Sunday, 8 November 2009

Miles Davis - 'Kind of Blue'

It's extraordinary that four (some say five) such influential jazz records should have been released in one year. Miles – Davis - 'Kind Of Blue', Charles Mingus - 'Ah Um', John Coltrane - 'Giant Steps' and Ornette Coleman - 'The Shape of Jazz to Come' are all '59-ers.

The other album released in 1959 that lays claim to being a classic is Dave Brubeck's 'Time Out' It was initially the most commercially successful of the jazz albums released that year – in fact it is one of the more successful jazz albums ever released and included the jazz-standard 'Take Five' - but its experiments with time signatures were still rooted in the mainstream jazz sounds of the time unlike the more visceral and daring musical statements being made by the others.

Much more significant was the release of 'Kind of Blue' by Miles Davis on August 17th by Columbia Records. 'Kind of Blue' is widely regarded as one of the most influential jazz records of all time. The album represented a brilliant and beautiful break from the bebop past of improvisation based on structured chord changes. 'Kind of Blue' is the ultimate expression of the 'modal' form – improvisation based on patterns of scales rather than pre-defined chord changes. The effects is a music that is more melodious, more free and certainly more 'cool' than its jazz predecessor bebop. Others (and Miles Davis before) had experimented with modal jazz but 'Kind of Blue' was the first album to be released that was entirely dedicated to the form.

The bebop method was to improvise around a set number of chord changes in a specific order within say a 32 bar break. The modal method allowed the improviser to play for as long or short as they liked and stop once they had run through their sequence of scales.

This freedom did have drawbacks – John Coltrane in particular would extemporise at length within this framework and once even asked Davis' advice as to how to finish solos as he was struggling to find natural endings ... to which Davis replied 'Take the horn out of your mouth'.

The best account of the recording and release of Kind of Blue is by Ashley Kahn; 'Kind of Blue - The Making of The Miles Davis Masterpiece'.

Kind of Blue' was recorded over 2 days in New York in March/April 1959 in the converted church that was Columbia Records 30th Street recording studio. Davis allowed for very little rehearsal and wrote down very little of the music, preferring to brief the musicians before each song on the scales that were to be used for each improvisation and then give free reign to spontaneity. All the tracks on the album are the first full takes. Only one track (Flamenco Sketches) was recorded twice all the way through but it was the first that was used for the album release.

There is a certain amount of controversy as to the authorship of the music. Miles Davis claimed sole credit for the compositions but it seems very likely that Bill Evans had a significant hand in at least two of them. Evans apparently harboured a certain amount of bitterness towards Miles over his exclusion from the song-writing credits but never pursued any claims with any vigour. He never recorded with Miles again after 'Kind of Blue' though he did write the much quoted sleeve notes for the album release

Somewhat controversially (for the purists), the album has a small amount of reverb added to the recording by the engineers. This was achieved by playing the music through a speaker in an echo chamber beneath the studio then recording the sound back onto the master tape. The tape was 3 track; stereo left and right and a mono track as stereo equipment was still not standard at that time.

The first three tracks on the album 'So What', 'Freddie Freeloader' and 'Blue in Green' were recorded in the first session and went on the the A side of the LP, the tracks 'All Blues' and 'Flamenco Sketches' were recorded at the second session and formed the B side. When the tracks were recorded they didn't have names - these were provided by Miles at a later date. The producer mixed up the names of the two tracks on the B side and the first 50,000 copies of the album went out with the wrong names on the tracks – these albums are now collectors items.

Between recording the album and its release in August, five of the Septet appeared on a CBS special called 'The Sound of Miles Davis' presented by Robert Herridge. By 1959 some 90% of US households owned a TV and the broadcast confirmed Miles' star status and brought the new sound that he was pioneering to the attention of an eager audience.




As well as being technically innovative, 'Kind of Blue' has become one of the most successful jazz albums ever because of its haunting beauty and because of its accessibility. It's the one jazz album all serious music fans own even if they are not jazz lovers. It's the album that many of us credit with turning us on to jazz. It's the album we gift to people we love or want to impress. And it's cool.

Whereas bebop had become frenetic and dense, 'Kind of Blue' was sparse and reflective. Like any very new and unfamiliar artistic innovation it excited, bewildered or plain alienated listeners. After the exuberance of Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong's music for example, some felt that Miles' music was sour and gloomy. It was certainly introspective and perhaps one of the first Jazz recordings to be so.

It's taken time for 'Kind of Blue' to acquire the status of an 'all time great' album. It's initial reception was muted, there were a few glowing reviews like this one from Downbeat Magazine in October 1959

"This is a remarkable album. Using very simple but effective devices, Miles has constructed an album of extreme beauty and sensitivity. This is not to say that this LP is a simple one--far from it. What is remarkable is that the men have done so much with the stark, skeletal material.”

but no-one really picked it as an album that would become a genre-defining classic – that realisation came later. The San Francisco Examiner came closest with this review from C.H. Garrigues;

“This is one of Miles' great records ... it is perhaps this greatest record since his days with Bird .... buy it and play it, quietly, around about midnight ... you will agree that this is jazz which, in all likelihood, will never be duplicated”

Billboard was more perfunctory

and this was more representative of the reaction of the non-specialist press at the time – good, but not the greatest ever, and maybe a little 'dark'.

If music critics were a little behind the wave, other musicians were not and within months dozens of bands were playing and recording covers from the album.

The impact of the album on jazz can in some ways be gauged by the later achievements of the other musicians in the septet. John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly - all went on to achieve great things in jazz, Coltrane in particular. The remarkable coming together of such exemplary, influential and individual musicians under Miles Davis at that time certainly contributed to the enduring appeal and reputation of the album. However, that individualism meant that the line-up did not survive the year, the musicians going their separate ways.



From the second Kind of Blue session with (l to r) John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis and Bill Evans

Another factor contributing to the restrained response to the LP in 1959 was the sudden rise to prominence of the iconoclast Ornette Coleman, whose brash and shocking free-jazz innovations were much more headline-worthy than the laid back and understated vibe of 'Kind of Blue'. Coleman and his quartet crashed into New York from LA in November and, to coincide with the release of his provocatively entitled album 'The Shape of Jazz to Come', started a two week residency at the Five Spot jazz club in the East Village.

Ornette Coleman's 1959 will be discussed elsewhere, suffice to say that such was the agitation and excitement surrounding Coleman's apparently structureless improvisational style that the two week booking became a six month residency soon dubbed 'The Battle of the Five Spot'. Initially at least, Coleman earned little more than scorn from fellow musicians, Miles Davis included, who were alienated by his wholesale rejection of the rules of the bebop and modal jazz. The press however were enthralled and articles like this one in Time Magazine from June 1960 are typical of the attention that Coleman grabbed, to the temporary detriment of Miles Davis.

John Coltrane's 'Giant Steps' also grabbed headlines and it is Coleman and Coltrane who are often credited with giving jazz the violent shake that it certainly received in 1959. But 'Kind of Blue' was equally as important in bringing about an era of change in jazz, it just did it with less fanfare. With its lifetime sales of more than four million copies (quadruple platinum) and its huge influence on so many other musicians you can argue that 'Kind of Blue's impact on jazz, though initially understated, has been longer-lasting and ultimately more profound than any other jazz LP ever produced.

Line Up
Miles Davis – trumpet, band leader
Julian "Cannonball" Adderley – alto saxophone
Paul Chambers – double bass
Jimmy Cobb – drums
John Coltrane – tenor saxophone
Bill Evans – piano (except "Freddie Freeloader")
Wynton Kelly – piano on "Freddie Freeloader"


Bibliography & Further Reading



Recordings




Links

http://jazzstudiesonline.org/ - Jazz Studies Online (Jazz review Archive)

http://www.downbeat.com/ - Down Beat Magazine

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kind_of_blue - Wikipedia

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