This is going to sound weird, but the only reason I’m reviewing Kind of Blue is because I want to do a few reviews of John Coltrane and Kind of Blue is a good jumping-off point for exploring Coltrane.
No, dear readers, this is not another one of those reviews like Pet Sounds or Exile on Main Street where I rip universally-acclaimed crap to shreds. Kind of Blue is one of the greatest records ever made and Miles Davis is one of my top five musical artists in any genre. It also happens to be the best-selling jazz album of all time (#5 on the iTunes charts last week after 54 years). The reason I’ve resisted doing anything with it is that there is already an intimidating body of literature covering Kind of Blue. What on earth could poor-little-no-credentials-no-connections-no-cred-with-the-experts-who-lists-sex-ahead-of-music-as-a-life-interest-and-who-never-went-to-Julliard-thirty-two-year-old me possibly have to add to this formidable field of study except long, hyphenated adjective strings?
Look at my tagline and figure it out.
Most listeners don’t give a rat’s fuck about the technical musical jargon that jazz critics use to excess, alienating potential listeners by droning on and on about music theory and its related technicalities. Only rarely do they talk about the experience of the music—how it makes you feel, the images it creates, the way it can change your perception of the immediate moment. In the case of Kind of Blue, though, the technicalities are important, in part because of the new possibilities they created, but mostly in how Miles Davis chose to work with those technicalities and with the musicians under his direction. I’ll try to avoid boring you to death via an overdose of music theory, but a teeny bit might help you appreciate what was accomplished on Kind of Blue.
The mass of literature on Kind of Blue focuses primarily on the concept of modality, or modal jazz. What that means for those of you not versed in musical lingo is that for each piece, Miles simply gave each band member a scale (mode) that defined the boundaries for their improvisations instead of chord charts, tabs or a score. Kind of Blue isn’t purely modal or completely improvisational; there are some defined chord changes, and some of the melodic themes had been sketched out in advance of the session. What modal jazz does is heighten the importance of melody while challenging the performers to explore melodic possibilities that cannot come into existence when you’re tied to the chords.
What makes Kind of Blue so wonderful is something else Miles Davis gave the musicians: his trust. He trusted their ability to use their unique talents to create something beautiful together. As the true essence of jazz is improvisation, freeing the music from any kind of dogma is a liberating, challenging act for the serious, passionate, curious musician. Miles had no specific idea what these guys were going to play (there were no rehearsals and very few takes), but he had deep confidence in their abilities.
And no wonder! When you’ve got John Coltrane on your team, you’ve already got a winner. Add Cannonball Adderley on alto sax, Bill Evans on piano (Wynton Kelly on “Freddie the Freeloader”), James Cobb on the skins and Paul Chambers on bass and you have one of the great combos of all time (and Miles would put together another great combo a few years later). You may not know all the names, but once you sit down and listen to Kind of Blue, you’ll say, “Jesus Christ, these guys know how to play!” You’ll also find that each musician has a unique voice, a unique style and unique ways of communicating thought and emotion that give the music a rich diversity . . . but because they are simultaneously listening closely to each other and picking up on cues and suggestions, Kind of Blue is also a deeply collaborative, unified work.
So here’s the deal: I’m going to focus less on the theoretical aspects and more on the emotions, the imagery and the kinetic energy the music inspires and mention the technical features in passing.
“So What?”: The opening piano-bass segment was likely written by frequent Miles Davis collaborator and arranger Gil Evans, who would help him create the wonder that is Sketches of Spain. The message I hear in this arrhythmic opening is “Slow down, take your time, give it a listen and let the music course through your soul.” When Paul Chambers makes a clever little shift into the main bass run and Jimmy Cobb brushes those cymbals with such delicacy, I take a deep breath and feel my gears start to downshift; the horns enter to reinforce the tempo, and then comes the moment when the clutch is in position and the ride becomes oh, so smooth. Herbie Hancock described that shift beautifully in Ashley Kahn’s guidebook to Kind of Blue: “When Miles comes in and starts his solo and Cobb hits that crash on the downbeat, you can’t get any better than that.” Miles’ solo makes me feel like I’m floating on air; the integration of trumpet, piano and bass is soft and snug. Trane’s solo is more daring and more rhythmically unpredictable, but still within the mood of the piece, and I find myself surrendering, following him wherever he wants to take me because his voicing is so alluring. Cannonball comes in and makes me smile; his melody is playful and he doesn’t mind shifting bars early or leaving the scale to create a little tension and shade the mood. Bill Evans seems a bit tentative at first, but the horns encourage him to loosen up before he finds comfort in Paul Chambers’ bass line; now I’m ready for a dry martini and a cigarette. The fade on the bass is one of my favorite parts of the song; the absence of frets on a standup bass allows for tones between the notes that paint splashes of color that I find endlessly delightful. Technically, the piece is in the Dorian mode, shifting between two chords, Dm7 and Ebm7. Structurally simple, deliciously complex: you can listen to this piece a hundred times and hear something you never noticed before.
“Freddie Freeloader”: The structure is classic 12-bar blues, but instead of winding down on the expected I-V-IV-I pattern, the last two bars go to VII, a variation that gives this piece more of an edge. Miles chose Wynton Kelly for piano on this piece because of his noted ability to comp the horns with strong rhythmic support. He also takes the first solo, and it’s impossible not to snap your fingers on the fourth beat of every measure as Kelly and Jimmy Cobb establish an irresistible groove. Miles comes in with a smooth blue solo that’s as sexy as fuck; the rest of the martini burns my throat and I have to light another cigarette. From this moment forward, this song is a pure foreplay; this fucker is teasing me with a soft touch here and a tongue in the ear there. Once Miles has me all worked up, Coltrane enters with serious force, making me turn from one lover to the other. Less bluesy, more probing, like excited hands running over my body in uncontrolled ecstasy. Cannonball comes in a few beats late; he takes a quick look around then flat-out sings in delight, reconnecting with the tension of the seventh chords, causing me to grind away. The volume eases off like the man has had second thoughts or is worried he’ll let it go too early; the tension created by the brushed cymbals and disarmingly easy piano is almost unbearable. The main theme returns, telling me they’re going to make me hold that orgasm a little longer . . . I think I’d better powder my nose.
“Blue In Green”: Bill Evans described this in the liner notes as “a 10-measure circular form following a 4-measure introduction, and played by soloists in various augmentation and diminution of time values.” Most of you probably fell asleep reading that description at about the halfway point, but trust me, the result far outshines the technical characterization. The 10-measure form means that Miles is messing with your expectations, as it’s certainly not the twelve or thirty-two bars commonly used for many blues or traditional pop numbers. Hell, even the musicians had a hard time getting this one down, repeatedly stopping takes to reaffirm timing. They finally got it down on the fifth take to create one of the loveliest jazz pieces you’ll ever hear. Miles and Bill Evans get two solos each, sandwiched around Coltrane’s. The feel is late night reflection after a very sweet day; when Bill Evans doubles up and changes chords at twice the pace, it’s like remembering the highlight of that day, perhaps the long, dulcet kiss on the balcony as the sun went down, or the heart skipping at the beauty of a street scene or of wildflowers in a meadow. Coltrane’s middle piece slows things down considerably, allowing the listener to let it all sink in; the contrast between this solo and his work on “Freddie Freeloader” leaves you amazed at the man’s expressive range. Life is good.
“All Blues”: “Blue in Green” transported me to a dream world, but it’s easy to snap me out of those moods if you’re offering something with a little spice, like basic blues in 6/4 (the critical debate over whether it’s 6/4 or 3/4 is exceedingly annoying). The tonal variation on the basic blues structure is the flatted sixth, one half-tone above where you’d expect. The vamp (the term used for a two-chord pattern repeated over and over) also serves to separate the various soloists, so “All Blues” is in some ways the piece best structured to highlight the differences between the soloists. Coltrane’s feels the hottest and bluesiest, definitely putting me back in the mood for more foreplay. Cannonball’s contribution starts off hot and smooth but winds up making me smile again; his technique captures human-sounding grunts, head-shaking and splashes of free-spiritedness. Bill Evans’ solo is the most remarkable; his timing is so off-beat that the notes sound like they’re hanging in mid-air like when the world stopped in The Day the World Stood Still, but his resolutions are always on point. Kahn commented that “As easy-rolling as it all sounds, the effort of playing the same musical phrase over and over again—even for veteran musicians—is apparent as the tune ends . . . all breathe a sigh of relief.” Since the piece goes on for eleven-and-a-half minutes, that sigh is indeed heartfelt.
“Flamenco Sketches”: This precursor to Sketches of Spain stands on its own as an exceptional piece of music. Although you can hear the effect throughout, I think this is the piece where the natural acoustics of recording in a studio that used to be a Greek Orthodox Church truly make a difference. The solos soar up to those high ceilings, collecting natural reverberation that sounds fresh and alive in comparison to the software-generated equivalent used today. This is the piece that best reveals the truth of Miles Davis’ characterization of Bill Evans’ piano style: “crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall.” His solo, consisting of precisely played single notes or two-note combinations delivered with his exceptional ability to float over the beat, is like hearing flowers or drops of color. A complex piece that accesses several scales and modes, what is interesting to me is how little the Phrygian mode appears (those are the Spanish Scales that stamp a piece of music with an unmistakable Iberian flavor); after all, the piece is called “Flamenco Sketches.” It’s interesting because the combined effect is very Spanish/Moorish, which only goes to show that spending excessive energy on music theory can take you far away from the music. When I hear this piece, it calls up images of bougainvillea hanging over the balcony; warm, dry nights; the last drink in the tapas bar; the sleepy streets of Sevilla as dawn breaks on a Sunday morning.
Kind of Blue works on so many levels. As background to foreplay, there’s nothing better. For pure, simple musical enjoyment, it’s a bottomless glass of fascination. If you want to hear what it sounds like when human beings are in perfect sync with each other—something you rarely hear in the real world—this is it. It’s not only one of the greatest jazz albums, but the one that best demonstrates the essence of jazz: collaborative improvisation. There are no overdubs, no gimmicks, no software.
One of the wonderful things about moving to France is that I have friends who actually listen to jazz! Seattle had a couple of jazz clubs but I never found anyone who shared my passion and who could hold an intelligent conversation about the genre. It’s far more popular here than in the land of its birth. The other day I checked my play stats on iTunes and found that 42% of the music I listen to is jazz, 38% rock and its variants, 11% blues and R&B, and the rest an amalgam of Celtic, folk, world and singer/songwriter. I’ve deliberately limited my reviews of jazz albums because a.) I’m the altROCKchick and b.) my readers (mostly American) don’t seem to share my interest.
Sigh. Maybe someday Americans will recognize the truth of what Wynton Marsalis said in Ken Burns’ documentary, Jazz: that jazz is the true American art form because of its essential democracy. Jazz is where different people with different perspectives come together specifically to create something that melds different points of view. Given the fractious politics in America today, where everyone seems hellbent on shouting down the opposition and making a show of refusing to collaborate, Americans can learn a lot from their musical heritage.