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If you only ever buy one jazz album in your whole life buy this one.
For one, having become familiar with the songs you'll start to hear them being used almost everywhere - from shampoo advertisements to hotel lobbies (and - on those rare occasions - hummed by people washing their hair in hotel lobbies). But seriously, this is the most accessible jazz album of all time and a great point of entry into the bebop genre more generally.
A studio album: recorded at Columbia's 30th Street Studio, New York City, March 2 & April 22, 1959, and released by Columbia Records (US) on August 17 that year. Davis is accompanied here by Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly (piano), Jimmy Cobb (drums), Paul Chambers (bass), and Julian "Cannonball" Adderley and - the remarkable - John Coltrane (saxophone).
Apparently, there was little or no rehearsal, but Davis did offer direction and lay down which modal lines would be followed. Indeed, only one of the tracks came from a single take. And so, though thought of as Miles Davis compositions they might more accurately be described as collaborative creations.
The overall feel is melancholic, thoughtful. Davis plays trumpet with a kind of poetic sensibility: the silences are just as important as the notes, and the notes - though minimalist and spare - are in constant flux. There's a kind of freedom that comes with the confidence of genius - a freedom that has rightly marked Davis out as one of jazz's greatest sons.
Moreover, expect to be moved, that is the great surprise here: Davis has the ability to move you, there's an emotional quality to these pieces that modern jazz often lacks. And - twee as it may sound - this is 'cool'. Cool is so over used a word, so let me qualify the term: cool as far as 'Kind Of Blue' is concerned means laid back, not in any hurry to impress you, implicit where so much music is explicit. If you let this album into your 'soul' (whatever one of those might be) you'll have stepped out of everyday existence into the realm of living sound. It's a vibrant colour almost...
It's 'A Kind Of Blue'.
As a jazz fan all you need to do is look at the line-up to realize this is something special. Miles Davis on the trumpet, Coltrane on the tenor sax, Cannonball Adderley on the Alto Sax, Chambers on bass, Bill Evans on piano...not to mention Cobb (drums) and Kelly (piano on 'Freddie Freeloader' instead of Evans). All chiefs, no Indians and yet it never sounds as if all the chiefs try to do their own thing. Davis manages to mix all their talents, and makes it sound fresh and renewing.
It's considered the magnum opus of the entire jazz genre, for good reason. It was the first jazz-album I ever listened to, after spending my musical years on Rock Country (capital Led Zeppelin) with the occasional foray into Rap, and I wasn't blown away at first. Only years later I acquired enough musical conscience and patience to listen to it - and there are few experiences quite like discovering something new and exciting. The opening bass of So What and Blue In Green are my favorites but it's like picking your favorite child.
It hasn't aged one bit, unlike many older movies that were made in a different era, in a different set of mind. Ask yourself: how often do sales, critics and the general public agree with eachother?
At least once, they did.
5 stars out of 5, there's no such thing as absolute perfection but relatively, this is it. Rarely is praise awarded in any field without an equal counter balance of detractors but this is a time where that is in effect.
1. So What (Davis) 9:22
2. Freddie Freeloader (Davis) 9:46
3. Blue In Green (Davis/Evans) 5:37
4. All Blues (Davis) 11:32
5. Flamenco Sketches (Davis/Evans) 9:26
6. Flamenco Sketches (Alternate Take - Davis/Evans) 9:31
Kind of Blue - Miles Davis
It is really hard to know where to start with reviewing this album. Firstly, every Jazz fan should have it (if they haven't already), and many music lovers not into Jazz should own it too.
In fact if you love music, not the musician, genre or record label, if you really, really love music, this is something to listen to.
It is one of those albums that stand alone as 'definitive'...This album is to Jazz what 'Never Mind the Bollocks' was to punk or 'Nevermind' was to Grunge or 'Legend' to reggae.
This album consisted originally of five pieces of music, either totally written by Miles Davis, or on two tunes at least, co written with Bill Evans. When I say 'written' actually, they are sets of scales and melodic structure, the 'songs' are all improvised and unrehearsed on the album.
However before I get into tunes, who wrote them etc. let's have a look at the line up for what has been pretty universally praised as the best Jazz album ever.
Miles Davis - Trumpet
Cannonball Adderley - Alto saxophone
John Coltrane - Tenor Saxophone
Wynton Kelly - Piano (Blue in Green)
Bill Evans - Piano (all other tracks)
Paul Chambers - Bass (Cello, not guitar)
Jimmy Cobb - Drums
Already you have some of the most influential Jazz musicians of the time assembled together to produce a largely improvised album in just two days. When I say largely improvised by that I mean that all the band had were some melodies and scales given to them by Davis and Evans and were simply asked to 'play'.
This album has been re released many times it is the biggest selling jazz album of all time.
There are numerous books and even academic essays written about the making of this album.
The first release of this album was in 1959. The album that I am reviewing is the 1997 'remastered' edition. It is important for three reasons:
1. All the earlier releases of this album were pulled from a cassette that ran 'slow' so the music seemed to contain 'sharp' notes where there were originally none. This version is at exactly the speed that the tunes were played.
2. An extra, 'bonus' recording of Flamenco sketches (alternate take) is included.
3. The tunes all employ 'Modal scales' which, whilst I am no expert, was certainly a big departure from the traditional forms of Jazz based on chord structure or an 'established' melody or harmony to embellish. Coltrane in fact became famous for his modal playing.
I am not going to even attempt to give these tracks a 'score', they transcend that, they are all pretty perfect in different ways.
Track 1. So What. 9.22
We get the slow piano build up from Evans which seems to play along on a scale, but throws in a couple of 'spoilers'...Then the Bass and drums come in, and Adderley joins them on sax. Within a minute you are already transfixed by this rhythmic to and thro which is like waves crashing against a shore. Then, bang, in comes Davis with a trumpet that is so bittersweet it hurts, but in such a nice way. He takes over for a good while and everyone else just kind of supports him. Then we get John Coltrane at about three and a half minutes, doing what he does best, improvising in ways that sound so tortured and yet so sweet it is like being carried away and not caring if you live or die. Once you have heard Coltrane, you will always, always recognise him when you hear him again. To me his solo here is perfect, no other word suffices. Listen to this with the lights off with earphones and you are gone, just gone. The next solo belongs to Adderley, probably not as famous as the other players, but just as distinctive as Coltrane, but in a different way. When he plays, he plays crisp, he plays fast and melodic, utilising ascending and descending scales. We finally get some mellow bass, piano and drums.
This is not a fast song, this is not a slow song, it is rhythmic and almost trancelike, improvised yet with a clear beginning, middle and end.
Track 2. Freddie Freeloader. 9.46.
We get straight into this track, Coltrane and Adderley playing with each other, no build up, just 'there. Then we get a really nice and edgy piano solo (Kelly) which, whilst it uses scales, it has a real blues feel about it that should not 'fit' with the rest of the playing, but oh boy, it does. When Davis comes in at about 2 minutes, we get a completely different feel that is almost like a military trumpet, then he gets all in tune/out of tune on purpose and I love it. The drums seem a bit more prominent which is nice too. Then of course we get Coltrane doing his thing again with near impossible speed in some of his fingering and some almost freaky note changes. When Adderley comes in, for the first time he seems to surpass Coltrane in terms of key and note changes. This is where the group of improvisers seem to have a healthy 'play off'. Brilliance, sheer brilliance. Whilst this track is in essence no faster than the previous track, it is fair to say all the players put many more quavers and semi quavers in which makes it seem faster. Then just to confuse us in a nice way, the track ends up nice and mellow and slow with everyone just 'meeting'.
Track 3. Blue in Green. 5.37
A laconic piano start, which Davis joins with an almost hypnotically slow trumpet, the control is exceptional. The first few minutes of this track is quite 'delicious' in that kind of laid back, cocktail bar way. When Coltrane comes in, we see a side of his playing that is rarely there, a beautifully controlled melody that is so sweet it almost brings tears to the eye.
Track 4. All Blues. 11.33.
Quite a different start to this track, lots of starts all at one, the drumming uses those brush type sticks (sorry I aint a drummer) and there is a kind of building going on with all the instruments bar trumpet for just over a minute and a half. Davis comes in then and changes the whole structure in just a few notes making the song a seriously blue number. Adderley again comes up trumps in his solo which this time is before Coltrane. Not to be undone, Coltrane makes his solo span the whole range of his sax, alternating between furiously paced high notes and sultry low notes. He puts in sharps where they should not be and we get to see his more avant garde style coming out when amongst a run of high register notes he throws in a couple of really deep flat notes, very similar to how Albert Ayler played. The track ends with more Davis. We start to see how Davis is the true band leader here; where he goes, others follow, wander off, then come back to him.
Track 5. Flamenco Sketches. 9.26.
Nice bass start. Piano underlying, then another sultry Davis masterpiece, stunning. John Coltrane gets back into his sultry playing style next. I wish this man had played as much of this as his mad modal style, which I love, but this is just so damn smooth, even when he does that up the scale signature of his. Adderley blends in just where Coltrane leaves off and it is as if they are playing from the same song sheet, but of course, there aint none. Whilst the alto is of course a higher register instrument, Adderley cleverly plays along the lower range which takes over from Coltrane's higher range on Tenor. Piano solo is beautiful. It is all beautiful. Davis' solo towards the end just rounds it off nicely.
Track 6. Flamenco Sketches (alternate take). 9.32.
This 'alternate' take is not so different from the first apart from it seems to be much more prominent on the bass which is really nice. Listened to on headphones there is this bass thumping and the drums rolling that make this sound like it is distant yet right there. It also has a bit more of a Latin feel about it than the first version, though not in a big way. Coltrane is even smoother if that is possible and sounds somehow louder. I have listened to both versions many, many times and have to say that I prefer this version, because it seems a bit 'bigger', and a bit more 'free', I cannot explain it any better than that.
If there is a better album musically then I have not heard it. There are simply no superlatives good enough to describe this album; this gathering of musical geniuses and the talent that produced real music without bells and whistles, without electronic influences, without sheet music. Remember, this was not rehearsed it was improvised.
The CD also has a booklet in it which has the original 'notes' that Bill Evans wrote regarding improvisation. There are also clear explanations of how the music was structured using 'measure of scales' etc. all a bit beyond me, but interesting none the less. Best of all, there are lots of previously unpublished photos of the recording sessions.
If you ever have 55 minutes spare, listen to this album, just once in your life, though once you have it will not be the only time I promise.
This music can never be played again exactly how it was, it is unique.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 So What
2 Freddie Freeloader
3 Blue In Green
4 All blues
5 Flamenco Sketches
6 Flamenco Sketches (Alternate Take)