Great Albums: Kind of Blue

Album: Kind of Blue

Personnel: Miles Davis (trumpet), John Coltrane (tenor sax), Cannonball Adderley (alto sax), Bill Evans (piano), Wynton Kelly (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), Jimmy Cobb (drums)

Writing about the movie Casablanca, Uncle Roger once wrote: “It is *the* movie…Within its frames are so many of the many different and sometimes conflicting reasons why the movies are so special to us; Casablanca is popular art, and it is Art, as well.” The same sentiment could be applied to Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. It is *the* jazz album.

The influence that this album has had on popular music really can’t be overstated. Consider the musicians on the album. With the exception of Jimmy Cobb, who was a great solid drummer but not hugely influential in the drumming world, the musicians on this album have influenced an entire generation of musicians.

There is no trumpet player alive who has not been influenced by Miles Davis.

There is no alto player alive who has not been influenced by Cannonball Adderley.

There is no tenor player alive who has not been influenced by John Coltrane.

There is no piano player alive who has not been influenced by Bill Evans.

There is no bass player alive who has not been influenced by Paul Chambers.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say there is not a musician alive today who has not been influenced by the music on Kind of Blue.

Kind of Blue was the first real jazz album I ever heard. At the time I was a competent rock guitar player, and my instructor wanted me to expand my horizons a bit. It just so happened he was learning to play jazz, so he sort of brought me along and showed me some of the stuff he was learning. The first tune he played for me was All Blues. I remember thinking at the time how LONG it was…he recorded it on a cassette for me and it took FOREVER to finish recording. I took it home and listened to it. I didn’t understand any of it. I knew the chords, because he had showed me a basic way of playing it on guitar. I knew the Mixolydian mode, and I even knew how to play a dominant 7#9 chord thanks to Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix. But I just didn’t get it.

Though I understand it now, Kind of Blue still has that same feeling of unattainability that it always had. It’s so effortless, so organic, it sounds as if it wasn’t an album that was set up and recorded in a studio by people over the course of several months – it seems as if it was just born, and blossomed into existence in one perfect moment.

So What starts the album. Miles’ solo on this tune is a classic, one of his best. He sits right in the pocket, never showing off or overplaying. It’s a deceptively simple solo – working out the lines on my guitar one day, I was surprised to find how complex Miles’ note choices are here.  Coltrane’s solo on this tune is a little more experimental, searching. Which makes sense; soon after this recording he would pen his own tune “Impressions” based on the exact same modal changes (D Dorian/Eb Dorian). The tune would go on to become a staple of his live sets for the rest of his life.

Freddie Freeloader, known simply as “Freddie” among musicians, is the only tune on the album to feature Wynton Kelly on piano. And Kelly shines on this tune. In his autobiography, Miles said of Kelly “he could play behind a soloist like a motherfucker”, and he proves it here. Listen to his comping behind Miles in particular – he is almost telepathic in his ability to fill in the spaces that Miles leaves. Kelly’s solo is also a gem, bluesy and complex at the same time. But it is Cannonball Adderley who owns this tune. His solo is simply one of the greatest solos of all time, a master class in melodicism and groove.

Quick side story: a friend of mine was hanging out at George Benson’s house when Benson got a call from Jon Hendricks, informing him that he would be singing Cannonball’s Freddie solo in the vocalese version on Jon Hendricks & Friends. Apparently Benson was more than a little nonplussed. He killed it though, of course. Benson is a badass. But I digress…

One more note on Freddie: listen to the monstrous moving bass line that Chambers plays under the head (the “head” is a jazz cat term for the main melody of a song). It is one of the busiest lines he plays, and it plays perfectly against the slower, longer notes of the melody. Once the solos kick in, he’s back to his propulsive swing.

Blue In Green is a tune with some controversy surrounding it. For years Miles claimed he wrote the tune, and he collected the publishing royalties for it. But everyone I’ve ever talked to about it is certain that Bill Evans wrote it. And with good reason – just listen to it. It’s a Bill Evans tune all the way. A few years after Miles died, his estate finally released the publishing rights to Bill Evans’ estate. Better late than never I guess.

Another side story: the same friend told me another story, also about GB. Seems GB walked into a club one night many years ago to see Bill Evans play. When Benson walked in, Evans was playing “Blue In Green”. GB looked around and saw Miles Davis in the crowd, and sat down next to him. Miles turned to him and said “how you like my tune I wrote?” GB replied, “Man, you didn’t write that tune.”

Evans’ compositions favored pensive moods, and Blue In Green may be the most pensive, melancholy tune ever written. It also contains the saddest note ever played: Miles plays it at around the 4:32 mark, and it just kills me every time I hear it.

I mentioned All Blues at the top of this essay. This was the tune that sort of started it all for me. At the time, all I knew about the blues was what I’d heard from Stevie Ray Vaughan, Buddy Guy, and Albert King. But this was something completely different. It had the same chords, and the same notes, but they were put together in such a way that it was just so foreign. In many ways I still haven’t wrapped my head around it.

Cannonball’s solo is my favorite on this tune, I think. Which makes sense – he had the most bluesy feel of all the players, so this was right in his wheelhouse – same with Freddie. But my favorite moment of the tune is a note that Coltrane plays at about the 6:26 mark. Coltrane had a way of playing just one note and making it sound like his entire life force was pouring out of his horn. It seemed to happen most when he was playing a blues (the album Coltrane Plays the Blues has lots of examples).

Flamenco Sketches finishes up the album. Based on Evans’ Peace Piece, this tune was my favorite for a long time. It’s no secret I’m a sucker for a great melody, and this tune is just that – pure melody. Everyone kills it on this tune. It’s really tough to pick a favorite solo, but if pressed I’d probably say Evans’ because it is so brilliant in its simplicity.

What fascinates me most about this album is something Miles stated in his autobiography. He said that when he conceived of Kind of Blue, he was going for a very specific kind of sound. I can’t recall the album that inspired him (I can’t find my damn copy of the book), but I do recall that in the end, when Kind of Blue had been recorded and all was finished, he felt that he had missed the mark. Not that it wasn’t a successful album, or that he didn’t like it – he did – but that he missed his target with it. In the course of recording it became something different from what he was originally going for. I would love to have heard what was in his head, but I am eternally grateful for what was recorded.

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