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Miles Davis – Kind of Blue – Classic Music Review


One of the “greatest recordings of all-time” that is better than the hype. Click to buy.

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 and challenges 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 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.

As I did in my review of Robert Johnson, I’m going to focus less on the theoretical aspects and more on the emotions, the imagery and the kinetic energy the music inspires.

“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 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 down beat, you can’t get any better than that.” Miles’ solo makes me feel like I’m floating in air; the integration of trumpet, piano and bass is soft and snug. Trane’s solo is more daring, 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, like you’re letting 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 really 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 starts out 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 really stand out. The solos soar up to those high ceilings, collecting natural reverberation that sounds so fresh and alive in comparison to the software-generated equivalent used today. This is the piece that best reveals 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. My partner is from Spain, and we’ve visited her family and friends several times. 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. And yes, it’s also intensely romantic and always makes me want to kiss her and hold her close to me forever. Ahh!

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 almost never 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 jazz. 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 Alt ROCK Chick 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.

Miles Davis – Sketches of Spain – Classic Music Review


John Lennon famously described jazz as shit music, but the actual quote is a bit more interesting: “I think it (Jazz) is shit music, even more stupid than rock and roll . . . Jazz never gets anywhere, never does anything, it’s always the same and all they do is drink pints of beer.”

I’m not sure about the pints of beer part (heroin appears more frequently in the biographies of jazz musicians), and the “always the same” comment is absurd, but I can certainly understand the sentiment about jazz never seeming to get anywhere—a sentiment which many people share. After Louis Armstrong cleared the clutter of early jazz and energized the medium with intensity and direction, jazz reached its peak as a popular art form during the Swing Era, that strange time when Americans dealt with economic depression and world war by dancing to happy-go-lucky tunes played by the big bands. With the advent of the popularity of Glenn Miller and his bubblegum approach to jazz, more serious musicians staged an underground revolution (“underground” because recording was severely restricted in the United States from 1942-1944 due to union problems). The faces of that revolution were Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and the musical form they and their cohorts developed was called Bop or Bebop.

Bebop constituted a radical departure from what people knew as jazz. The most important change was the disconnection from dance. With its fast tempos, strange timing, odd harmonic combinations (asymmetrical phrasing), use of the small combo (as opposed to big bands), the emphasis on the virtuoso soloist and Kenny Clarke’s shift from the bass drum to the ride cymbal as the beat keeper, Bebop must have sounded like something from outer space to the average listener of the era. What’s most important is that when jazz became undanceable it lost its connection to the vast majority of its audience, most of whom assumed music and dance meant the same thing. Jazz thus began its long and steady journey to becoming the music of aficionados and intellectuals, and except for the odd record here and there (usually one of the “soft jazz” variety), jazz has never regained its prominence in American popular culture. Today, jazz is much more popular in Europe than in its homeland.

This exclusivity is aggravated by jazz fans and jazz critics. Talk about snobs! Saying you dig jazz is like saying you belong to a secret club that allows no riff-raff. To enhance that feeling of intellectual and aesthetic superiority, jazz critics tend to write primarily about jazz technique and the musicology of jazz, using a language that is impenetrable to the curious but untutored listener. This is sad, for while some modern jazz is more about virtuoso indulgence than accessibility, the best pieces paint vivid sound pictures that carry tremendous emotional and sensual power.

There are few jazz artists who pack the emotional and sensual punch of Miles Davis. He learned his craft from Charlie and Dizzy, then moved on to be one of the founders of the “cool jazz” movement that removed much of what listeners considered the excess of Bebop while retaining its willingness to expand the medium beyond the traditional. As his career advanced, Miles frequently confused jazz zealots by wandering outside of the genre for inspiration. His rock-jazz fusion work popularized in Bitches Brew caused as much consternation in the jazz world as Bob Dylan’s electrically-charged performance at the Newport Folk Festival did in the folk world. While Miles’ most famous album is that masterpiece of modal jazz, Kind of Blue, a better demonstration of his genre-bending tilt can be found on Sketches of Spain, released in the summer of 1960. This collaboration with the brilliant arranger Gil Evans is a tribute to artistic curiosity.

The dominant piece on Sketches of Spain is the second movement from Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, written in 1939. The original is a concerto for guitar and orchestra, and a stunningly beautiful work that has been recorded by great classical guitarists from Andrés Segovia to Sharon Isbin. Rodrigo’s style is 20th century neoclassical, which means his compositions attempted to live up to the principles of the great classical composers like Mozart and Haydn: ordered, structured, clear and free of the emotional flourishes of Romantic composers like Liszt and Tchaikovsky. Rodrigo’s work feels more like paintings by Velasquez, who painted hundreds of proper but rather dull portraits of the Spanish royal family. Not surprisingly, the inspiration for Concierto de Aranjuez happened to be the gardens at Phillip II’s palace at Aranjuez (though the achingly beautiful second movement drew inspiration from his wife’s miscarriage).

Gil Evans took a different approach, turning the second movement into something more like the paintings of Joan Miró with a touch of Juan Gris. The second movement in the original composition is adagio (play it slowly!) and begins with regularly timed strums on the classic guitar followed by the introduction of the core melody on the cor anglais (English horn). Though classically restrained, the breathtaking beauty of the melody combined with shifting dynamics (levels of loudness) has a tremendous emotional impact. Both Gil Evans and Miles Davis insisted on preserving and even enhancing the presence of that melody, opting to bring more color into the composition through the possibilities of modern jazz and the willingness of both Evans and Davis to push those boundaries to the limit.

So, instead of opening with the mournful guitar, this version of the adagio begins with the sound of castanets and soft bells. The melody appears as beautifully and as softly as the original, though played through a muted flügelhorn enhanced by splashes of complex, convention-defying chord combinations from the horn section. Tambourine enters to vary the soundscape, but the commitment to the melody never wavers in this initial passage. As Miles Davis said of the piece, “That melody is so strong that the softer you play it, the stronger it gets, and the stronger you play it, the weaker it gets.” He plays it like he’s holding a sleeping baby, with tender, loving care.

Meanwhile, Gil Evans has been busy foreshadowing a breakout into modern jazz with a hint of drums here, a touch of bass there, and a cascade of occasional blue notes from the horn section. This effort picks up speed just short of five minutes into the piece, when the dynamics shift to forte (loud) and the chords shift to the complex chords of modern jazz. In between those glorious chords, Miles is softly grooving on one or two notes, serving more as the rhythm section than the soloist for a few bars. During this passage, the horn section is supplanted by strings and Miles’s solo becomes a bluesier version of the primary theme. Suddenly there is a shift in rhythm that echoes Spanish folk dance; the music darkens slightly as the castanets reappear. A tuba makes a brief appearance to serve as the bass foundation for the final passage of flutes and a restrained, sensitive passage from Miles Davis. The stillness of this segment calls up images of slightly cool Spanish nights on a patio surrounded by bougainvillea; an image of tranquility at the end of a long day.

A relatively slight increase in loudness brings us back to the main theme, played by the horn section and supported by tambourine. It also dissolves into stillness and another rich but understated solo from Miles. Many critics have marveled at the control the man had over his instrument, but what is more important is what he communicates with his discipline. While Rodrigo celebrated the formality and traditions of Spain in his work, Gil Evans and Miles Davis have captured the passion of the Spanish soul—the heat that burns behind the fluttering fan of the señorita and the warmth of the shade in the hot Spanish summer. The Evans-Davis take on Concierto de Aranjuez is a wondrous display of the art of sound imagery.

 Earlier I mentioned that jazz had been separated from dance by the Bebop revolution; it’s really more accurate to say that jazz was disconnected from ballroom or nightclub dancing, for jazz certainly has found a home in the world of modern dance. “Will O’ the Wisp” is a female vocal taken from the 20th century ballet El Amor Brujo, originally written for a gypsy flamenco dancer before composer Manuel de Falla turned it into a symphonic piece. The story involves the return of the ghost of the heroine’s dead husband, whom the heroine entices to appear by beginning a ritual fire dance then slowly manages to maneuver the ghost into the fire where it vanishes forever. The heat is apparent in the thin tones Miles Davis creates through his horn; the ending fade mirrors the disappearance of the phenomenon with its collapsing notes created by amazing breath control. “Will O’ the Wisp” is followed by “Pan Piper,” a Spanish folk song arranged to place Miles in contrast with the magical sounds of flute, where a gentle processional rhythm provides a sensuous backdrop for the interplay between flute and trumpet.

“Saeta” is a Gil Evans modification of an Andalusian folk song; a saeta is a form of religious song commonly sung during Holy Week processions. My partner and I were in Madrid during Holy Week one year and happened to stumble into one of these processions, led by damas in black veils holding crosses, torches and icons of saints, marching mournfully through the old streets around Puerta del Sol, never breaking their deliberate rhythm even when the skies opened up and drenched them in rain. Evans’ arrangement is brilliant; from the beginning we hear processional, almost military music in the distant background, building in volume as the procession approaches us. The procession stops to allow the saetera to deliver the vocal; in this arrangement, it is Miles Davis translating the vocal through his horn. The approach the takes was best described by Ted Gioia in The History of Jazz:

Instead of aspiring to classical purity of tone, emulating an otherworldly perfection, the early jazz players strived to make their instruments sound like human voices, with all the variations, imperfections, and colorations that such a model entailed.

This was an approach to music that defied conventional notation and refused to be reduced to a systematic methodology. Richard Hadlock, recalling a music lesson given to him by Sidney Bechet, conveys something of this fastidious New Orleans attention to tone production: “I’m going to give you one note today,” he once told me. “See how many ways you can play that note— growl it, smear it, flat it, sharp it, do anything you want to it. That’s how you express your feelings in this music. It’s like talking.”

—-Gioia, Ted (2011-04-08). The History of Jazz (p. 48). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Miles Davis demonstrates the wisdom of that lesson with this heart-stopping solo, emulating a woman’s voice in a moment of soul-level suffering through both the modulation of individual notes and a spontaneous, life-like approach to phrasing, full of stutters, stops and bursts of clarity. You will also notice a definite Arab flavor to the piece; after all, Andulusia was under Moorish control for centuries. This influence permeates the album; a gentleman named John Murnane wrote a short but very instructive piece on the Arab influence on Sketches of Spain you can find on the site All About Jazz.

Miles Davis had already begun to explore Flamenco on “A Kind of Blue” with “Flamenco Sketches,” but with nowhere near the depth he achieves on the final piece of the original release of Sketches of Spain, “Solea.” While “Flamenco Sketches” retains a distinct modal jazz orientation, “Solea” is more steeped in Flamenco rhythms, flavors and dynamics. A “solea” is a core form of Flamenco that I’ve seen described as “Flamenco Meets the Blues” because of its emphasis on longing for the unattainable and its undeniable African-influenced rhythms. That rhythm appears after a two-minute opening passage where Miles plays softly and achingly, as if mourning the loss of a friend or the woman he cannot have. Gil Evans said he chose the rhythm for the core section “because it kind of swung.” No shit! Any person with the slightest sense of sexuality will immediately feel their hips express an overwhelming desire to sway and grind to the beat. And if you’re going to have anyone play the solo for such a piece, it has to be Miles Davis, who by all accounts was as obsessed with sexual experience as I am! This is a piece designed to seduce you into an erotic trance; a masterpiece of feel, of touch, of steaming color.

“Solea” is also the song that turned out to be the last song in the last set of Miles Davis’ last public performance, a collaboration with Quincy Jones organized to pay tribute to the late Gil Evans. I don’t pray, but if I did, I’d pray for the chance to make my final exit accompanied by music like “Solea”: music so hot that my soul will burn brightly for all eternity.


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