Monday, June 17, 2013

Miles Davis: Kind of Blue

Miles Davis's landmark 1959 album Kind of Blue is so commonly cited as one of the great recordings in jazz, if not just American music generally, that there seems to be little necessary to say about it.  An entire book by Eric Nisenson has been written about it for those (moi, for example) who just had to get deeply into the background, events and personalities involved in this spectacular masterwork.

Suffice to say that the sextet of Davis, tenor sax giant John Coltrane, alto sax titan Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, pianist Bill Evans, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb (pianist Wynton Kelly appears on the blues "Freddie Freeloader," apparently because Evans' softer approach didn't work well for that piece) melded perfectly on five sublime pieces that are all classic works, these being "So What;" "Freddie Freeloader;" "Blue in Green;" "Flamenco Sketches;" and "All Blues."

The opening track is probably the most well-known, deriving its title from one of Davis's pat phrases, but its memorable two-note horn phrase with Chambers' distinctive bass riff is one of jazz's most easily recognizable snippets.  "All Blues" is likely the piece that gets the most attention after "So What" with its catchy melodic line (again two notes from the horns with Evans' light touch on piano) being another classic phrase.

Also highly regarded is the gorgeous "Flamenco Sketches" and anyone familiar with Davis's sublime work with the great arranger Gil Evans, which dated to 1948, will know of the fantastic Sketches of Spain which the two created a couple of years after Kind of Blue. That interest in Spanish music "sketched" here developed into full flower with the later masterpiece.
While "Freddie Freeloader," another blues and "Blue and Green" are not as well-known, they are fine pieces that seamlessly work with the more famous tracks.  The record, then, has the "modal" element of working of a given key and a group of scales, rather than chord changes, that gives more space for soloists and develops an atmosphere and an ambience in tandem with the relaxed mid-tempo feel that permeates the record.  Simply put, the record flows effortlessly from one tune to the next.
Tellingly, Davis brought rough sketches of tunes to the session without the band members having heard or seen anything of them before.  This forced the group to develop its improvisatory skills and keen group dynamics to full focus in the recording.  Notably, when Coltrane began recording his famed Giant Steps album just a couple of weeks later, he employed the same strategy.
1959 was a year of masterpieces in the jazz world: the aforementioned Coltrane record and Ornette Coleman's mind-blowing The Shape of Jazz to Come, which was recorded a month after Kind of Blue come immediately to mind.  While those two works were considered in the so-called "avant garde," Davis's Kind of Blue was a more refined album and its popularity was such that it became the highest-selling jazz record of all time, selling a staggering 4 million copies in a genre where tens of thousands in sales is considered a success.
Yet, Kind of Blue also marked the end of an era for Davis and the start of new ones for three of his band members.  Coltrane soon left the group to embark on a seven-year odyssey that put him at the pinnacle of the jazz world's experimental domain.  Adderley also soon left to front his own band and became a success with the so-called "Soul Jazz."  Bill Evans, meanwhile, who had already left Davis but returned for these sessions, formed a trio with bass wizard Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian (later known for his work with Keith Jarrett and his own bands) that made memorable music for two years before LaFaro's untimely death in 1961.
Today, Jimmy Cobb, at 84, is the sole surviving member of the seven musicians who worked on Kind of Blue and still plays, working with his "So What" band as a tribute to his work on the album and with Davis.
A 1997 reissue with 20-bit remastering features Evans's original liner notes about group improvisation more than the personalities or the songs as well as critic Robert Palmer interesting observations.
Miles Davis:  Kind of Blue (Columbia Records, 1959)
1.  So What  9:22
2.  Freddie Freeloader  9:46
3.  Blue in Green  5:37
4.  All Blues  11:37
5.  Flamenco Sketches  9:26
6.  Flamenco Sketches (alternate on a 1997 remastered reissue)  9:32

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