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Why This is the Seminal Jazz Record

 

Wednesday, October 10, 2007.

 

By Mtume ya Salaam of Kalamu.com

 

If I was asked 'What is reggae?' and I could answer only in records, I’d hand over a copy of Bob Marley & The Wailers’ Natty Dread. If I was asked, ‘What is soul?’ it’d be Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. What is hip-hop? Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. And, what is jazz? No hesitation, no need to think. Kind Of Blue. Easy.

 

* * *

 

This is the one jazz record owned by people who don’t listen to jazz, and with good reason. It was the key recording of what became modal jazz, a music free of the fixed harmonies and forms of pop songs. In Davis'men hand, it was a weightless music, but one that refused to fade into the background.

 

In retrospect every note seems perfect, and each piece moves inexorably towards its destiny.

 

 —John Szwed, author of So What: The Life of Miles Davis

 

* * *

 

THE PLAYERS

Miles Davis – Trumpet

John Coltrane – Tenor Saxophone

Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley – Alto Saxophone

Bill Evans – Piano

Paul Chambers – Bass

James Cobb – Drums

Wynton Kelly – Piano on “Freddie Freeloader”

 

* * *

 

Still acknowledged as the height of hip four decades after it was recorded, Kind of Blue is the premier album of its era, jazz or otherwise.

 

Its vapory piano-and-bass-phrased introduction is universally recognized. Classical buffs and rage rockers alike praise its subtlety, simplicity and emotional depth. Copies of the album are passed to friends and given to lovers. The album has sold millions of copies around the world, making it the best-selling recording in Miles Davis’ catalog and the best-selling classic jazz album ever.

 

Significantly, a large number of those copies were purchased in the past five years, and undoubtedly not just by old-timers replacing worn vinyl: Kind of Blue is even casting its spell on a younger audience more accustomed to the loud-and-fast esthetic of rock and rap.

 

 —Ashley Kahn, author of Kind of Blue: The Makings of the Miles Davis Masterpiece

 

* * *

 

THE NAME ABOVE THE TITLE

 

It’s my belief that Miles Dewey Davis is, and was the possessor of the prettiest sound to ever come out of any horn anywhere at anytime. That such a statement is completely subjective and just as completely unsupportable in no way lessens my belief in it.

 

That said, it’s a good thing Miles plays first on all of these tunes, because he gets upstaged repeatedly by not only his tenor saxophonist, the legendary John Coltrane, but also by his alto saxophonist, the underrated dean of the alto saxophone, Cannonball Adderley.

 

Of course, that only stands true if one views these solos as competition. Both Trane and Cannonball have sounds that practically leap out of the speakers; the two sidemen are making statements. Miles, by contrast, is often content to weave himself into the fabric of the overall piece, soloing almost as if he’s part of the rhythm section itself.

 

The ballads, however, are an exception. There, Miles’ playing is every bit as impressive as that of his more fiery counterparts.

 

Coltrane’s lovely middle solo notwithstanding, “Blue In Green” is Miles’ song – both of the trumpeter’s solos are so pretty they’re almost painful. And Miles’ work on “Flamenco Sketches” is no less outstanding. As we all know, Miles was a brilliant bandleader. “Blue In Green” and “Flamenco Sketches” provide two examples of his excellence as a soloist. 

 

* * *

I think it Kind Of Blue is a universal epitome of sophistication in music development. It’s a forum for a great artist to perform at the peak of their development - it’s just something that will endure for hundreds of years, maybe a thousand years.

—Elvin Jones, legendary jazz drummer

 

* * *

 

WHEN TRANE COMES IN

 

I know every one of Coltrane’s entrances on this album. To this day, every time one of his solos begin, I sing along with him for the first few notes. I can’t help it – all of that power combined with all of that grace is too much to resist. I hear the depth and beauty of Coltrane’s playing, and I want to sound like that, to be like that too. I want some of that brilliance to come not just to me, but from me.

 

Listen closely to the way Trane’s solos develop and you can already hear some of what was to come. The breathtaking runs (even on ballads), the guttural wails followed by piercing shrieks; Trane was already in complete command of the entire range of his horn. He’d yet to take Giant Steps (1960), Form Impressions (1963) or make Love Supreme (1964), but the man was already a phenomenon.

 

* * *

 

Kind of Blue is a jazz album that has transcended the genre of jazz and become one of a handful of recordings whose very existence changes everything.

 

Listening to this album will immerse you at once in a world that is dark, brooding, sophisticated, very cool, sexy, and langorous. Bottom line is: if you don’t have this record in your collection, you don’t have a collection.

 

—Jazzitude.com

 

* * *

 

OH, CANNONBALL

 

Cannonball is given the thankless task of being the third voice in a band led by the coolest of the cool, the man with the horn, the prettiest-singing man-devil who ever walked the earth, and right beside him, the most beautiful of the beautiful, the love supreme himself, the man who had so much to say that he invented his own language.

 

Faced with competition like that, what’s a self-respecting alto player to do? The answer: just play. Listen to what Cannonball does at the beginning of his solo on “So What.”

 

Trane’s last note has barely faded away; Cannonball, undaunted, jumps in with three long notes, then an agile, scale-climbing flurry which culminates in a piercing high note, and then throws out a gradually-descending series of low notes which he punctuates with bop-ish bursts here and there. The man is one phrase in and he’s already put on an alto clinic. And he’s letting it be known: there are three horn players on this album, not two. It’s Miles, Trane and Cannonball.

 

* * *

 

Miles conceived these settings only hours before the recording dates and arrived with sketches which indicated to the group what was to be played. Therefore, you will hear something close to pure spontaneity in these performances. The group had never played these pieces prior to the recordings and I think without exception the first complete performance of each was a "take."

 

—Bill Evans, from the original liner notes of the Kind Of Blue LP

 

* * *

 

THE RHYTHM SECTION

 

One not-so-secret secret about the Kind Of Blue recording sessions (and truthfully, this is true about many recording sessions led by Miles Davis) is the musicians were making up most of what they played as they played it. As the band leader, Davis got the composition credit, but when the band showed up that day, Miles gave them only the most perfunctory of instructions, told them they’d be doing everything in one or two takes only, and said, “Roll the tape.”

 

Given Miles’ in-studio methodology, those oh so memorable basslines that Paul Chambers plays on “So What” and “Flamenco Sketches” may well be his own. James Cobb’s drumming is perfect as well. His job is to create the framework for everyone else – the only reason you don’t notice him more is because you aren’t supposed to.

 

Meanwhile, over in the piano chair, we find Bill Evans dedicating himself to the quiet art of musical minimalism. On “All Blues,” Evans plays as if each note is a treasure that he can barely bear to let go. On “Flamenco Sketches,” Evans’ economy is even more startling: he begins his solo so slowly that each note seems individualized, like a photograph, like a face.

 

The three horn players – trumpet, tenor and alto – are what we may remember, but the three members of the rhythm section – bassist, drummer and pianist – are just as important to the overall success of this landmark album.

 

* * *

 

In the church of jazz, Kind of Blue is one of the holy relics. Critics revere it as a stylistic milestone, one of a very few in the long tradition of jazz performance, on equal footing with seminal recordings by Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Charlie Parker’s bebop quintets. Musicians acknowledge its influence and have recorded hundreds of versions of the music on the album.

 

Record producer, composer, and Davis confidant Quincy Jones hails it as the one album (if that were the limit) that would explain jazz.

 

—Ashley Kahn, author of Kind of Blue: The Makings of the Miles Davis Masterpiece.

 

Mtume ya Salaam is a published writer and an expert on contemporary Black music. He lives in New Orleans, USA and can be reached at mtume_s@yahoo.com.

 

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