Band: Miles Davis
Without a doubt Jazz is America’s best gift to the world as far as music is concerned, with blues a close second. Both came out of the African American community at a time when Jim Crow Laws existed and civil rights was just a dream. Out of this despair came the two genres that would eventually help knock down racial barriers and fill a young generation with hope. They would also help to usher in an equally radical rock n’ roll.
My biggest problem with jazz is that I have trouble listening to recordings of the genre. Jazz is meant to be heard and seen live. Imagination and showmanship is a staple of the form, and it must be witnessed to be truly appreciated. Just seeing the pianist’s fingers dance on the keys or the drummer erupt into a frenzied solo, without the time restrictions of vinyl and CD, can’t be replicated. I can’t help but feel a longing when I hear recorded jazz.
And then there was Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, arguably the greatest jazz album ever released (some would argue John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme).
Where most Jazz recordings leave me unsatiated, Kind of Blue instead fills me with unending delight and fullness, as if I’m in a room listening to the musicians play. While it wouldn’t come as a surprise that the songs on the album would be later released and played in longer form, the album still carries the weight of improvisation and showmanship that is often lacking in music recorded in the studio.
Perhaps the best way I could describe the way the album hits me is by admitting listening to it makes we want to smoke a cigarette, and I mean that in the good way. It’s cool and slick, providing grooves that would serve as a great background for dancing with your partner and feeling a release of emotions. That’s what great Jazz was all about. Providing release from the tensions of a racially divided country. Even when songs simmer with despair, hope is still there.
Miles Davis came out of the hard bop style of jazz, notable for its complex chord changes . Dissatisfied with the style, Davis had begun playing a modal style with his previous album Milestones. To put simply, modal jazz relies on modes or scales as a blueprint for the song, rather than chord progressions. It’s a simpler form that allows room for creativity without being hindered by having to constantly to build solos according to chords. Listeners to rock music may be a little more comfortable with the form, as most of the solos in rock music are based on one scale, rather than changing according to the chord.
What made modes so innovative was that they moved away from the major and minor keys found in classical music and instead were based on scales introduced in George Russell’s 1953 book Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization. Davis would create a whole album based on modes with Kind of Blue.
What resulted was a groundbreaking album that utilizes subtle flourishes based on keys rather than chord changes. The album simply grooves and croons, oozing with hipness that would be at home with the characters of Mad Men.
Before we dive into the album, it wouldn’t be right if we didn’t give credit where credit is due. Miles Davis plays trumpet and is the band leader. Julian “Cannonball” Adderley rocks the alto saxophone. John Coltrane fills the tenor saxophone spot. On piano is Bill Evans (except for on “Freddie Freeloader”; Wynton Kelly guest appears). To fill out the rhythm is Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums.
With that out of the way, let’s look at the songs before we pull back and appreciate the overall album
The album opener begins as a free form improvisation between piano and bass that brings to mind a lounge atmosphere, which then morphs into a rhythm by Chambers’ bass notes that serve as the now famous intro. The motif is simple. First a D dorian mode is played for 16 bars, followed by eight bars of E♭ dorian, followed by another eight bars of D dorian. That’s it.
After the intro, Davis makes himself known with a wail on trumpet, declaring his presence as leader of the group. Notes slide to give the solo a sleazy feel, like it’s been drenched in passionate night between lovers.
Adderley takes over as Davis’s final notes play, notes gliding up and down scales, giving the solo a free-form feel. Its frenetic pace makes great use of the ample time afforded by the mode to really explore the scales being played.
Coltrane carries Adderley’s solo with his own scale climbing. Coltrane absolutely takes the spotlight, crescendoing and belting his saxophone over the rhythm. His frenetic tremolo’s and glissandos mirror Adderley’s.
Next is a quiet interlude as the piano gently calms down the listener form the louder and faster saxophone solos, allowing sparse notes to highlight the walking bass and jazz standard drums. Just as the song takes it building before launching into solos, the song takes it times as it leaves a faint trail of what came before, ending just as it began, with its two-mode structure.
Unlike the previous song, “Freddie Freeloader” starts off with groove firmly in place. However, like its predecessor, it again establishes a simple motif based on of two modes, this time in the form of twelve-bar blues.
Guest musician Kelly takes the lead out of the gate, while the bass and drums carry the song forward. It’s complicated and simple all at the same time. The notes dance to the rhythm, with blues licks added emphasizing its blues background.
Davis comes in, almost speaking as if to say “everything is going to be okay”. Honestly, the best way to understand and write about instrumentals is to imagine the soloist speaking to you, unless you have some music theory beyond an intro to jazz class.
Adderley sparks a fire with his first note, launching into a dizzying array of scale climbing and descending, constantly hitting high notes only to fall back down to its start. An unaccustomed listener might find his style irritating with its constant squeak, but the way to wrap your ears around the horn is to imagine the soloist trying to reach an elusive high, the notes ascending as if to the gods, only to come down and rejoin us humans.
Coltrane’s solo carries forward Adderley’s sax with his own scale climbing, eventually settling into a tennis match between notes, going back and forth before taking off on another swinging groove. We then move onto a piano solo before the song quickly reclaims its intro, mirroring “So What’s” structure.
“Blue in Green”
Again, another lounge feeling intro that is more melodic and complex than the preceding two tracks. The song takes the form of a ballad, with Evans opening it with his gentle keys, before Davis calmly serenades the listener with his soulful yearning. His trumpet begs the listener to hear his ale of sorrow, gently passing the torch back to the Evans, which sounds more hope full in it’s simple but expressive melody.
Coltrane takes the solo from there, with Adderley “laying out” the track (a jazz term meaning to temporarily ceaseplaying). Coltrane brings the melody back into a moodier tone, devoid of the flashier tremolos and glissandos, save for a few uses here and there.
The song is absolutely glued together by the Evan’s piano, taking its taking in between horn solos before giving the spotlight back to Davis. Davis belts out the notes this time, making his declaration even more prominent, before the piano swells in volume, playing by itself as the song ends.
This track starts off with Evans playing two notes repeatedly, quickly followed by the horns that bring the motive with a sense of urgency, taking its time to leave an impression on the listener. The song is another example of 12-bar blues, set in 6/4.
Davis starts off his solo as Cobb hops onto the ride cymbal, providing a smoother and driving rhythm than that established in the intro. As Davis playing, the piano subtly drops the starting motif, instead playing chords that dance around the trumpet’s lead.
Adderley brings in a wanted seduction with an initial lead that echoes the intro before climaxing with higher notes. His playing is smoother than it was on earlier tracks, utilizing less glissando in favor of swinging scales that punctuate each individual note.
Time is given before Coltrane hops in with his tenor squeaks, followed by a quick scales that climb higher and higher. He then throws in a standard blue lick where one note is quickly slid down a half step, repeated over and over in quick succession.
Evans again brings in a calmer mood, giving the listener time to breath as well as giving the ear time to appreciate the guiding rhythm. We then are brought back to the starting motif, sans the urgent two note repeating of the piano. The song has now been released of its kinetic energy, finally settling into a steady rhythm before fading out.
The final track begins with a piano and bass duet playing simple note before Davis croons us with his belting trumpet. It’s another ballad, being both gentle and kind, a lovingly kiss goodnight for the album.
Davis is followed by Adderley, who sets a mood for love with his lead, his solo punctuating its high notes. Again, his work uses glissandos sparingly, gently playing over the relaxing rhythm. This is followed by Coltrane, whose lead is seductive, carrying romantic overtone, further setting the mood for a quiet night with a loved one. His notes are played with a subtle vibrato, before fading away.
Evans is up next, playing notes that drop in descending order before being punctuated by chords, followed by another dance of notes. It’s simple work that aims not to impress but rather create atmosphere and mood, something which I would argue is much harder to pull off.
As Evans drops out, Davis brings his crooning back, followed by whispering notes that are barely audible. With that, the album sends it farewell.
To me, what makes Kind of Blue so special is how it focuses on composition and atmosphere. Jazz often aims for showmanship and technicality, much like the heavy metal genre. The musicians aim to wow the audience. What sets this album apart is how its uses modes to open the music up creatively. The musicians aren’t trying to wrap solos around chords, but rather build atmospheric melodies that linger in the mind. Like I said, listening to this album will make you want to kick back and smoke a cigarette, then find someone to dance with. It’s cool and easy, and would serve as great background music for a party.
Kind of Blue is a staple for any Jazz aficionado. Its use of modes drops behind the complexity of hard bop jazz and instead favors atmosphere and composition.