Kind of Blue
[50th Anniversary Legacy Edition]
First Appeared in The Music Box, January 2009, Volume 16, #1
Written by John Metzger
Thu January 29, 2009, 06:30 AM CST
There are few outings in the history of modern music that are more formidably daunting to analyze than Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. The reason for this is, of course, quite simple: As each year of the past half-century has ticked away, Kind of Blue’s stature has grown exponentially. As a result, it now is considered more than just a landmark moment in Davis’ distinguished career or, for that matter, a classic effort in the pantheon of jazz recordings; it also is widely recognized as one of the greatest endeavors ever made, regardless of genre.
No one can or should dispute the accolades or attention that it has received either. Over the years, however, so much has been written about Kind of Blue’s material — its songs and their attendant alternate renditions and outtakes as well as the selections that led to and from the endeavor — that it increasingly is difficult to view the album with a fresh perspective. Fortunately, its five compositions are such exquisite artistic specimens that 50 years later, they still sound remarkably contemporary. Consequently, the power of the effort to transfix and bewilder listeners remains wholly intact. In fact, for all of his subsequent achievements, Kind of Blue undeniably is Davis’ masterpiece.
In August 1959, when he unleashed his bold, new effort on the unsuspecting public, Davis’ radically altered view of jazz performance seemed to spring from nowhere. In truth, ever since he had disbanded the quintet that had allowed him to seize control of his career, Davis had been seeking the keys necessary for unlocking the doors to a less restrictive form of improvisation. The first five tracks that are collected on the second disc of Kind of Blue: 50th Anniversary Legacy Edition were culled from an abandoned recording session that was held in May 1958. Although these selections surfaced on subsequent compilations, their inclusion in the latest, refurbished rendition of Kind of Blue provides context for understanding Davis’ approach.
Utilizing the same personnel that he eventually tapped to perform on Kind of Blue — saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, pianists Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly, bass player Paul Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb — Davis clearly was searching for something as he led his band through standards such as On Green Dolphin Street, Stella by Starlight, and Love for Sale. In hindsight, these selections — as well as the material that composed his 1958 endeavor Milestones — connect the threads of thought that spawned Steamin’, Cookin’, Relaxin’, and Workin’ to the loose and moody atmospheres that fed Kind of Blue. At the time, however, it might not have been so obvious how it all fit together.
It ought not be surprising that Davis’ biggest shifts forward came within his own compositions. Beginning with the title track to Milestones, he had begun to prove pianist George Russell’s theory that jazz improvisation could be based upon modes rather than defined chord progressions. As he moved through the precursors to Kind of Blue, Davis learned that the only way to test his ideas, however, would be to present his outfit with material with which it wasn’t familiar. In doing so, the group was freed from the constraints of expectation that emanated from the well-worn melodies of jazz standards. As a result, the concepts from which Kind of Blue was derived were able to flourish.
Considering its academic foundation, it is amazing how effortlessly Kind of Blue unfolds. As it turned out, brute force wasn’t necessary for putting Davis’ ideas into motion, though this very well could have become the outcome, given that he essentially thrust his team into the maelstrom of his thought processes without much preparation. Instead, the coolness of Davis’ trumpet played off the scintillating soulfulness of Adderley’s alto as well as the white-hot glow of Coltrane’s tenor. From the urban blues of Freddie Freeloader to the sensuous swing of So What to the muted pensiveness of Blue in Green, Davis and his entourage were liberated by their approach, and they ran rampant through the material, bending it in ways that were as natural as they were unexpected.
Kind of Blue was Davis’ first salvo in what became a long line of visionary reinterpretations of the jazz idiom. Not surprisingly, the album’s influence — combined with Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come and John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, both of which also were issued in 1959 — immediately spread far and wide, rippling through the realms of jazz, rock, blues, and beyond. Nevertheless, Kind of Blue towers above everything else not only because it is immediately accessible to anyone with a desire to fall under its spell, but also because it paradoxically is quite challenging to unravel and comprehend its seductive mysteries. No matter how many times a person hears a song such as Flamenco Sketches, the tune never fails to reveal something new, and arguably a more timeless or perfect album has never been made.
51st Annual Grammy Award Winner:
Best Album Notes
Of Further Interest...
Kind of Blue: 50th Anniversary Legacy Edition is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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