After talking about Christian McBride’s Kind of Brown a little while ago (which, by the way, was just as good as I thought it would be), I came across this on You Tube recently. The footage of So What on this film was recorded for TV (“The Sound of Miles Davis”) about 4 weeks after Kind of Blue itself was recorded. Neither Bill Evans nor Cannonball Adderley was there, but it still sends the old goosebumps up the spine. It’s difficult to write about Kind of Blue without avoiding the whiff of cliche, especially in this anniversary year, but I’m going to see if I can through this post without using the word “seminal”. Here goes.
So, yeah, Miles, man. I was half-tempted to splash out the cash for the 50th anniversary package, which looks great, but in the end I decided I didn’t need a blue vinyl version, nor did I need to have all the studio chatter. It’s the notes what count, innit, and they haven’t changed over the past 50 years – as gorgeous and mysterious and perfect as they were when they first emerged. An awful lot of guff has been written about the record – vast sprays of purple prose wittering on about atmospherics, and the like. But in the end, it’s about the unremitting excellence of the solos played by the musicians. After the insanely technical, chord-heavy structure of Coltrane’s Giant Steps earlier in the year, Miles went the other way and gave his band all the space they needed by employing simple harmonic or modal structures. This allowed the musicians to focus on melody, and as a result some of the most gorgeous improvisations in jazz history were created. It’s ironic that the record’s huge and enduring popularity has condemned it largely to being background music for dinner parties. It deserves better than that.
But a word of caution amidst all the traditional hyperbole, if I may. Yes, of course Kind of Blue is a fabulous record. But is it really that important? Despite what people will tell you, it didn’t change the world. It didn’t even change jazz that much. There are many jazz records that were more influential. Modal jazz, as New York Times critic Ben Ratcliff points out in his Essential Jazz Library, was “a flavor, not a whole cuisine”. People dabbled for a little, and then other ideas took hold, and took jazz away in other directions.
Anyway, don’t mind me. Go and find your copy and have a listen for yourself. Check out the video, and all the smoking (literal and figurative) that goes on. Damn, he was cool.
PS: If you want another perspective on the album, I might suggest Kind of Blue – The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece by Ashley Kahn, which was illuminating in providing back story, critical context and insight into what went on over those two days in 1959. It’s an excellent read.