MILES DAVIS / “So What”
WHAT IS JAZZ?
Kind Of Blue is the jazz record.
If I was asked ‘What is reggae?’ and I could answer only in records, I’d hand over a copy of Bob Marley & The Wailers’ Natty Dread. If I was asked, ‘What is soul?’ it’d be Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. What is hip-hop? Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. And, what is jazz? No hesitation, no need to think. Kind Of Blue. Easy.
* * *
This is the one jazz record owned by people who don't listen to jazz, and with good reason. … It was the key recording of what became modal jazz, a music free of the fixed harmonies and forms of pop songs. In Davis's men's hands it was a weightless music, but one that refused to fade into the background. In retrospect every note seems perfect, and each piece moves inexorably towards its destiny. —John Szwed, author of So What: The Life of Miles Davis
* * *
Miles Davis – Trumpet
John Coltrane – Tenor Saxophone
Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley – Alto Saxophone
Bill Evans – Piano
Paul Chambers – Bass
James Cobb – Drums
Wynton Kelly – Piano on “Freddie Freeloader”
* * *
Still acknowledged as the height of hip four decades after it was recorded, Kind of Blue is the premier album of its era, jazz or otherwise. Its vapory piano-and-bass-phrased introduction is universally recognized. Classical buffs and rage rockers alike praise its subtlety, simplicity and emotional depth. Copies of the album are passed to friends and given to lovers. The album has sold millions of copies around the world, making it the best-selling recording in Miles Davis's catalog and the best-selling classic jazz album ever. Significantly, a large number of those copies were purchased in the past five years, and undoubtedly not just by old-timers replacing worn vinyl: Kind of Blue is even casting its spell on a younger audience more accustomed to the loud-and-fast esthetic of rock and rap. —Ashley Kahn, author of Kind of Blue: The Makings of the Miles Davis Masterpiece
* * *
THE NAME ABOVE THE TITLE
It’s my belief that Miles Dewey Davis is/was the possessor of the prettiest sound to ever come out of any horn any where at any time. That such a statement is completely subjective and just as completely unsupportable in no way lessens my belief in it. That said, it’s a good thing Miles plays first on all of these tunes, because he gets upstaged repeatedly by not only his tenor saxophonist, the legendary John Coltrane, but also by his alto saxophonist, the underrated dean of the alto saxophone, Cannonball Adderley. Of course, that only stands true if one views the solos as competition. Both Trane and Cannonball have sounds that practically leap out of the speakers; the two sidemen are making statements. Miles, by contrast, is often content to weave himself into the fabric of the overall piece, soloing almost as if he’s part of the rhythm section itself.
The ballads, however, are an exception. There, Miles’ playing is every bit as impressive as that of his more fiery counterparts. Coltrane’s lovely middle solo notwithstanding, “Blue In Green”
is Miles’ song – both of the trumpeter’s solos are so pretty they’re almost painful. And Miles’ work on “Flamenco Sketches”
is no less outstanding. As we all know, Miles was a brilliant bandleader. “Blue In Green”
and “Flamenco Sketches”
provide two examples of his excellence as a soloist.
* * *
I think it [Kind Of Blue] is a universal epitome of sophistication in music development. It's a forum for a great artist to perform at the peak of their development - it's just something that will endure for hundreds of years, maybe a thousand years. —Elvin Jones, legendary jazz drummer
* * *
WHEN TRANE COMES IN
I know every one of Coltrane’s entrances on this album. To this day, every time one of his solos begin, I sing along with him for the first few notes. I can’t help it – all of that power combined with all of that grace is too much to resist. I hear the depth and beauty of Coltrane’s playing, and I want to sound like that, to be like that too. I want some of that brilliance to come not just to me, but from me.
Listen closely to the way Trane’s solos develop and you can already hear some of what was to come. The breathtaking runs (even on ballads), the guttural wails followed by piercing shrieks; Trane was already in complete command of the entire range of his horn. He’d yet to take Giant Steps
(1960), form Impressions
(1963) or make Love Supreme
(1964), but the man was already a phenom.
* * *
Kind of Blue is a jazz album that has transcended the genre of jazz and become one of a handful of recordings whose very existence changes everything. … Listening to this album will immerse you at once in a world that is dark, brooding, sophisticated, very cool, sexy, and langorous. Bottom line is: if you don't have this record in your collection, you don't have a collection. —Jazzitude.com
* * *
Cannonball is given the thankless task of being the third voice in a band led by the coolest of the cool, the man with the horn, the prettiest-singing man-devil who ever walked the earth, and right beside him, the most beautiful of the beautiful, the love supreme himself, the man who had so much to say that he invented his own language. Faced with competition like that, what’s a self-respecting alto player to do? The answer: just play. Listen to what Cannonball does at the beginning of his solo on “So What.”
Trane’s last note has barely faded away; Cannonball, undaunted, jumps in with three long notes, then an agile, scale-climbing flurry which culminates in a piercing high note, and then throws out a gradually-descending series of low notes which he punctuates with bop-ish bursts here and there. The man is one phrase in and he’s already put on an alto clinic. And he’s letting it be known: there are three horn players on this album, not two. It’s Miles, Trane and
* * *
Miles conceived these settings only hours before the recording dates and arrived with sketches which indicated to the group what was to be played. Therefore, you will hear something close to pure spontaneity in these performances. The group had never played these pieces prior to the recordings and I think without exception the first complete performance of each was a "take." —Bill Evans, from the original liner notes of the Kind Of Blue LP
* * *
THE RHYTHM SECTION
One not-so-secret secret about the Kind Of Blue recording sessions (and truthfully, this is true about many recording sessions led by Miles Davis) is the musicians were making up most of what they played as they played it. As the band leader, Davis got the composition credit, but when the band showed up that day, Miles gave them only the most perfunctory of instructions, told them they’d be doing everything in one or two takes only, and said, “Roll the tape.”
Given Miles’ in-studio methodology, those oh so memorable basslines that Paul Chambers plays on “So What”
and “Flamenco Sketches”
may well be his own. James Cobb’s drumming is perfect as well. His job is to create the framework for everyone else – the only reason you don’t notice him more is because you aren’t supposed to. Meanwhile, over in the piano chair, we find Bill Evans dedicating himself to the quiet art of musical minimalism. On “All Blues,”
Evans plays as if each note is a treasure that he can barely bear to let go. On “Flamenco Sketches,”
Evans’ economy is even more startling: he begins his solo so slowly that each note seems individualized, like a photograph, like a face. The three horn players – trumpet, tenor and alto – are what we may remember, but the three members of the rhythm section – bassist, drummer and pianist – are just as important to the overall success of this landmark album.
* * *
In the church of jazz, Kind of Blue is one of the holy relics. Critics revere it as a stylistic milestone, one of a very few in the long tradition of jazz performance, on equal footing with seminal recordings by Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Charlie Parker's bebop quintets. Musicians acknowledge its influence and have recorded hundreds of versions of the music on the album. Record producer, composer, and Davis confidant Quincy Jones hails it as the one album (if that were the limit) that would explain jazz. —Ashley Kahn, author of Kind of Blue: The Makings of the Miles Davis Masterpiece
* * *
WHAT IS JAZZ?
Kind Of Blue.
—Mtume ya Salaam
The revolution will not be televised but in jazz, it was recorded.
You see, it’s like this: in jazz the sixties began in 1959.
Back in 1959 there was something in the air. Without even a hint of hubris, Ornette Coleman had presciently predicted the shape of jazz of to come and that shape did not need western chords to swing. But if you did want to use chords, Coltrane took extremely giant steps to lead the way forward for saxophonists and jazz innovators. And, of course, with but an insistent, distinctive, insouciant whisper from his horn, Miles completely discarded all previous changes to offer a timeless statement. Not to mention Monk’s masterful Town Hall recording or Mingus’ small band epistles recorded on the Columbia label.
Ornette = The Shape of Jazz To Come
Monk = Monk At Town Hall
Coltrane = Giant Steps
Mingus = Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty
Miles = Kind of Blue
Right there, you got the foundation of post-bebop modern jazz. Right there, in 1959, all you will need to know to understand the entire sixties decade. Right there. In one year. 1959.
Kind of Blue
is the sound of men singing. Both collectively and individually. The solos are sublime. This music makes you think of things. Intimate things. Intimacies you seldom share. Things no one else may known about you—this music knows.
What would we sound like if we weren’t playing their
music, if instead we were playing ourselves, revealing, exploring, closing our eyes and describing all that we saw?
Such music would definitely have to be kind of blue, for there is no us in America without some blues. Not necessarily all blues, or only blues, but definitely kind of blue. Yes.
So this is our music on a cusp about to head on out into the gone-a-sphere, the way out there-ness where we go when we travel the spaceways, flying by the seat of our pants, our hearts as compass, our life experiences as fuel, determine to go where we had not gone before (and you know we been around!).
1959. Kind of Blue
. Nothing was ever the same again. Nevertheless, every time you listen to this, key moments in your life play on your inner eyeballs.
This is the music of self and yes. Self functioning within a collective. Yes to any and all possibilities unfettered by preconceptions. This is jazz!
Mtume, your chronology error offers me the opportunity to argue my preference for Trane over Miles, which is not a judgment that one is better than the other but rather merely a statement of which one appeals to me more than the other.
Referring to Trane, you said: "He’d yet to take Giant Steps
(1960)." Well, that’s a big mistake. The fact is not only was Giant Steps
recorded in the same year and the same month as Kind of Blue, Giant Steps
was recorded "before" Kind of Blue.
That’s right: Trane had already taken Giant Steps
before Miles created Kind of Blue.
Trane had already won the heavyweight championship and was now about to play PGA championship golf.
was the last major development for jazz combos playing on chord changes in modern jazz. Nobody surpassed that statement for playing the changes. Period.
was recorded April 1, 1959. Kind of Blue
was recorded April 6, 1959. April fool, Trane had been there and done that before Miles.
Think about the humongous achievement for this individual to go from the epitome of chordal investigation to no chords at all and to blow the hell out of both sessions. Trane!
To (appropriately) use the vernacular: Trane is a motherfucker!
Mtume, as you correctly noted every one of Trane’s solos on Kind of Blue
is a lyrical masterpiece of such stellar quality that when he enters the room you stand up and salute by singing along with the opening notes. Immediately. How does a muscian shift gears like that going from the chordal complexity of Giant Steps
to the lyrical simplicity of Kind of Blue
You just got finished taking Giant Steps
and now you’re going to slow down and do a beautiful, graceful slow dance. Oh wow.
You’re right, Mtume, solo for solo, Trane is the clear leader on Kind of Blue
even though it’s Miles’ masterpiece because Miles conceived it and brought together the ingredients, the musicians to make it happen.
So Miles does deserve his accolades but think on this: what if Trane had not made the session. What would Kind of Blue
have been without Trane?
Trane would still have had Giant Steps
and Miles, well, look at the albums that came after Trane left Miles. Some great, great music but not until over five years later in 1964 when Wayne was brought into the fold, not until then was Miles able to begin making music that changed the direction of jazz.
After Trane left, Miles went back to standards for the most part (and he did it brilliantly no doubt, but it was still standards and not new directions) but Coltrane was slaying dragons right and left, opening new vistas.
One more thing to think about: the myth that Kind of Blue
was conceived and completed in one recording session in the studio, the myth that the music had not existed like that before, the myth that on that magical day in April the stuff just Topsy-like jumped out full blown.
Not so. And guess what? There’s recorded evidence that Miles had not only been thinking through this music, the fact is Miles had already composed and recorded the opening statement, “So What.”
Indeed, it was more than just a recording session, there was a tv broadcast.
On April 2, 1959 on “The Robert Herridge Theater Show,” Miles performed “So What”
with the Gil Evans Orchestra. In the orchestra was John Coltrane, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb. Most deep jazzheads have seen the program but most of us have never connected the dots.
Miles and the band, minus Cannonball, recorded “So What”
four days before the Kind of Blue
session. And not only that, “So What”
was recorded within the context of the Gil Evans orchestra. The song had been arranged. Miles had heard all kinds of possibilities plus Trane had played the song before.
You see, Kind of Blue
is indeed a major, if not (arguably) “the” major jazz recording of all time, but King of Blue
was not an instant masterpiece that just happened without any forethought on the part of Miles and other band members.
I know this is a lot to think about, so take your time. Whether you get on the Trane or continue traveling with Miles is not even the question. I’m just saying recognize that we are talking about a period in the history of the music when history was being made right and left, a period when all the great creators was great creating!
(Oh, yeah, guess when Dave Brubeck recorded the Time Out
album with the hit song "Take Five" on it? (No, don’t do it, Kalamu, don’t hurt ‘em.) It was 1959.
I say it again: 1959. It was a hell of a year for music.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Food for thought
Hmmm. Definitely food for thought. I knew about The Shape Of Jazz To Come and I've read about Miles' irritation that he was, in a way, upstaged by Ornette's album (as much by the title as by the music). Miles always had one eye on history. He knew he was doing something revolutionary, something new. He wanted to be alone on that mountain. Obviously, he wasn't.
What I didn't know was how many revolutionary (musically) jazz albums dropped during that same year. And no, I didn't know that Trane recorded Giant Steps
a mere week before he played on the Kind Of Blue
sessions. That's almost too much to believe, honestly. The man is peerless.
And on the whole Miles v. Trane thing, I don't think it's about arguing over who is "better." By almost any standard of musicianship, Trane was the more complete musician. It doesn't take a jazzhead to recognize that. To me, it simply comes down to a matter of taste. And it certainly isn't a mutually exclusive choice. Meaning, I like my Miles records and
I like my Trane records. But if I can only keep the music of one jazz artist, I'm going to choose Miles. Hey, look at it this way: if I keep my Miles records, I get Trane and
Miles. Unless Kalamu is about to spring another surprise on me, it doesn't work the other way around.
Hey, Baba. Thanks as always for the insight. I'm out!
—Mtume ya Salaam
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