Miles Davis: Kind of Blue – [Record 33]
Kind of Blue: is a studio album by American jazz musician Miles Davis, released on August 17, 1959, by Columbia Records. Recording sessions for the album took place at Columbia’s 30th Street Studio in New York City on March 2 and April 22, 1959. The sessions featured Davis’s ensemble sextet, with pianist Bill Evans, drummer Jimmy Cobb, bassist Paul Chambers, and saxophonists John Coltrane and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. After the entry of Evans into his sextet, Davis followed up on the modal experimentations of Milestones (1958) by basing Kind of Blue entirely on modality, in contrast to his earlier work with the hard bop style of jazz.
Though precise figures have been disputed, Kind of Blue has been described by many music writers not only as Davis’s best-selling album, but as the best-selling jazz record of all time. On October 7, 2008, it was certified quadruple platinum in sales by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). It has been regarded by many critics as the greatest jazz album of all time and Davis’s masterpiece.
The album’s influence on music, including jazz, rock, and classical music, has led music writers to acknowledge it as one of the most influential albums ever made. In 2002, it was one of fifty recordings chosen that year by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry. In 2003, the album was ranked number 12 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
1. So What.
2. Freddie Freeloader.
3. Blue in Green.
1. All Blues
2. Flamenco Sketches.
Background: By late 1958, Davis employed one of the best and most profitable working bands pursuing the hard bop style. His personnel had become stable: alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Bill Evans, long-serving bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb. His band played a mixture of pop standards and bebop originals by Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and Tadd Dameron. As with all bebop-based jazz, Davis’s groups improvised on the chord changes of a given song. Davis was one of many jazz musicians growing dissatisfied with bebop, and saw its increasingly complex chord changes as hindering creativity.
In 1953, the pianist George Russell published his Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, which offered an alternative to the practice of improvisation based on chords and chord changes. Abandoning the traditional major and minor key relationships of classical music, Russell developed a new formulation using scales, or a series of scales, for improvisations: This approach led the way to “modal” in jazz. Influenced by Russell’s ideas, Davis implemented his first modal composition with the title track of his studio album Milestones (1958). Satisfied with the results, Davis prepared an entire album based on modality. Pianist Bill Evans, who had studied with Russell but recently departed from Davis’s sextet to pursue his own career, was drafted back into the new recording project, the sessions that would become Kind of Blue.
Recording: Kind of Blue was recorded on three-track tape in two sessions at Columbia Records’ 30th Street Studio in New York City. On March 2, the tracks “So What”, “Freddie Freeloader”, and “Blue in Green” were recorded for side one of the original LP, and on April 22 the tracks “All Blues”, and “Flamenco Sketches” were recorded, making up side two. Production was handled by Teo Macero, who had produced Davis’s previous two LPs, and Irving Townsend.
As was Miles Davis’s penchant, he called for almost no rehearsal and the musicians had little idea what they were to record. As described in the original liner notes by pianist Bill Evans, Davis had only given the band sketches of scales and melody lines on which to improvise. Once the musicians were assembled, Davis gave brief instructions for each piece and then set to taping the sextet in studio. While the results were impressive with so little preparation, the persistent legend that the entire album was recorded in one pass is untrue. Only “Flamenco Sketches” yielded a complete take on the first try. That take, not the master, was issued in 1997 as a bonus alternative track. The five master takes issued, however, were the only other complete takes; an insert for the ending to “Freddie Freeloader” was recorded, but was not used for release or on the issues of Kind of Blue prior to the 1997 reissue. Pianist Wynton Kelly may not have been happy to see the man he replaced, Bill Evans, back in his old seat. Perhaps to assuage the pianist’s feelings, and also to take advantage of Kelly’s superior skills as both bluesman and accompanist, Davis had Kelly play instead of Evans on the album’s most blues-oriented number, “Freddie Freeloader”. The live album Miles Davis at Newport 1958 documents this band. However, the Newport Jazz Festival recording on July 3, 1958 reflects the band in its hard bop conception, the presence of a Bill Evans only six weeks into his brief tenure in the Davis band notwithstanding, rather than the modal approach of Kind of Blue.
Composition: Kind of Blue is representative of modal jazz – i.e., based entirely on modality in contrast to Davis’s earlier work with the hard bop style of jazz and its complex chord progression and improvisation. The entire album was composed as a series of modal sketches, in which each performer was given a set of scales that defined the parameters of their improvisation and style. This style was in contrast to more typical means of composing, such as providing musicians with a complete score or, as was more common for improvisational jazz, providing the musicians with a chord progression or series of harmonies.
Modal jazz of this type was not unique to this album. Davis himself had previously used the same method on his 1958 Milestones album, the ’58 Sessions, and Porgy and Bess (1958), on which he used modal influences for collaborator Gil Evans’s third stream compositions. Also, the original concept and method had been developed in 1953 by pianist and writer George Russell. Davis saw Russell’s methods of composition as a means of getting away from the dense chord-laden compositions of his time, which Davis had labeled “thick”. Modal composition, with its reliance on scales and modes, represented, as Davis called it, “a return to melody.” In a 1958 interview with Nat Hentoff of The Jazz Review, Davis elaborated on this form of composition in contrast to the chord progression predominant in bebop, stating “No chords … gives you a lot more freedom and space to hear things. When you go this way, you can go on forever. You don’t have to worry about changes and you can do more with the [melody] line. It becomes a challenge to see how melodically innovative you can be. When you’re based on chords, you know at the end of 32 bars that the chords have run out and there’s nothing to do but repeat what you’ve just done—with variations. I think a movement in jazz is beginning away from the conventional string of chords… there will be fewer chords but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them.”
Content: As noted by Bill Evans in the LP liner notes, “Miles conceived these settings only hours before the recording dates.” Evans continues with an introduction concerning the modes used in each composition on the album. “So What” consists of two modes: sixteen measures of the first, followed by eight measures of the second, and then eight again of the first. “Freddie Freeloader” is a standard twelve-bar blues form. “Blue in Green” consists of a ten-measure cycle following a short four-measure introduction. “All Blues” is a twelve-bar blues form in 6/8 time. “Flamenco Sketches” consists of five scales, which are each played “as long as the soloist wishes until he has completed the series”.
Liner notes list Davis as writer of all compositions, but many scholars and fans believe that Bill Evans wrote part or the whole of “Blue in Green” and “Flamenco Sketches”. Bill Evans assumed co-credit with Davis for “Blue in Green” when recording it on his Portrait in Jazz album. The Davis estate acknowledged Evans’ authorship in 2002. The practice of a band leader’s appropriating authorship of a song written by a sideman occurred frequently in the jazz world, as legendary saxophonist Charlie Parker did so to Davis when Parker took a songwriting credit for the tune “Donna Lee”, written by Davis while employed as a sideman in Charlie Parker’s quintet in the late 1940s. The composition later became a popular jazz standard. Another example is the introduction to “So What”, attributed to Gil Evans, which is closely based on the opening measures of French composer Claude Debussy’s Voiles (1910), the second prelude from his first collection of preludes.
Reception and influence;
Jazz Scene: Kind of Blue was released August 17, 1959, on Columbia Records in the United States, in both mono and stereo formats. Since then, Kind of Blue has often been regarded as Davis’s greatest work; it is his most acclaimed album, and has been cited as the best-selling jazz record released, despite later claims attributing the achievement to Davis’s first official gold record Bitches Brew (1969). Music writer Chris Morris cited Kind of Blue as “the distillation of Davis’s art.” Kind of Blue has also been noted as one of the most influential albums in the history of jazz. One reviewer has called it a “defining moment of twentieth century music.” Several of the songs from the album have become jazz standards. Kind of Blue is consistently ranked among the greatest albums of all time. In a review of the album, Allmusic-senior editor Stephen Thomas Erlewine stated:
“Kind of Blue isn’t merely an artistic highlight for Miles Davis, it’s an album that towers above its peers, a record generally considered as the definitive jazz album, a universally acknowledged standard of excellence. Why does Kind of Blue posses [sic] such a mystique? Perhaps because this music never flaunts its genius… It’s the pinnacle of modal jazz — tonality and solos build from the overall key, not chord changes, giving the music a subtly shifting quality… It may be a stretch to say that if you don’t like Kind of Blue, you don’t like jazz — but it’s hard to imagine it as anything other than a cornerstone of any jazz collection.” —Stephen T. Erlewine
In 1958, however, the arrival of Ornette Coleman on the jazz scene via his fall residency at the Five Spot club, consolidated by the release of his The Shape of Jazz to Come LP the same year, muted the initial impact of Kind of Blue, a happenstance that irritated Davis greatly. Though Davis and Coleman both offered alternatives to the rigid rules of bebop, Davis would never reconcile himself to Coleman’s free jazz innovations, although he would incorporate musicians amenable to Coleman’s ideas with his great quintet of the mid-1960s, and offer his own version of “free” playing with his jazz fusion outfits in the 1970s. The influence of Kind of Blue did build, and all of the sidemen from the album went on to achieve success on their own. Evans formed his influential jazz trio with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian; “Cannonball” Adderley fronted popular bands with his brother Nat; Kelly, Chambers and Cobb continued as a touring unit, recording under Kelly’s name as well as in support of Coltrane and Wes Montgomery, among others; and Coltrane went on to become one of the most revered and innovative of all jazz musicians. Even more than Davis, Coltrane took the modal approach and ran with it during his career as a leader in the 1960s, leavening his music with Coleman’s ideas as the decade progressed.
Impact on music: The album’s influence has reached beyond jazz, as musicians of such genres as rock and classical have been influenced by it, while critics have written about it as one of the most influential albums of all time. Many improvisatory rock musicians of the 1960s referred to Kind of Blue for inspiration, along with other Davis albums, as well as Coltrane’s modal records My Favorite Things (1961) and A Love Supreme (1965). Guitarist Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band said his soloing on songs such as “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” “comes from Miles and Coltrane, and particularly Kind of Blue. I’ve listened to that album so many times that for the past couple of years, I haven’t hardly listened to anything else.” Pink Floyd keyboardist Richard Wright has said that the chord progressions on the album influenced the structure of the introductory chords to the song “Breathe” on their landmark opus The Dark Side of the Moon (1973). In his book Kind of Blue: The Making of a Miles Davis Masterpiece, writer Ashley Kahn wrote “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 introduction is universally recognized”. Producer Quincy Jones, one of Davis’ longtime friends, wrote: “That [Kind of Blue] will always be my music, man. I play Kind of Blue every day—it’s my orange juice. It still sounds like it was made yesterday”. Pianist Chick Corea, one of Miles’ acolytes, was also struck by its majesty, later stating “It’s one thing to just play a tune, or play a program of music, but it’s another thing to practically create a new language of music, which is what Kind of Blue did.”
Gary Burton noted the consistent innovation present throughout the album, stating: “It wasn’t just one tune that was a breakthrough, it was the whole record. When new jazz styles come along, the first few attempts to do it are usually kind of shaky. Early Charlie Parker records were like this. But with Kind of Blue [the sextet] all sound like they’re fully into it.” Along with The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out (1959) and Coltrane’s Giant Steps (1960), Kind of Blue has often been recommended by music writers as an introductory jazz album, for similar reasons: the music on both records is very melodic, and the relaxed quality of the songs makes the improvisation easy for listeners to follow, without sacrificing artistry or experimentation. Upon the release of the 50th anniversary collector’s edition of the album, a columnist for All About Jazz stated “Kind of Blue heralded the arrival of a revolutionary new American music, a post-bebop modal jazz structured around simple scales and melodic improvisation. Trumpeter/band leader/composer Miles Davis assembled a sextet of legendary players to create a sublime atmospheric masterpiece. Fifty years after its release, Kind of Blue continues to transport listeners to a realm all its own while inspiring musicians to create to new sounds—from acoustic jazz to post-modern ambient—in every genre imaginable.” Later in an interview, renowned hip hop artist and rapper Q-Tip reaffirmed the album’s reputation and influence when discussing the significance of Kind of Blue, stating “It’s like the Bible—you just have one in your house.”
Accolades: Kind of Blue has been cited by writers and music critics as the greatest jazz album of all time and has been ranked at or near the top of numerous “best album” lists in disparate genres. In 2002, Kind of Blue was one of 50 recordings chosen that year by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry. In selecting the album as number 12 on its 2003 list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, Rolling Stone magazine stated “This painterly masterpiece is one of the most important, influential and popular albums in jazz”. On December 16, 2009, the United States House of Representatives passed a resolution honoring the fiftieth anniversary of Kind of Blue and “reaffirming jazz as a national treasure”. It is included in the 2005 book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, described by reviewer Seth Jacobson as “a genre-defining moment in twentieth-century music, period.”
Retrospect: Late in his life, from the electric period on, Davis repeatedly disregarded his earlier work, such as the music of Birth of the Cool or Kind of Blue. In Davis’ view, remaining static stylistically was the wrong option.
“So What” or Kind of Blue, they were done in that era, the right hour, the right day, and it happened. It’s over […]. What I used to play with Bill Evans, all those different modes, and substitute chords, we had the energy then and we liked it. But I have no feel for it anymore—it’s more like warmed-over turkey. —Interview with Ben Sidran, 1986.
When Shirley Horn insisted, in 1990, that Davis reconsider playing the gentle ballads and modal tunes of his Kind of Blue period, he demurred: “Nah, it hurts my lip.”