There seems something almost lame in plumping for Miles Davis’ timeless classic as the greatest jazz album ever made. It’s rather like answering Citizen Kane to the question, What’s your favourite film? It’s every would-be film critic’s movie of choice. In fact, I usually answer Bertolucci’s Il Conformiste just to suggest some independence of thought. But it’s a very close-run thing anyway.
There's no such equivocation when it comes to jazz albums. I'm happy to go along with every poll, every critic, every lover of modern jazz when it comes to the question of best ever. Kind of Blue is perfection on vinyl: as exquisite and as immortal as a Ming vase. It will be there for generations of music lovers to come, long after time has rendered questions of genre irrelevant.
Post-bop, hard bop, modern, modal jazz? Who cares? It's five long tracks, five improvisations around particular modal scales that amount in effect to one long meditative mood: when lights are low, when autumn leaves begin to fall, when a gentle breeze blows through the house at the end of a hot summer day. Whatever your imagination's fancy.
In some respects, the tracks are virtually indistinguishable. Unless I really concentrate, I often manage to mix up 'Blue in Green', the last track on Side 1, with 'All Blues' and 'Flamenco Sketches', the two tracks on Side 2. I can only ever identify with confidence 'Freddie Freeloader', probably because it was recorded first (with Wynton Kelly on piano rather than Bill Evans, whose romantic leanings dominate the album) and 'So What', probably because it is built around one of the most memorable hooks in popular music.!(upload://jDBMY50dLqKJd4QqU9BgLWbUTLH.jpg)
I didn't believe the hype at first. It couldn't be that good. Besides, my feelings about Miles Davis at that point in my life were coloured by a track from Bitches Brew on the Rockbuster sampler I used to own: 'Miles Runs the Voodoo Down', which seemed just a little too 'out there' for my evolving tastes. I liked the idea of Miles Davis, but I didn't know whether I was sufficiently courageous yet.
It took a visit to New York in the mid 1980s to visit my best friend: at a time when he and his wife were preparing to move from an apartment they rented in Park Slope, Brooklyn to one they had just found in Brooklyn Heights. Park Slope had not yet been as thoroughly gentrified as it has since become. It seemed as edgy as Miles Davis's more recent music. If I hadn't been among friends who seemed to know the lie of the land, I would've been scared.
It was a hot and particularly wet July, with thunderstorms and torrential downpours the signature weather of my fortnight's stay. Apart from a brief sojourn in Long Island at my friend's mother-in-law's, where the two of us one memorable afternoon sat on her veranda and watched the water level of a flash flood rise inexorably and almost swallow the cars parked in the tree-lined street, I spent much of my time exploring Manhattan on foot.
Not too far from the Woolworth Building, once in the early years of the 20th century the tallest building in the world, I wandered into an old-fashioned and comprehensive record shop that went by the unprepossessing name of J&R Music. Since there was a deal on for three Columbia records, I came out with three Miles Davis records: In a Silent Way, Filles de Kilimanjaro and... Kind of Blue. I took them back across the Atlantic to Brighton along with a pair of two-tone shoes I'd hummed and hawed about for far too long in a Brooklyn shoe shop. I still have the records, of course, and I still have the shoes.
Ah! the cachet that comes from having three of his albums with the red label of Columbia rather than the orange of CBS. Not that anyone other than I did gave a monkey's. Still... It took a little work on my part to learn to love the other two records, but the first airing of Kind of Blue was enough. It transfixed me from start to finish.
It transfixed me from Bill Evans' opening piano motif and Paul Chambers' little bass riff that gradually builds – with some help from Jimmy Cobb's brushes – into that incredible compelling hook of 'So What', right through to the final plaintive notes of Miles' muted trumpet on 'Flamenco Sketches'. Had I only known of it as a student, I would have sat myself down between the speakers, smoked a little herbal substance and gone off on a magic carpet ride that would have taken me somewhere far out into the cosmos.
In fact, I was transported to heaven and back just a year or so later, when I went to the North Sea Jazz Festival in Den Haag. The first act was a pick-up group that called themselves the New York All Stars: Percy and Jimmy Heath, Slide Hampton on trombone, Jimmy Owens on trumpet, the mighty Hilton Ruiz on piano and Jimmy Cobb, a cool, distinguished presence behind the drum kit. How I would have loved to have chatted to him about the Kind of Blue sessions. But they come on, they play and they wander off wither one knows not. A dressing room perhaps somewhere in the bowels of the UN building.!(upload://byjYQ58PQHojcui9Kb9MLecq3Wl.jpg)
This much we know. It was made in 1959, the annus mirabilis of modern jazz: the year of Dave Brubeck's Time Out, of Charles Mingus' wonderful Ah Um and of most of Ornette Coleman's ground-breaking The Shape of Jazz to Come. It was made with the two survivors of Miles Davis' great quintet of the 1950s, Paul Chambers and John Coltrane, supplemented by Jimmy Cobb and, on most tracks, by Bill Evans and Cannonball Adderley on alto sax.
Miles planned the album around the romantic piano playing of Bill Evans and legend has it that he turned up at the studio with brief sketches of the music that he heard in his head based on the way European composers like Ravel and Rachmaninoff used scales in their compositions. His goal, apparently, was to recreate the kind of rural black religious music that he heard as a child on visits to Arkansas.
This is one feeling that Kind of Blue doesn't manage to achieve. And for this reason, even though So What became a permanent part of his repertoire, Miles himself felt that the album was less than a complete success. I for one certainly don't agree and there must be a few million others who don't, either. Every listen provokes the very strong feeling that together Miles and his six cohorts produced some of the most beautiful atmospheric music ever recorded.