Miles' Blue Fire
Author: Bruce Jenkins Date Posted:10 May 2019
Revered as one of the most influential jazz albums of all time, Kind of Blue is kinda slippery to get a handle on. Not a frustrating kind of slippery like soap in the bath, nor the dodgy kind of slippery of a pub deal too good to be true; what Kind of Blue offers is the intense and liquid smoothness of Guinness or the finest satin sheets. If this classic was the only masterpiece Miles Davis produced (and it most certainly is not) he would still be remembered as long as jazz continues to weave its sinuous spell on music lovers the world over.
Recorded in the huge reverberant space of Columbia’s 30th Street studio in New York—once an Armenian church—this sensual album delivered a new and deceptively simple sound that moved jazz further away from the structures of popular song toward improvisations following scales rather than chords: the “modal” approach.
The way Miles Davis gathered a group of musicians who were capable of realising his vision says as much about his reputation and charisma as about his restless and enigmatic artistry. Chief amongst these were John Coltrane—already admired and imitated by tenor saxophone players across the USA—and a young, introverted and little known pianist named Bill Evans.
Miles and Bill worked closely during (and in between) the two sessions that produced Kind of Blue. The trumpeter was entranced by the spare yet intricate shadow-lightness of Evans’ piano playing. Together, their goal was to present sketches or ideas that the musicians would then develop spontaneously in the studio.
Miles’ trust was well rewarded; the players produced a luminous and beautiful album composed almost entirely of complete first takes.
Although a restrained intensity characterises the LP—Miles described the band as having a “quiet fire”—there is much variety. The album opens with “So what” where, after a misty, almost uncertain opening, bassist Paul Chambers introduces a memorable tune. “Freddie Freeloader” is another great tune; upbeat and fun. This is the only piece featuring Wynton Kelly on piano; he brings a swinging energy to the bluesy piece. “Blue in green” is a breathtaking collaboration between Davis and Evans with delicate, floating brush-work from drummer Jimmy Cobb. Jazz to swoon to? Try “Blue in green”.
Side two has the extended loping groove of “All blues”; accessible yet with an unflagging momentum.
Finally we have the impressionistic beauty of “Flamenco sketches” evoking the paintings of Matisse as much as the music of Debussy. Coltrane soars like a troubled angel while Cannonball Adderley’s solo is like standing in a field of daffodils—you just smile. The ability of Davis to create a space where such different voices work so wonderfully together is a huge part of his legacy. Bill Evans is superb too, drawing single-note lines and adding brush strokes of harmony that seem like colour slides of exotic yet familiar locations. Then there’s Miles himself; entering late, almost apologetically, yet tying the music together with muted fervour.
Although it might seem like coming back to earth with a resounding thump, a word on pressings is needed. There are literally hundreds of different versions of Kind of Blue, from budget CDs to limited edition high-end vinyl pressings. Discrepancy Records has a number of versions in stock; talk to us about which might be a good choice for you and your stereo.
We must finish with the music, so let’s give the final word on Kind of Blue to jazz legend Herbie Hancock:
“It’s a cornerstone record, not only for jazz… it’s a cornerstone record for music.”
© Bruce Jenkins 2019