The main thing written about this gathering of jazz giants was that it was the beginning of what was called “modal” jazz, which later became “the new thing” in the next decade. Talking about that aspect of things would require me to know something about the difference between improvising around scales and improvising around chord changes. I’m sure a musicologist would be able to write a book on why Kind of Blue is such a groundbreaking benchmark in the development of jazz. But, I’m not a musicologist. I’m just a fan. I am just a person who heard “So What” once on a cheap Columbia compilation album and was musically grabbed by my lapels and shaken to my shoes. I am a person who never knew that jazz could be this cool, in every sense of the word. It is music that is both cerebral because of its complexity, and visceral because of its ability to swing. It dances on the knife’s edge of intellectual pursuit and irrational, ineffable feeling.
The parties involved are legends in their own right; the equivalent of Elvis, The Killer, The Georgia Peach, Buddy, Chuck and Bo swinging by a studio and making a record together. But where the morass of egos may have short circuited any hope of such communal greatness from the rock world of the time, the jazz equivalents seem to be able to put the music to the forefront, while infusing it with something of their own personalities at the same time. You hear Miles’ trumpet and you can imagine it skimming on the surface of the next big movement, daring the others to join the chase. You can hear Trane’s darkness and spiritual turbulence. You can hear Cannonball’s affability and playfulness. You can hear Bill Evans’ academic and stolid anchor in musical theory playing in and out of the blues-devoted rhythm section of drummer Jimmy Cobb and session stalwart bassist Paul Chambers. Everything is in its place, no one element being more important and prominent than the other, despite the magnitude of the persons involved. It’s there in every note and pause and nothing is wasted.
The opener, “So What” builds from Evans’ impressionist piano lines, bolstered by Chambers almost menacing bass. When the horns enter the scene, they are not the frenetic voices of the be-bop days of old; they are lilting and minimalist, adding to the building tension that has been established in the intro, as elements and not as dominant lines. The urgency of bop and the bombast of the big band sound are subverted and turned on their heads in turn, answering dexterity with efficiency, grandiosity with musical subtext. Where a solo may have once been measured by its ability to reinforce a theme, it serves here to build on what has started from nothing. It would not supplant the need for melody, but it would open the possibilities for musicians to bring out many melodies, some heard on first listen and others heard after years of hearing the record.
It is in this respect that Kind of Blue is timeless. In the expression embedded in the solos, the moment is conveyed, the spark of creativity of artists gathering together is communicated, and you’re there too within the conversation as you listen. The romanticism of Bill Evan’s “Blue in Green”, the mischievous waltz time of “All Blues” (which is nothing of the sort!), the exotic flavorings of Flamenco Sketches, and the easy-going “Freddy Freeloader” all come together as simple yet eloquent exchanges between musicians with considerable sonic vocabularies. They make it sound so easy, and as listeners we are drawn into it, not realizing that a revolution has just taken place until we think on it after the record is over. Then, we want to play it again, just to be sure we’ve heard everything there is to hear. Of course, we don’t. We can’t. There is lyricism, personality, emotion on various levels, and some can only be heard when a listener is paying attention, and some can only be absorbed when the listener is not. One might expect a record where melody and chord changes are secondary to be nothing but egotism on the part of the musicians, but the opposite is true. It involves you. It marks you and raises the bar in what you come to expect from the form. It comes as no surprise that the results would take jazz in directions that many within that world as well as outside it feared to go in the next decade – to freeform, to electric instruments, and back to Africa where it was born. It is no surprise, that these musical conversations between giants should start a revolution as all revolutions start this way – masters talking in a room with a unified vision, unafraid to embrace the future.
- Something Else by Cannonball Adderley. A year previous to the Kind of Blue sessions, Miles played on alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley’s classic album , which showed some of the more relaxed, lighter side of Davis’ playing. In many ways, it foreshadowed the tone of KoB – relaxed, cool, and playful. This is a great place to start for a jazz newbie.
- Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis & Gil Evans. This isn’t technically a jazz record, although it certainly incorporates jazz improvisation. Evans arranged Concerto De Aranjuez, and a selection of pieces similar in tone, for a small orchestra and invited Davis to add his own improvised lines. The result is a sensual, slightly menacing, and ultimately triumphant effort which stands as a career highpoint for everyone involved.
- In A Silent Way by Miles Davis. By the end of the 1960s, Davis’ musical curiosity took him even further away from where he’d started in hard-bop and cool. IASW is a stand alone record in many ways – a rest stop between the jazz of the past, and the development of jazz fusion of which Davis was a prime architect. This record, like Kind of Blue, cherishes feel over structure, texture over shape. The approach results in a record that is a celebration of the use of space in music; an atmospheric, dreamy ride that comes off as the first hints of Ambient.
Hear Miles Davis and John Coltrane play ‘So What’.
Hover over the image and click the ‘play’ icon. To enlarge the viewing window, click the magnifying glass icon. Enjoy!