles Davis had already started to make the shift away from the rapid-fire tempos and the complex chord progressions and melodies which came to characterise Bebop which, in itself, was a marked deviation from the preceding popular, bouncy, dance-floor era of Swing.
There were three Miles Davis records between 1949-1959 which could be seen as pointers to the musical structure, or lack thereof, which came to define ‘Kind of Blue’. The first was ‘Blue Moods’ (1955) which was produced by Charles Mingus and released by him on his Debut Records label. The second was the 1957 compilation record, ‘Birth of the Cool’ which brought together a selection of Miles’ recordings from 1949-1950 and launched the idea of Cool Jazz. If not by just its own merit the record was canonised into our popular culture through the musical quotation of the classic tune(5) ‘Boplicity’ in the greatest show in TV history, The Simpsons (Season 16, Episode 337, ‘Alls Fair in Oven War’); to mention nothing of ‘Birth of the Cool’ being Lisa Simpson’s favourite record. (Season 14, Episode 299, ‘The Dad Who Knew Too Little’).
It was, however, the third album in 1958, ‘Milestones’, particularly the title track which set the pace for 1959’s ‘Kind of Blue’, which went on to firmly establish the musical blueprint which has come to be known as Modal Jazz. As opposed to the upbeat nature of Bepop which was driven by solo improvisations based on fast and complex chord changes (eg. Charlie Parker’s 1947 tune, ‘Donna Lee’).
Miles Davis felt that this was proving to be a distraction from the essence of Jazz. In search of a new way, Miles took guidance from a good friend, composer and music theorist, George Russell, who introduced him to new relationships between chord and scales, leading to a focus on Modes of Jazz, which sought to break out of rigid chord progressions and create new open spaces for improvisation and what was to be the reinvention of Jazz in a single record.
“You’re free to do anything as long as you know where home is.” – George Russell on Modal Jazz.
Working rather within Scales (eg. Major and Minor Scales), or Modes of music, the idea was to reconfigure the structure of a tune within Modal categories to allow for the tune as a whole and for the soloists to find greater expressions of the emotions felt at that moment.
“He was trying to simplify. But simplify is not really the right word. He was trying to make it clearer. That’s the right word and the way to do it would be to break things down to one tonality and play on.” – John Scofield on ‘Kind of Blue’.
These aesthetics of clarity and simplicity take on a new meaning given the fact that everything we hear on the record is as it was first played and heard; Take One recorded (Columbia Records) and preserved in the album we are gifted with to this day.
Although one could find indicators of this shift from Bebop before the 1959 timeline, such as in the Blue Note records of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messenger’s – ‘Moanin’ (1958) and John Coltrane’s – ‘Blue Train’ (1958), Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue’ was the shift. The likeness of the opening bars on all three records is uncanny, though.
Amidst much that could be said about the personnel who crafted this record it has to be noted that it had to take a very special band to make this new musical picture hang together.
The rhythm section of Paul Chambers (Double Bass) and Jimmy Cobb (Drums) offered the core fabric upon which the rich tapestry of the album was woven. Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley (Alto Saxophone) and John Coltrane (Tenor Saxophone) complete an almost paradoxical horn section with the ever bouncy and happy Adderley contrasting the deep, dark and almost dangerous Coltrane. It was indeed the Modal format which brought out the best in John Coltrane and ‘Cannonball’ Adderley on this record.
“How do you go into a studio with minimum stuff and come out with eternity” – Carlos Santana on ‘Kind of Blue’
If there had to be one star (And there wasn’t) of the proceedings other than Miles Davis, it might just have to be Bill Evans. Although Miles Davis appeared to have had the foresight, one can only say in retrospect with certainty that Bill Evans was the perfect pianist for the job. Nobody at the time could touch and twist the life out of a note like Bill Evans. Even at the risk of being too clichéd, if simplicity is the ultimate sophistication then Bill Evans nailed this record (He played piano on 4 of the 5 tunes). The difference between the tune ‘Freddie Freeloader’ (Track 2) and the rest of the record is Wynton Kelly on piano instead of Bill Evans. For this tune and at this particular time and space in music history, for Bill Evans, it didn’t mean a thing if he didn’t have that swing which Wynton Kelly provided.
For many the rediscovery of Miles Davis might have come through some or the other cover version of one of the five tunes on the record, more likely than not, Track 1 – ‘So What’, such as what became the late Ronny Jordan’s (Guitar) evangelism of this tune on his record, ‘Antidote’. As it is difficult for any one of the band members to stand above another on this musical milestone, so it is with the 5 tunes, with each tune possessing its own texture, touch and tonality. Somehow, it does seem that ‘Blue in Green’ (3) and ‘Flamenco Sketches’ (5) capture more of Miles’ harmonic intent with this record; with these tunes forever holding some of John Coltrane’s best recorded solos, ever. It is in these two tunes that one also sees Herbie Hancock’s description of Bill Evans come to life.
“His touch was so gorgeous on the instrument. His swing was relaxed and yet, in the pocket.” – Herbie Hancock
It could be that the success of Miles Davis’ record ‘Kind of Blue’ and its ability to endure through time and across various genres of music has something to do with that which is within all of us; the Blues, in its every variation. Our yearning for the joy of swing is only the Side-B of the Blues, without which Swing wouldn’t mean a thing. As a work of art which concentrates the mind on the spaces and moments to be found between the structures of life, today, 59 years on, we still give thanks and praise and celebrate a remarkable record ‘Kind of Blue’ by Miles Davis and his band.