Kind of Blue: why it’s a masterpiece

I’ve posted before on the jazz masterpiece, Kind of Blue – around the 50th anniversary of the recording sessions that produced the album. But I thought I’d return to it today – the 50th anniversary of its actual release – particularly to note an excellent article in today’s Slate by Fred Kaplan – Kind of Blue: Why the best-selling jazz album of all time is so great. The article, which is extensively illustrated with audio clips, tells how composer George Russell introduced Miles Davis to his new theory of jazz improvisation based not on chord changes but on scales or “modes”:

Miles realized this was a way out of bebop’s cul-de-sac. “Man,” he told Russell, “if Bird was alive, this would kill him.”…

Davis needed one more thing before he could go this route: a pianist who knew how to accompany without playing chords. This was a radical notion. Laying down the chords—supplying the frontline horn players with the compass that kept their improvisations on the right path—was what modern jazz pianists did. Russell recommended someone he’d hired for a few of his own sessions, an intense young white man named Bill Evans…

Davis hired Evans for his next recording date, the session that became Kind of Blue, which would be the perfect expression of this new approach to playing.

The clearest example of its novelty is a piece, composed (without credit) by Evans, called “Flamenco Sketches.” At most jazz sessions, the sheet music that the leader passes around to the band consists of “heads”—the first 12 or so bars of a tune, with the chords notated above. The band plays the head, then each player improvises on the chords. But for “Flamenco Sketches,” Evans had jotted down the notes of five scales, each of which expressed a slightly different mood. At the top of the sheet, he wrote, “Play in the sound of these scales.”

For the band’s two saxophone players, John Coltrane on tenor and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on alto, it was a particularly bizarre instruction. Both were astonishingly adept improvisers, but they built their creations strictly on chords, Adderley as an acolyte of Charlie Parker (with a gospel-infused tone), Coltrane as an almost spiritual explorer, searching for the right sound, the right note, mapping out his voyage on charts of chords, piling and inverting chords on top of chords, expanding each note of a chord to a new chord, not knowing which combinations might work and therefore trying them all…

So Kind of Blue sounded different from the jazz that came before it. But what made it so great? The answer here is simple: the musicians. Throughout his career, certainly through the 1950s and ’60s, Miles Davis was an instinctively brilliant recruiter; a large percentage of his sidemen went on to be great leaders, and these sidemen—especially Evans, Coltrane, and Adderley—were among his greatest. They came to the date, were handed music that allowed them unprecedented freedom (to sing their “own song,” as Russell put it), and they lived up to the challenge, usually on the first take; they had a lot of their own song to sing…

Another appealing thing about Kind of Blue, though it’s also a heartbreaking thing: There was no sequel. Soon after the recording date, the band broke up. Evans formed his own piano trio; Adderley went back to playing gospel-tinged bop; Coltrane (after making Giant Steps) took his own road to freedom; Davis, too, retreated to earlier forms for the next few years, until he formed his next great band, in the mid-’60s, with younger musicians who pushed him on to more adventurous experiments.

Kind of Blue is a one-shot deal, so dreamily perfect you can hardly believe someone created it. Which is why it remains so deeply satisfying, on whatever level you experience it, as moody background music or as the center of your existence. Listen to it 100 times or so, and you still marvel at its spontaneous inventions; now and then, you’ll even hear something new.

We have also listened to a documentary on Radio 2, introduced by trumpeter Guy Barker, exploring why Kind Of Blue is such a phenomenon. He covered much the same ground as Kaplan, who was one of the writers interviewed. The programme told how Miles Davis created his masterpiece in just two studio sessions, and with very little preparation. He also explored how Kind of Blue fits into the musical, cultural and socio-political landscape of the late 1950s.

The documentary included extracts of rare archive interviews with Miles Davis, pianist Bill Evans and drummer Jimmy Cobb, the last surviving member of the Kind of Blue band.

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