The word went round pretty quickly on the evening of the recent Miles Davis ‘Birth of the Cool’ documentary being aired on the BBC. Plenty of my peers were soon texting me to make sure I either had it on or was at least recording it. A lot of us fans of jazz are familiar with Miles’ story, and all that quality archive being offered up on the doc. confirmed what we knew.
Yes, without a doubt, Miles was a complex and difficult man, and yes he had plenty of issues, which are just not tolerable in any sense. But his persona and his playing are hard to deny. To me, he is certainly up there in the ‘cool’ top two with another troubled soul, the actor Steve McQueen.
It was then good to see for a day or two after the programme was on, it being discussed and dissected by many on social media and I then had a few message from non jazzers, asking where to start with the genre. What to buy and by whom?
My stock answer to that is always ‘A Kind of Blue.’ It is THE seminal jazz album, of that mid/late 50s golden period and one which stands the test of time and will always do so. Hear this album and like it, and you are on your way into all that jazz has to offer. It is claimed to still be the biggest selling jazz album of all time, with over 5 million copies sold.
So, good enough reason for it to be my album of the month.
Recorded in just nine hours, on four reels of Scotch 190 tape, it all began at Columbia Records East 30th Street Studio at 2.30 pm on March 2nd 1959, with a second booked for April 22nd. The line up of musicians on those dates have gone down in folklore. On piano (the same one used on ‘Take Five’ by Dave Brubeck incidentally) was the maestro Bill Evans. Jimmy Cobb on drums, on bass Paul Chambers and on saxophones, ‘Cannonball’ (Julian to his mum) Adderley and John Coltrane. Wynton Kelly depped in for Evans on one song, with all the sidemen simply on union scale pay.
Moving away from the Be Bop sound to a more ‘Modal’ feel was partly a result of Evans being back in the band after a brief spell out of it pursuing his own career. In the early period of that decade, pianist George Russell had developed the idea of the modal method. Essentially it was improvisation built on scales rather than chords and it been embraced by Evans and latterly by Davis Each of the band had been in this line up a year or so and were familiar enough with each others playing style for the sessions to flow seemingly effortlessly.
From the first session in March we have ‘So What’ ‘ Freddie Freeloader’ (on which Wynton Kelly played piano) and ‘Blue in Green’ which made up side one. April 22nd saw ‘All Blues’ and ‘Flamenco Sketches’ recorded for side two. It was all over in 46 minutes.
There was little or no rehearsal for the sessions, with just the briefest of descriptions for each song given. Jimmy Cobb said in 2009 ‘while I was setting up the drums, I was thinking, ‘I wonder what we are going to play today? The songs were just something Miles had on a slip of manuscript paper. The guys had to really work to build something from that little bit.’
The production was taken care of by Columbia staffer Irving Townsend and Teo Macero, who would go on to work with Davis from then on in. Fred Plaut, who normally worked on classical recordings, was the session engineer.
All compositions are credited to Miles only, thought is acknowledged that Evans played a major part in the development on parts on a few of the tunes, as well as others.
‘A Kind of Blue’ was released on 17th August 1959. Its title chosen by Davis as his take on the general ‘African American’ experience in those segregated days before the Civil Rights struggle fully took centre stage.
The album was immediately hailed as a masterpiece.
‘A defining moment of twentieth century music’ as one reviewer put it. So, without further ado…
‘So What’ – The early interplay between bass and piano, now attributed to Gil Evans, quietly sets up that ever so familiar brass call of ‘So What’, kicked along by Cobb on the ride cymbal. Then Davis kicks in with perhaps the most recognisable trumpet solos know in Jazz. He then intelligently meanders on, beautifully picking his way through the tune before serving up it perfectly for Coltrane to come in at his strident best. Coltrane is, well, Coltrane. He hits it hard but lyrically, forever hanging on to the tune underneath. Then the ‘Cannonball’ steps forward, his alto echoing and embellishing the tenor of Big John. Evans then does what Evans does best, as the song shuffles along to its finish. Hard to think of anything better than this really. Listening back to it today, this is classical music to my ears.
Freddie Freeloader – Wynton Kelly replaces Bill Evans on piano on this, the second slice from the album. Trumpet and Sax are in unison as they open up on an essentially 12 Bar Blues. Kelly opens up the solos and it is a swinging affair from the off. Davis sort of tightens it all up, dipping the pace a touch, as if to herald who is in charge here. Some deft touches as always lead into Coltrane at his rampaging best, and he is soon giving off sparks with his powerful tone. Adderley up next, and he almost falls into the solo, so relaxed does he sound. Chambers chugs it all homeward bound and some Kelly vamps show the way.
Blue In Green – Wonderful understated piano work from Bill Evans softens the pace on this ballad as Davis with mute in place, achieves that classic Miles sound. A beautiful lyrical sax solo from Coltrane tops off the opening. It is simply a joy to hear the command of this solo. Evans takes the song home as only he can. This is a lovingly crafted piece of work, almost heart-breaking in texture. Long speculated to have been written by Evans and not by Davis as credited on the album, Evans himself confirmed this in later interviews.
All Blues – Side two opens with this head nodder of the highest order. The rolling piano groove is perfectly accompanied by the shuffling brushwork from Cobb and the precise stabs from Adderley and Coltrane, as Davis lays his solo on top of if all. ‘Cannonball’ compliments the work of the leader of the line up and then Coltrane moves into view with a solo that almost takes your eye out, so sharp and to the point is it. His dexterity plays with your ears, as you try to take in what you are being given. Evans ends it nicely. All players are lyrical to the end. Bluesy in feel, this is the coolest 60 year old you’ll ever know…
Flamenco Sketches – The opening was composed by Bill Evans and is very reminiscent of his tune ‘Peace Piece’. The second ballad on the album, Davis commands the tune with a strident muted solo, while Evans punctuates beneath him. He in turn, hands over to Coltrane, who sensitively handles the next section before Adderley picks up the Spanish vibe nicely. Evans and Davis point the way home and your education for today is over.
The lack of ‘prep’ on this is never evident at any stage and as drummer Jimmy Cobb said ‘it must have been made in heaven.’ He would know.
Quincy Jones, a long time pal of Miles said ‘that will always be my music, man. I play ‘Kind of Blue’ every day—it’s my orange juice. It still sounds like it was made yesterday.’
Who am I to argue?
The Mumper of SE5
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