Quintessential Jazz: Miles Davis – Kind of Blue

To millions of jazz music lovers across the world, Miles Davis’ seminal 1959 record Kind of Blue remains one of the most important jazz albums ever released.  The monumental record has influenced the development of jazz music and is, without a doubt, a watershed moment in the history of music itself.


The band behind the music is testament to Miles’ excellent casting skills and how his visionary mix-and-match bands seem to work beautifully. The rhythm section consisted of Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums. Paul Chambers was a well-established bassist known for his intonation and improvisation. His bass lines on Kind of Blue are patient and well thought out and complement the modal playing of the lead musicians impeccably. Chambers was backed by Jimmy Cobb, one of Miles’s stable drummers. Jimmy Cobb had jammed with them all, including John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Kelly, Stan Getz and even Hank Jones. He is the last surviving member of the legendary band that recorded Kind of Blue.

L-R Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb & Bill Evans

Bill Evans played most of the piano on the album. His innovative interpretations of popular jazz standards have set him apart as one of the most inventive pianists in jazz. His use of harmony is subtle and his chords works magic without distracting the listener from the solos being played. His signature solos are characterised with soft notes and a distinct feel, often with a very lyrical quality.

The lead section, featuring John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Cannonball Adderley on alto saxophone and Miles Davis on trumpet, effortlessly soars over the rhythm section. Each of these musicians displays a distinct style in his solos.

 

L-R Miles Davis, John Coltrane & Cannonball Adderley

Miles Davis, who was experimenting with modal music around the time, plays relaxed solos, often with very few notes. He usually solos first and utilises his ballad melodies to the point with modal notes to great effect. This laid back approach is well countered by John Coltrane’s raspy tenor saxophone lines. Coltrane, known for his impeccable control even in blistering speeds, plays unbelievably complex sequences with exquisite finesse. His astringent tone, for all its loudness, merges surprisingly well into the band’s jam sessions whilst still keeping the music relaxed.

The alto saxophone solos played by Cannonball Adderley are quite different from Trane’s solos. He utilises a more round tone and very tasteful playing in contrast to the virtuosic improvisation of Coltrane. His brilliantly crafted solos use impeccable technique but you’d never know, because of the sweet and simple sound being created. Miles Davis takes up his bandleader duties quite seriously and one has to truly appreciate his vision in bringing together such diverse and unique musicians together to create such a delectable tonal palette.

The band jamming it up

The basis of all improvisation in Kind of Blue was the modal form. Here the focal point was on scales rather than the use of standard chords and rhythmic changes. This can be considered a musical revolution as it allowed for unprecedented freedom in improvisation. The entire album has just five songs, quite a small number of songs to call an album by today’s standards. Miles Davis would call for no rehearsal before recording. Since there was no definite structure, each band member was only given sketches of the scales to be used and the entire creative process of improvisational composition was completely spontaneous.

 

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The classic opener, “So What” sets the mood for the album. It begins with a brief duet between Bill Evans and Paul Chambers, who eventually lock into a repetitive, catchy groove. The song introduced chords that became known as the “So What Chords”. Miles steps in with a simple, catchy melody and kicks into a laid back signature solo. He is followed by John Coltrane and then Adderley, each adding their distinctive touch to the song. There is a loose structure to the song with only a single scale change; however the soloists glide over this change as if there is none.

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So What” is followed by “Freddie Freeloader”. This is the album’s most blues-oriented number. It features Wynton Kelly instead of Evans on piano. The song begins with a sharp blues melody followed by Kelly’s top notch blues solo. Kelly’s solo is quite different from how Evans would play blues, considering his ‘not-so-subtle’ approach. Even Coltrane’s crazy solos fit perfectly into the blues form of the song. Jimmy Cobb rarely switches beats, which is quite unconventional for a bebop album from the 50s.

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Blue in Green”, a beautiful jazz ballad rumoured to have been written by Bill Evans, though Miles takes the credit, is the third song in the album. Bill Evans’ delicate chords are filled with a strange sadness. Miles Davis uses his mute to produce a restrained sound that efficiently captures the essence of the underlying  chords. He sets the mood, over which Trane and Cannonball follow suit. A haunting ballad with impeccable layering, “Blue in Green” is a gem of a song, a personal favourite.

 

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The next song “All Blues” is the first modal blues song ever recorded. It is a blues in the form of a waltz, with Jimmy Cobb keeping the swing up. The dynamic piano playing of Evans complements Davis’ spaced solos. Adderley comes into the picture like butter as Miles completes his solo. Cannonball’s playing is especially inventive in this song, flowing over the blues changes. This is the longest song of the album and features extensive improvisation by every member of the band.

 

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The last song of the album, “Flamenco Sketches” is a work of genius. Evans plays soulful jazzy chords that occasionally make use of dominant notes to add a Spanish flavour into the sound. The highlight of the song is how the band members play over this exotic chord change. The saxophone solos here are much more melodic as compared to the earlier songs. The song closes with a subdued trumpet solo, again with the mute for a haunting sound.

With just five songs and almost no preparation, Miles Davis has carved himself a place in jazz History. To this day Kind of Blue remains the definitive introduction to jazz- delicate yet powerful. With a shelf life of over 50 years, Kind of Blue is still the best-selling jazz record of all time and rightfully so. The record has set the stone rolling for many serious jazz music aficionados. If you ever need an introduction to jazz, just pop this record on, find a comfortable place, relax and just listen to the geniuses at work. Who knows? It might set the stone rolling for you.

P.S. This is for all you audiophiles over there. Enjoy:

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