Ask anyone who is not necessarily a serious music lover to name just one jazz album, and chances are that Kind Of Blue will be it. Since its release in 1959, Miles Davis’ modal mystical masterpiece has become something of an icon in both the jazz and rock fraternities, uniting listeners in a way few albums can.
Davis himself described the process behind the LPs creation: “I didn’t write out the music for Kind Of Blue, but brought in sketches for what everybody was supposed to play because I wanted a lot of spontaneity in the playing… everything was a first take, which indicates the level that everyone was playing on. It was beautiful.”
Davis had begun to dislike many of the complexities of styles jazz had been increasingly adopting, opting instead for feel and mood, rather than the arrangement-heavy approach of his past work with Gil Evans. Getting away from the “conventional string of chords” as he put it, Davis was becoming ever more obsessed with the use of space between music.
Recorded at Columbia’s 30th Street studios, at a converted Orthodox Church, Miles had managed to assemble a stellar team of musicians. Julian “Cannonball” Adderley (alto saxophone); John Coltrane (tenor saxophone); Bill Evans (piano); Wynton Kelly (piano); Paul Chambers (double bass), and Jimmy Cobb (drums). But out of all of them, it was Bill Evans who would prove to be essential when it came to fulfilling Miles’ vision of the “freer, more modal” sound he was seeking. As Davis remembered, “Bill had this quiet fire that I loved on piano. The way he approached it, the sound he got was like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall.”
The opening bass lines of the Eastern textured “So What” are some of the most recognisable in popular music, and like the album itself, the entire composition simply oozes with cool sophistication. The bluesy “Freddie Freeloader” (featuring Wynton Kelly instead of Evans) is all subtlety and warmth, as is the luminous “Blue In Green” (written by Evans but credited to Miles), like an aural form of watercolour, Miles’ trumpet has a soft, at times introverted quality to it, complemented perfectly by Adderley’s own melodic phrasing.
Miles’ “All Blues” is just that, not your Mississippi Delta blues, but something else entirely. This is blues according to the book of Davis, on which Coltrane’s deliberately constrained flourishes float above Evans’ understated playing. Often described as the Chopin of jazz, Evans’ style was both romantic and reflective, and his contributions are not inconsiderable, even if Miles took all the writing credits.
The album closes with the hypnotic “Flamenco Sketches”, a tune pertaining to the blues, though not in a literal sense, more in terms of touch and tone, and would offer a slight hint as to what was around the corner, with the following year’s Sketches Of Spain.
Playing scales rather than chords, Miles realised his ambition of creating a work of art like no other – quite an achievement considering how diverse jazz was in the late ‘50s. Kind Of Blue is the perfect record, and modern jazz at its best.
In an age where attention spans are rapidly deteriorating, it’s nice to just sit back and listen to something which takes time to enjoy. Like a Turner or Monet, or a composition by Bach, great art cannot always be measured in terms of minutes or hours, or how fast it took to download. Great art often requires patience, as well as perseverance. Kind Of Blue remains a mesmerising, seductive album, whose influence was far more reaching than any of its creators could have ever anticipated. It convinced a young Chick Corea to walk away from classical and begin playing jazz. Many blues-rock musicians, such as The Allman Brothers, were addicted to it. Its impact has been immense.
As producer Teo Macero put it, “We knew it was a great record. But we didn’t know it was a giant record that was going to change the jazz scene… everybody wanted to imitate it.”