Kind of Blue

Welcome all! This is “Music Monday” for March 1st 🙂

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of Miles Davis’ masterful, influential, and highly-acclaimed jazz album Kind of Blue. Released on the Columbia label in August 1959, Kind of Blue is the biggest selling jazz album of all time. It is also one of the most widely respected. Much in the way  that the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and Led Zeppelin’s Zeppelin II are revered by rock and pop music fans, Kind of Blue is regarded as a similar “magnum opus” by jazz fans. A watershed achievement. An unparalleled, almost flawless example of pure musical creation.

I do not exaggerate when I say that I listen to Kind of Blue several times a week. I first listened to it as a child with who else but my father. Since then it has provided a musical accompaniment for me literally everywhere I go – riding the subway, running in the park,  doing yoga, lounging around my house, flowing out of my iTunes while I surf the internet. As I live and breathe, Kind of Blue lives and breathes with me, as it does for so many people who appreciate good music.

In a display of sheer genius and brilliant instinct, Miles Davis assembled one of the greatest ensembles for a jazz recording you could imagine, a group that comprised a virtual “dream team”  lineup of musicians: John Coltrane on tenor sax, Cannonball Adderly on alto sax, Paul Chambers on bass, Jimmy Cobb on drums, Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans on piano, and of course, Miles Davis himself on trumpet.

The album is a masterpiece of group improvisation and modal jazz,  a style which differs from bebop jazz in that it emphasizes melody over chords. Miles Davis cut his teeth in the bebop scene of the late 40s and early 50s, but he eventually became disillusioned with the bebop style. He felt that being forced to improvise within the parameters of chord changes was confining for the soloist, and sought to release melody and expression from the whirlwind tempos, and cluttered, hard-driving, manic format of bebop jazz. Hence he turned to “modality”. Simply put, modality allows for solo improvisation within “modes” – let’s say “scales”. Whereas bebop improvisation was tethered to the structure of chords and chord changes, modal jazz liberated soloists into the looser, freer, more expansive realm of melody.

The actual recording of Kind of Blue is legendary for its spontaneity. There was almost no rehearsal, very few takes, and a deliberate lack of preparation and planning. That’s the way Miles wanted it. The results are crisp, but not lightweight. Collaborative, but not crowded. Fresh, but not raw. Hip, but not avante-garde. Serious, but not heavy-handed. Those delicate balances, those exquisite nuances, are what make Kind of Blue the popular, yet highly esteemed, album that it is.

A great photograph taken during the Kind of Blue recording sessions on 30th Street in New York. From left to right, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Miles Davis, and Bill Evans:

Ambient, melancholy, almost minimalist, Kind of Blue is frequently referred to as the jazz album that even people who “don’t like jazz” can enjoy. Although I happen to love jazz passionately, I’d say that’s a fair assessment. I understand it and have no qualms with it. Kind of Blue can be called a ‘crossover” album in that respect. Highly listenable, its appeal is wide-ranging. Absent is the intense, complicated, some might say “noisy” quality of hardcore bebop. Instead, the album is subtle, elegant, hypnotic, and seductive while still  maintaining an authentically jazzy and bluesy feel.

I’d like to share my favorite track from Kind of Blue. This is “All Blues”. Miles begins playing trumpet with a Harmon mute, but at 1:46, comes in without the mute, and I think it is some his most superb recorded trumpet playing, with shadings, gradations, lyricism, and the moodiness for which he is so well known:

Regardless of one’s musical preferences, Kind of Blue has a rightful place in everyone’s music library. If you don’t have it, get it. Buy it, download it, borrow it, steal it if you have to! Put it on, dim the lights, close your eyes, and just  . . . float away. Float away and luxuriate in the subtle shifts, the musical undulations, the intelligent artistic spirit that infuses the entire album. It envelopes you. I promise it will enrich your life, and owning it will make you officially cool 😎

Since the Kind of Blue anniversary was last year, the best links are to articles from 2009. They are terrific reading. I recommend this one from the LA Times and this one from Slate.

6 thoughts on “Kind of Blue

  1. As a musician I was familiar with all of the tracks, particularly All Blues and Freddy Freeloader, but amazingly had never owned KOB until recently. As a hardbopster I preferred the earlier Relaxin’/Cookin’/Steaming dates, as well as the later Herbie/Wayne Quintets. It’s hard to believe that Jimmy Cobb is the last surviving member of that incredible group.

    • artmodel says:

      keith,

      It is hard to believe that Jimmy Cobb is the only KOBer still alive. Very sad, really. But the recording and the music live on forever, and that’s a good thing 🙂

      Thanks so much for posting a comment. Always great to hear from musicians!

      Claudia

  2. Brian says:

    Hey Claudia,

    Great post on Miles…I’ve had Kind of Blue in my Miles collection for years….I had the very good fortune of seeing him play live once in Milwaukee – in incredible show, although I was surprised and somewhat offended at how he rarely faced the audience during a performance (later I learned that it was typical “Miles”)…

    By the way – I like your divergence into “music” here – for me at least, I feel a little more “common ground” from a subject matter point of view…incidentally, if you happen to be taking requests, I’d be interested in reading your take on Giant Steps (a personal favorite).

    Brian

    • artmodel says:

      Brian,

      I LOVE “Giant Steps”! Absolutely one of the greatest jazz albums. I believe it came out a year after “Kind of Blue”. You have excellent taste, Brian.

      You are lucky to have seen Miles perform live, his poor stage manners notwithstanding 😆

      Thanks so much for commenting. And I’m glad you’re enjoying “Music Mondays”!

      Claudia

  3. Inspired by your Kind of Bue post, as well as Brian’s request I blogged about Giant Steps. Please feel free to check it out and comment.

    http://www.keithosaunders.com

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