A New Kind of Jazz: Miles Davis, ‘Kind of Blue’ Part 2

Miles Davis, “Make this music sound like it’s floating’

A classic album is a recording that is both of superb quality and of enduring significance, and there is no question that Miles Davis’s 1959 recording Kind of Blue is a classic. Here’s is a condensed history of the making of this seminal album.

The date: March 2, 1959. The cast: Trumpeter Miles Davis, then 32, stepped into the studio in Manhattan for the first of two recording sessions. Gathered in the room was Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley (alto saxophone), John Coltrane (tenor saxophone), Paul Chambers (bass), Jimmy Cobb (drums), Wynton Kelly (piano) and pianist Bill Evans who was sitting in.

It was an extraordinary session, with an extraordinary group of musicians, all of whom would become legends in their own right. The session was also anything but scripted. As Jimmy Cobb recalled: “There wasn’t a whole lot of music. I didn’t have any music at all – a piece of manuscript paper with some chords scribbled on it. Miles tells me, ‘make this sound like it’s floating’.

It wasn’t that Davis, the leader of the team, didn’t work on outlines for the tracks. He and Evans had gone over this before the first session. Nevertheless, Davis’ instinct was that they should largely play impromptu, guided only by a few instructions from him about the tunes they were going to play. He suggested some keys and they improvised the rest to “make it sound like it was floating”. What emerged was Kind of Blue, a five-song collection that is one of the most successful jazz albums of all time.

Silence was a big part of Kind of Blue; every track whispered deep blues that went straight to the quiet place in us, the place where thoughts hang and dreams are born. The opening track, So What? (see my previous post) is a good example of spare, elegant piano chords floating in space. It is a song defined as much by its silence as much as its noises. The third track, Blue in Green is one of two ballads in Kind of Blue. Achingly slow, yet never falling apart, Blue in Green is proof that cool jazz can have huge artistic value. Allmusic‘s Thomas Ward considered it to be the most beautiful piece of music on the album, with Evans’ solo “a masterpiece of unrivalled lyricism.” The penultimate track, All Blues, is what it says – a familiar blues in 6/8 tempo, with a horn (Davis) that sounds like a cry in the night.

Kind of Blue set the standard not only for jazz. Davis’ modal scales [1] inspired rock improvisers that would arrive a decade later including Santana, Pink Floyd and the Allman Brothers while his horn phrasing would be copied by funk pioneer James Brown and the minimalist music of Phillip Glass. Uniting these disparate genres is the singular quality of the album’s ability to touch the soul. As the great jazz and blues critic, Robert Palmer (1945 – 1997) wrote: “listen to it until it seeps into your dreams … and fills your soul until the sacred expanding nothingness.”

Tracks from Kind of Blue

Here is the second track from Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue – “Freddy Freeloader” showing Jazz at its spontaneous best.

And here is the third track, the hypnotic and incredibly romantic “Blue In Green”, arguably, the most beautiful piece of music in the album. The ballad features the magnificent solo performance of saxophonist, John Coltrane and pianist Bill Evans, each solo a masterpiece of unrivalled lyricism.

Notes and Further Study

[1] Model jazz uses musical modes rather than chord progressions as a framework. A mode is a form of musical scale coupled with a characteristic set of melodic behaviour.

[2] Parts of this blog is adapted from Toby Creswell and Craig Mathieson, The 100 Best Albums of All Time, Hardie Grant Books, Australia, 2013.

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