#4: Kind Of Blue by Miles Davis
You want a little class in your collection? This album gets the job done with its cover alone. The superb liner notes by Bill Evans aren’t too shabby either, but obviously all of that would fall if the music didn’t stack up. It’s been said that if you don’t like this album you don’t like jazz. I told a music instructor of mine about this quote and he said he’d step it up and say that you don’t like music itself if you don’t like this album. From every angle it’s an album you have to dig. Dig the super-neo basso continuo that introduces “So What”, dig the ambiance that pervades the whole album evocative of a jazz group honing in on its fourth set of the evening and truly gelling, dig the stellar performances from all of the musicians involved.
Worth noting here is the fact that Davis convened this group with Bill Evans the previous year in the studio and recorded much of a complete album featuring a different set of tunes. Perhaps something didn’t feel right enough to Miles Davis to commit to an album just then. Though the tunes for that past session were good they never caught fire the way this set does. Indeed, in the fact that the recordings from that previous session don’t live up to his previous releases by creating a landmark statement in and of itself must’ve smacked of failure. It’s worth noting that ‘Round About Midnight is the kind of label debut everyone should hope for and Milestones is no sophomore slump (I’m not counting Miles Davis’s Gil Evans collaborations here).
But the statement here is Kind Of Blue. It’s recorded at medium to slow tempos under loose and quiet settings, and in that it is quintessential Miles. Davis could play well enough in the bebop medium as seen in the aforementioned Milestones, but he favors slow, drawn-out melodicism, economy, and simplicity in his solos. This album, is of course all of that, and his twin-foil saxophonists alto Cannonball Adderley and tenor John Coltrane respond in perfect kind as do pianists Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans. This was supposed to be Miles’ first album based around modes (or scales) rather than chords. I’m not exactly sure what that means but I think it means that the end produces less changes so that it’s easier to solo and improvise. At the time Miles was complaining about songs having ever-increasing amounts of chords in them. Anyways, it paid off big.
It should be noted here that jazz has had a strange relationship with the LP format. I could name a few would-be albums from sessions or performances that are so good they perhaps could have knocked this album off the top jazz spot. The first would be a double album collection of all of Thelonious Monk’s early sessions heard on Genius of Modern Music, Vols. 1 and 2, and Milt Jackson’s Wizard Of The Vibes. These recordings had the added obscurity of being first pressed on 10″. Another would be Miles Davis’s very own 24 December 1954 session which featured telepathic chemistry between Thelonious Monk and vibraphonist Milt Jackson. This session was inexplicably released on a couple of LP’s that featured material outside of this session that diluted its impact. The last would be a box set of Charles Mingus’s 1964 live sessions with a sextet that featured jazz superheroes Eric Dolphy (alto sax, bass clarinet, flute) and Jackie Byard (piano) along with longtime Mingus lieutenant Dannie Richmond (drums), tenor sax juggernaut Clifford Jordan, and for only some of the dates Johnny Coles, whom I may admit was one of Mingus’s weakest trumpet players. None of these dates were professionally recorded which deepens the shame. So this is like an honorable mention list within a list of invalid contenders.
Valid so is what is here and what is here is Kind Of Blue, a 2 million selling world-record maker. It has to be noted here that I’m thinking of the CD version of the album because it contains perhaps the greatest stunner solo John Coltrane (who early on was a more “shy” player) ever played with Miles, an alternative version of “Flamenco Sketches” which should’ve been on the LP. Speaking of which, by the time it came on the scene, suddenly there existed the seeming oxymoron of an album that you could play in the background and relax or listen closely to and still be rewarded. And it came out at a time when rock and roll was thought to be essentially dead and, easily sluffed off, had produced only a string of singles from various artists and fewer classic albums than the amount of fingers on one hand. Jazz had looked like the winner in terms of sophistication and with rock and roll essentially dormant until 1963 was poised to take back its dominant seat and win the hearts of the post-war generation. This is where you go because it’s as fate would have it and in a sense it’s the way I’d have it, too.