Kind of Blue


(Mark Sampson) #1

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.


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.


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.


(Mark Sampson) #2

Great story, Bruce - and how true. But I wonder which singer history will reward with something approaching immortality.


(Bruce Brewer) #3

Re Mark Murphy....I once saw him do a gig in Newcastle and then ate a steak with him. He told me that years before, in the States, he and Jack Jones were getting popular in their own fields. He then said the difference now is that he stuck to his jazz side and Jones went a different way. He also said that was the reason why Jones goes to gigs by limo and he came to Newcastle by second class British Rail!


(Brian Milne) #4

Mark Murphy's 'Ballad of the Sad Young Men' is superb. Thanks Bruce didn't know it.


(Mark Sampson) #5

How very weird! I hadn't realised that I'd left the Mark Murphy page on, so I was getting a background of 'Eleanor Rigby' while listening to Radik Tyulyush - which is indeed extremely lovely, with or without 'Eleanor'. The Mark Murphy was terrific, Bruce, and not the one I was thinking of (which must have been from 'Bop for Kerouac', a most bona album). Thank you again, both.


(Mark Sampson) #6

Thanks Brian, thanks Bruce. I shall look at both with keen interest. I know Mark Murphy's song about Kerouac and love it, so am hoping it's the same one. But we shall see!


(Bruce Brewer) #7

Talking about Kerouac, have a listen to Mark Murphy's tribute on https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=Kerouac+Then+and+Now+mark+murphy


(Brian Milne) #8

Sorry to butt in BUT today on Facebook a friend put this up: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ytUbphEwn5U

It is probably the most beautiful piece of modern music I have ever heard.

The man playing and singing is Radik Tyulyush from world renown group Huun-Huur-Tu who is also half of the Goshawk Project, English Trad meets Tuvan Roots, Carole Pegg. Man oh man, if only I could get the Goshawk Project over here to play. But this is all of that plus some, especially Buddhist and tantric influences, that was often in the soul of the jazz we have been writing about.


(Brian Milne) #9

I have a copy of the Charlie Watts book too - somewhere in this room. I have the 1996 Beat Book which is a collection of the beat writers, but then I have loads of the books, anything except Ginsburg whose poetry did nada for me. Kerouac and Burroughs are still good reads, with some period jazz on in the background of course.


(David Rosemont) #10

http://www.abebooks.com/book-search/title/ode-to-a-highflying-bird/author/charlie-watts/ seems like the prices have gone up since I last looked- anybody interested out there? I also have a good copy of The Beat Poets - ginsberg, Kerouac etc. In fact Kerouac's family came from the next village to mine in Brittany. One was so damn cool in those days!!!!!!


(David Rosemont) #11

make that Charlie Watts!!!!!!


(David Rosemont) #12

I have a copy of this book I bought in 1963- a tribute to Bird from Charlie Parker written while the latter was at Art School. Mint they are fetching quite a lot of money! http://www.udiscovermusic.com/charlie-watts-tribute-to-bird


(Brian Milne) #13

Coltrane, oh yes. Roland Kirk, too, he kind of emerged about then. Let's roll out jazz legends. Monk, oh yes. But let's not forget the man who started the ball rolling, already gone in '55, the Yardbird, Charlie Parker.


(Mark Sampson) #14

I'm a huge fan of Monk, David. A photograph of him in one of his eccentric hats sits on the wall just above this computer. 'Brilliant Corners' is just that, brilliant. 'Little Rootie Tootie', though, always has a special place in my heart because it makes me smile all the way through.

Thanks for your contribution, Brian. Fascinating. I hadn't appreciated just how resonant the year 1959 was. I've always tended to focus on the jazz aspects of the end of that decade. Was it really, too, 'The Sound of Music'? I remember being dragged kicking and screaming to see it at the cinema. But I've subsequently learnt to love it a little - because my daughter loved it when she was a little goyle and because of John Coltrane's rendition of 'Favourite Things'.


(David Rosemont) #15

Strangely I have just done a seven day musical challenge on Facebook with friends- I did think about Miles Davies among the entries but opted for this piece by Thelonius Monk. I originally bought the album in probably about 1960 maybe 61 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0TLEPQZIVOg enjoy


(Brian Milne) #16

1959 was THE year in music, symbolically starting with the plane crash that took Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and Big Bopper shocking us all, Stockhausen wrote 'Zyklus' and premièred it, Ligeti broke through into a wider public, 'Rock Around the Clock' put Bill Haley and the Comets*, first Newport Folk Festival, Ornette Coleman did some live concerts that broke modern jazz into the world. On my downside, The Sound of Music and Cliff Pilchard emerged. Other people changed their track, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Julie London and John Fahey were among the already established names who read the winds of change and did some of their best work.

Of my jazz records, not that many either, Kind of Blue and Ah Um stand out because they contributed a lot to where popular music went. The other big influence outside the USA was Howlin' Wolf's European tour. The first time a blues man had had a widely publicised tour and then electric blues which he also did on his 'brilliant 'Moanin' in the Moonlight' album the same year! Jazz and blues dragged pop music out of nice lalalala things, Bill Haley showed it did not have to be 'respectable' and the Ritchie Valens album 'Ritchie Valens' released after the crash showed that lyrics can be ambiguous and imply (dara ta da da) sex! From all of that Miles Davis was at least a decade ahead of himself, that is a great record.

*Before somebody screams but that was 1954, the album and the 1956 film went on re-release to include European countries where they had previously been banned in 1959, including cinemas in the UK where local authorities, often pushed by the churches, had not allowed public used, reproduction by other musicians, Pathé newsreel including it were edited and the film certainly not shown. Every imaginable young musician moved straight over to good dance rhythm rock and roll. In 1960 the pop music word changed and within five years...