Re: RARA-AVIS: Kind of Blue

From: Brian Thornton (
Date: 21 Aug 2007

I have to chime in here and say that my jazz education didn't really begin until I came across "Kind of Blue."

It was also my first Miles Davis album (although hardly my last. I own about 20 now. Nothing after 1968, though. I don't like his forays into fusion in the 22 years before his death in 1991). No less a musical light than Duane Allman (who knew a thing or two about atmospheric music) used to listen to it backstage every night before a gig as part of his warm-up ritual. He said that every time he listened to it, he picked something else up.

And no wonder. Recorded in 1959, "Kind of Blue" found Davis and his band in transition. Davis' quintet had recorded and released a series of seminal hits during the mid-50s: "Relaxin," "Workin,'" "Steamin,'" "Cookin,'" (all "With the Miles Davis Quinet") which yileded such current jazz standards as "Blues by Five," "Aerigin," "Surrey With The Fringe On Top" (Davis' jazz arrangements of beloved Broadway show-tunes were real crowd-pleasers), and "Salt Peanuts."

But by 1958, the gloss had begun to come off. Davis was hard-headed, a notorious perfectionist (something that people as visionary as Davis are often called, and rightly so, still, he was not always a picnic to work for), and not above playing his trumpet with his back to his audience (something that drove certain jazzmen crazy). Late in 1957/early in 1958, Davis fired his drummer Philly Joe Jones and his pianist Red Garland (who promptly formed their own trio, later luring Davis bassist Paul Chambers away to join them), replacing them with Jimmy Cobb and Winton Kelly, respectively, then adding another horn player, alto-saxophonist Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, turning the "quintet" into a "sextet." Tenor Saxophonist John Coltrane had also grown restive, interested in striking out on his own, and made no secret of his plans to do so sooner rather than later.

So by early 1959 this was a band in transition. Kelly quit in the middle of the recording of "Kind of Blue," to be replaced by future piano legend Bill Evans (Bassist Paul Chambers would also go on to play with Kelly's own trio a lot during the 1960s). This is also John Coltrane's final album with Davis before he went on his own, and it's Bill Evans' only album with Miles. Their playing is electric. Cannonball Adderley's alto saxophone rounds out the quintet into a sextet, with a three-horn attack. It's wonderful. He appeared on a couple of live albums ("At The Plaza" and "At Newport," both circa 1958), but I think this was his sole studio appearance with Davis. Bassist Paul Chambers never sounded better before or after this, and his duet with pianist Evans to open up the first song on the album ("So What") is one of the most quoted bits in jazz history.

And for all that, I still think that "All Blues," track number 4 on the album, is possibly the finest piece of music Miles Davis ever produced. By turns haunting and evocative, yearing and despairing, so full of so much, all coming at you at the same time. "All Blues" is precisely that. It still blows me away every time I listen to it: by turns hypnotic and compelling, defining obsession and longing, and always with that insistent brushbeat, and the piano driving the whole thing along. Davis the player has never sounded better, Davis the bandleader never got better performances out of his sidemen, and Davis the arranger deserves all of the accolades he got here. Add in such terrific tracks as "Freddie Freeloader," "Blue in Green," and both takes of the gorgeous "Flamenco Sketches," and you've got what one music critic referred to as "a record generally considered as *the* definitive jazz album, a universally acknowledged standard of excellence."

For me it also could have served as the soundtrack for any of a number of fifties-era noir films I've seen.

This is Davis before he tried to be a jazz-rock god by embracing the fringes of fusion in the late 60s, before he started wearing that curly wig, before the heroin got to him, before he holed up in his Hollywood mansion, snorting line after line of coke and beating the crap out of Cicely Tyson, not seeing anyone else except for the pizza man (he ordered them nearly every day) or the odd cop who pulled him over when he was speeding one of his sportscars through Laurel Canyon. This is Miles Davis of the sharp Italian suits, the Miles Davis who took a beating from a couple of Detriot cops after he told them to fuck off when they tried to stop him from getting into a cab with his caucasian French girlfriend after a gig at a Detroit nightclub.

This is genius, this is a visionary with an eye for talent that led him to discover and launch the careers of a constellation of future jazz stars: pianists like Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Keith Jarrett; sax players like Coltrane and Wayne Shorter, bassists like Paul Chambers and Ron Carter (who is still playing today!), drummers like the died-too-young-yet-still immortal Anthony Williams, and guitarists like Mahavishnu John McLaughlin.

And he put this one together in the same year that he teamed up with arranger Gil Evans to produce their most successful collaboration, "Sketches of Spain," which is as sun-drenched as Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises" and also as foreboding as anything penned by a Woolrich or a Highsmith, or a Holmes, or a Cain. "Sunny and Noirish?" you say. "Impossible." Give it a listen.

Look up impressario and you ought to find a photo of Miles Davis. He was that much of a world-shaker.

And by the way, miker, if you don't like "Kind of Blue," send it to me, and I'll refund your purchase price and the cost of your shipping. I'm that sure of your reaction to it.

All the Best-

Brian Thornton

  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Michael Robison
  Sent: Tuesday, August 21, 2007 6:11 PM
  Subject: Re: RARA-AVIS: Kind of Blue

  Mark wrote:

  Get thee to a music store! The bestselling jazz album
  of all time. Not that bestsellerdom is necessarily an
  endorsement, but the popularity of this one is well

  Thanks, Mark. On your recommendation, I'll give it a
  shot. Other than that, I quit a long time ago buying
  books and music based on mentionings in novels. I got
  burned a couple times real good.


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