There is no such thing as perfection. It’s an idea, and not even a particularly useful one at that: all it does is tell you what you are not. It’s even misleading as a goal or a direction to move in, because all it will do is dog you at every step and remind you of how you fall short.
This is what I tell myself most every day, as a way to keep my expectations from being hijacked by the impossible. Impossible is nothing, or so the Adidas ads tell us — and while I do admit every day there is a little bit less of the impossible all around us, there is never any more of the perfect. The only time there’s perfection is when we let ourselves dream, when we freely drop into a space where what’s possible takes precedence over what actually is. Sometimes the best way to get there is with the right music, and if the soundtrack to such a thing is not Kind of Blue then I don’t want another one.
Kind of Blue is the only jazz album I would recommend to someone who has never listened to jazz, whether in a conscientious way or in any way at all. That is only because it’s also one of the few albums I would recommend to anyone no matter what music they already listen to, or even if they listen to no particular music, period. It seems not “educational” but necessary: a world without Kind of Blue is missing at least one major constellation in its sky. You can play it in most any environment without directly noticing what is so special about it, and in a way that is part of what makes it so important. If someone has Kind of Blue in their collection and not a single other jazz record, they are not all that deprived.
A big part of it is, of course, the people involved. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans (and Wynton Kelly), Jimmy Cobb, Paul Chambers, Cannonball Adderley. Davis gets top billing, but the latter five, sans Kelly, were all part of Davis’s own regular troupe by 1958. It is hard to imagine a better jazz ensemble — not just in terms of the pedigrees of all involved, but the effortless and even selfless way they were able to sit down and blend their strengths. Play the album and you hear no egomania, no showboating, no small thing to consider given all the stories about Miles’s fractious personality. Everyone has their day in the sun, and it’s a beautiful day for all involved.
Much of what made Kind of Blue special in terms of jazz history was how it marked the first, and arguably the most important, transition in Davis’s musical style. The bebop he’d played through the Fifties — which he’d already started to break away from in the no-less-milestone album Birth of the Cool — was showing its limits. Bebop revolved around improvising across chord changes in a song, but jazzman and musical theoretician George Russell (he of the later Electronic Sonata, as much as favorite of mine as this record) had been working on an alternative that involved improvising using series of scales. This allowed for far more open-ended playing.
Davis had dipped his toe into this new “modal” jazz on his album Milestones and during his first sessions with Bill Evans, and liked the results. They weren’t just melodic; they were downright hummable. They brought jazz back into a space that seemed shared equally by the performer and the listener. As John Marks said in a piece for Stereophile, “[The players on Kind of Blue] freed themselves from harmonically organizing their solos by cycling through chord changes, instead letting the internal tension of modal scales provide the driving force. … They stripped out all fanfares, flourishes, and instrumental virtuosity for its own sake. What was left was pure music, equally capable of reaching the most casual listener and transfixing the most expert.”
Much has been made about how the performers had no more direction from Davis than a few skeletal melody lines and scales for each song, and maybe a suggestion or two about the order of solos, all put together only a few hours before everyone took their seats. Only partly true: Cobb reported that “So What” had been played live several times before, and “All Blues” had been in the works for some time before they entered the studio. But that doesn’t make the whole thing any less impressive or electric.
Only two recording sessions were needed for the whole thing (albeit with multiple takes for each song), both at Columbia Records’s 30th Street Studio — “The Church”, as it was called. This venue was aptly named: it was in a former Presbyterian church, with 100-foot high ceilings and 100 square feet of floorspace for the recording area. It was Davis’s studio of choice during his time with Columbia, which they had been using since 1949. As fantastic as the acoustics were, and as clean and precise as the audio system was, it was also an organic venue, beautifully suited to making this most organic and human of records. If you listen to the outtakes for the album, right before the band launches into take 2 of “So What”, you can hear an amused Davis noting that the floor squeaks.
There are only five tracks on Kind of Blue — six if you count the alternate take of “Flamenco Sketches” that surfaced in the recent re-release of the record — with all but one clocking in at around ten minutes. None seem too long or too short; none either wear out their welcome or frustrate you by seeming like an underdeveloped idea. The opener, “So What”, begins with a soft conversation between piano and bass — almost as if they were musing between them about what sort of song to play — and then gives us the most basic of melodic patterns that becomes a building block for the solos that come next: Davis’s trumpet, Coltrane’s sax, Adderly’s sax. Then all of them together, ambling through the song’s final fifth as if they had always been doing this.
“Freddie Freeloader”, the most openly bluesy number on the album, takes some of the same basic chord ideas as “So What” and projects them in a slightly different direction. Wynton Kelly took over the piano stool here, injecting slightly more spirited playing into the piece than Evans features on the rest of the record — which is only to say that Evans’s strengths lay elsewhere and weren’t in any way overshadowed by what came here.
“Blue in Green” shows Evans returning to the piano, and given the dispute between him and Davis as to who wrote the song (Evans now gets proper credit), I can see why each would want to claim ownership of it. It is, I think, the song that for most people new to the album causes them to turn, cock their heads, and really listen. Slow, stately, pensive, unhurried — after the relatively bustling speed of the first two tracks it’s a moment for us to really breathe the air this album exudes. It also provides Evans with his first real opportunity to step forward with his playing, although even there he is never less than complementary to everything else that happens in the track. The ending in particular, where everyone else stands back and lets Evans and Chambers put the finishing touches on the track, is the kind of thing worth holding one's breath to hear all the better.
“All Blues”, returns to the basic format as the first two songs: a basic tune involving all players, three solo sections, a lead-out. It’s only slightly more uptempo than “Green”, at least as first, but that’s not a deficit: the oscillating, shimmering piano in the opening bars feels like a spiritual outgrowth of the playing in that prior track. The solos (Davis, Adderly, ‘Trane) add back in that much more spunk and spirit without making anything feel like it’s being artificially pepped up.
The closer, “Flamenco Sketches,” uses a languid variation on the melody used in the first two tracks, but uses a solo structure similar to the other songs: Davis, ‘Trane, Adderly, and finally Evans. The term “flamenco” mostly seems to be part of Davis’s sense of a “Spanish connection” in his approach to jazz — something far more explicitly spelled out in the follow-up record Sketches of Spain. It’s something that seems to come through in the space between notes, the way one part of a scale will lead into another, the way certain notes are muted and some are not, and maybe even also in the way the whole thing simply evaporates out into space without ever really declaring that it’s over.
Most every pressing of Kind of Blue since its release has been mastered incorrectly. Due to a small problem with one of the original three-channel tape decks that was running during the recording sessions, the first three songs played back slightly faster and in a higher key than intended. Fortunately a second three-track tape deck had been running as backup at the time, at the correct speed. The resulting masters — which had never been used for anything before — were used to restore the album for its 1992 reissue and subsequent re-releases.
I never heard anything but the corrected pressings of the album, and in a way I wished I hadn’t. Strange as it sounds, I think I would have enjoyed the frisson of finally listening to the “correct” version of the first three songs, in much the same way I was electrified to see Metropolis restored to almost its entire length after much of its long-missing footage was discovered in Argentina.
But I don’t lament not having that experience. I discovered Kind of Blue, ironically enough, after having entered jazz from its most experimental and forbidding side — the noise-walls of Borbetomagus, the more fiercely experimental sides of John Coltrane (e.g., Ascension), the scree and squawk of Peter Brötzmann. It took me a while to touch down on Kind of Blue, and when I finally did I wondered what had taken me so long, because after arriving there I started to re-think whether or not there was such a thing as perfect.