50 Years on and Kind of Blue is still a winner!

The recording date

Fifty years ago this year (2009) trumpeter extraordinaire Miles Davis went into a studio in New York with six of the top jazz musicians of the day and laid down five tracks which have together made up a unique jazz album which is still rated as not only the top selling jazz album of all time, but one of the artistically most influential.

This album, loved by musicians of many different tastes, is Kind of Blue , an artistic text of rare beauty, a soundscape that draws the listener into a space of intense musical collaboration and deep inspiration.

The musicians on the album, which has been re-released many times over the years, were Cannonball Adderley on alto sax, the inimitable John Coltrane on tenor sax, Bill Evans on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, Jimmy Cobb on drums, and, on one track, Wynton Kelly on piano.

The musicians went into the Columbia studio on 2 March 1959 and on that day laid down three numbers: “So What?”, “Freddie Freeloader”, and “Blue in Green”. Kelly played only on “Freddie Freeloader”.

The other tracks, “All Blues” and “Flamenco Sketches” were recorded on 22 April 1959.

The break with bebop

Painting of Miles by Easton Davy The Jazz Cat. Used with his kind permission

The album marked Miles’s decisive break with bebop, at least in studio recordings. Kind of Blue is a triumph of the modal approach to jazz, and, according to his biographer Ian Carr, “brought to even greater heights the brooding, meditative side of his music which had revealed itself for the first time on (Charlie) Parker’s ‘Now’s the Time’ session in November 1945.”

The album is remarkable for many things and one of the most impressive to the listener is the way the music hangs together and makes for a complete artistic whole rather than just a collection of songs, although each song is also complete in itself.

Key to the whole feel of the album is Evans on piano who brought his own sensibilities to the music and built on the ideas that Miles sketched our for the musicians.

The pieces were not rehearsed beforehand and the musicians had only minimal instructions on how Miles wanted the numbers to sound. Which is why, in the liner notes to the original release, Evans wrote, “you will hear something close to pure spontaneity in these performances.”

Track 1: So What

The opening track, “So What”, sets the mood and tone for the whole album, with an impressionistic introduction from Evans which leads into a riff played by Chambers and is answered by the horns in three-part harmony, in a variation on the call-and-response technique. It is one of the most recognised numbers in all of jazz.

The solos on “So What” are taken by Miles first, followed by Coltrane, Adderley and finally Evans again. Evans’ solo is backed by the horns palying a variation on the response in the first section.

Track 2: Freddie Freeloader

The next track, the only one on which Kelly played, is “Freddie Freeloader” which is a true twelve-bar blues with Kelly taking the first solo, a brilliant bluesy romp, followed by Miles, Coltrane, Adderley and then a short bass solo by Chambers with Kelly doing some brilliant comping behind the bass.

Track 3: Blue in Green

Although all the tracks on Kind of Blue are listed as being composed by Miles, the track “Blue in Green” is somewhat disputed, as Evans later recounted: “One day at Miles’s apartment, he wrote on some manuscript paper the symbols for G minor and A augmented, and he said, ‘What would you do with that?’ I didn’t really know, but I went home and wrote ‘Blue in Green'”.

As Carr wrote in his biography of Miles: “This begs the question of what, precisely, the act of composition in jazz consists.” Carr goes on to say that “In a Zen pupil-and-master sense, by pointing Evans in a particular direction, Miles was certainly ‘composing’ himself.”

Whatever, the number is a beautiful ballad which shows up both Evans’ and Miles’s playing in a kind of lapidary clarity. Miles’s use of the Harmon mute, which was to become something of a trademark with him, is almost painfully poignant, dripping melancholy and wistfulness.

Track 4: All Blues

The track which opened side two of the original vinyl LP release, was “All Blues” which Miles composed originally in 4/4 time, but when they got to the studio, Miles said, “it hit me that it should be in 3/4. I hadn’t thought of it like that before, but it was exactly right.”

This number is built up of layers of sound from the drums playing a steady 3/4 rhythm, and the bass a single note per bar, over which the horns play a repetitive harmonised three-note riff with Miles using his Harmon mute again to make interpolations as he wanted to. He then removes the mute to play the first solo, bringing a whole new texture to the playing of the other musicians.

Track 5: Flamenco Sketches

The final number on the album is”Flamenco Sketches” which is another ballad. Again the question of who composed it comes up, but it is generally accredited to Davis.

The piece opens with some sombre bass notes with Evans playing some quiet chords over the bass before Miles comes in with some beautiful melodic inventions using the Harmon mute again. The bass is particularly beautiful in the opening bars, with an understated gravitas.

Coltrane then gets into the act with an amazingly soulful solo mostly in the lower register of his horn, which makes the contrast with the relative sparsity of higher register notes all the more interesting. Adderley follows with an interesting alto solo that keeps the soulful mood going into the higher end of the scale.

Evans’ solo starts off so minimalistically that its almost not there at all. Just a few quiet and well-chosen notes answering the bass, ending with a few rippling chords before Miles come in again with the plaintive sound of the Harmon mute, with long notes stretching almost, it feels, to infinity, until the number just quietly ends.

Summing up

The album was released by Columbia on 17 August 1959 and has been influential ever since. In an All About Jazz review of the album Philip B. Pape in 1999, he called the album “a defining moment of twentieth century music.”

Richard Cook and Brian Morton, in the 1994 Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, LP and Cassette, wrote that the “steady mid-tempos and plaintive voicings on ‘So What’ and ‘All Blues’ establish further the weightless, haunting qualities of the music, which no collection, serious or casual, should be without.”

So truly an anniversary to be celebrated, these 50 years of superlative and innovative music which still sounds fresh and, even after all that has happened in music in the intervening years, almost daring in its minimalist, modal approach.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2009

Happy birthday, Saint John!

Portrain of John Coltrane (2007) BY Paolo Steffan. Image via Wikipedia

Many jazz musicians have been devoutly religious, but only one has been canonised – Saint John Will-I-Am Coltrane, who would have turned 85 on 23 September 2011.

The influential tenor player was born in Hamlet, North Carolina, in middle class circumstances into a family with deep religious roots.

He started playing other instruments, especially alto, only gravitating to the tenor sax after playing alto with Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band until that broke up. After that Coltrane stayed with Gillespie’s small group and took up tenor.

One of the big breaks in his career came in 1955 when he was called by Miles Davis to join the trumpeter’s famous “First Great Quintet” in the place vacated by Sonny Rollins. Miles at that time was exploring modal scales which had a great impact on Coltrane. Valerie Wilmer in her book about the “New Music” As Serious as Your Life (Serpent’s Tail,1992) wrote that Coltrane had said “…he used to listen to Miles Davis on record and fantasise about playing tenor the way he played trumpet.”

Coltrane was with the Davis group until November 1956 when he rather abruptly left it. He was by this time being badly affected by heavy drinking and his addiction to heroin. In his biography of Davis (Paladin, 1984) Ian Carr writes “Miles may have tried to jolt the saxophonist from time to time to sting him into revolting against the inexorable progress of his destructive habit.” Whatever the reason or process of his leaving the Davis band Coltrane went home to Philadelphia where he managed to clean himself up, kicking the heroin habit cold turkey and having a kind of spiritual awakening with the support of his first wife Naima.

In the liner notes to his great album, A Love Supreme, Coltrane wrote about this episode:

During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.”

In early 1957 Coltrane was offered a recording contract by Bob Weinstock of Prestige Records which led to the saxophonist’s first recording date as a leader. Recorded at the end of May 1957 it was released as Coltrane in 1957.

Coltrane’s second solo album was Blue Train issued by Blue Note records in 1957 which featured four of Coltrane’s own compositions and one standard.

By January 1958 Coltrane was back with Davis after a six-month stint with the Thelonius Monk Quartet which produced two outstanding albums: Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane and an outstanding date at Carnegie Hall, the recording of which was only discovered serendipitously in 2005 and released as Thelonius Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall. Of great interest in the first of these albums is the contrast between an earlier influential tenor player, Coleman Hawkins, who plays on two of the tracks, and his younger counterpart Coltrane.

Wilmer wrote about Coltrane’s technique and musicianship: “Coltrane rewrote the method book for the saxophone, just as Charlie Parker had done twenty years earlier and Coleman Hawkins twenty years before that.”

In 1959 Coltrane was an influential part of the Davis group which made the seminal Kind of Blue album which has become something of a jazz classic, very possibly the top selling jazz album of all time. This session confirmed Coltrane’s interest in modal jazz and set him off on his explorations of other musics, especially African and Indian.

Shortly after completing the Kind of Blue recording was Davis, Coltrane was again in studio as leader to record the first album consisting entirely of his own compositions, Giant Steps, a breakthrough album which showed to the full his playing style dubbed “sheets of sound” by critic Ira Gitler. The complex chord sequences of the title track have been called “Coltrane changes”.

By the time of his recording of the album My Favorite Things in 1961 Coltrane was heavily into his exploratory phase, in part as a result of meeting and studying with famed sitar player Ravi Shankar. Coltrane used a soprano sax on this recording for the first time.

After some personnel changes the so-called “Classic Quartet” was in place by 1962. This group consisted of pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison with Elvin Jones on drums.

The Classic Quartet produced increasingly inventive albums, including what is considered by most to be Coltrane’s greatest, A Love Supreme. This 1964 album indicated the increasingly spiritual direction Coltrane was taking. In the liner notes of the 1995 re-release Michael Cuscuna, prolific producer and discographer, wrote: “A Love Supreme is one of the most honest musical performances put to tape. Its beauty and appeal are timeless.”

A Love Supreme has gone on to influence many generations of musicians and fans, in a way as Kind of Blue has done, who would not normally be associated with jazz.

By the time Coltrane died in July 1967 he was a legend with a huge number of high quality recordings to his name. Valerie Wilmer wrote, “In addition to his musical importance, Coltrane exerted a profound spiritual influence on the musicians who followed in his footsteps.”

Icon of St John Will-I-Am Coltrane. Image via Wikipedia

“What he did through his own example, was to give not only the musicians but the Black community as a whole, an example by which they could live,” Wilmer continued. Which is why, perhaps, he was canonised by the African Orthodox Church back in the early 1980s.

As the founder of the St John Will-I-Am Coltrane Church in San Francisco, Franzo Wayne King, said in a sermon reported by the New York Times in 2007: “The kind of music you listen to is the person you become. When you listen to John Coltrane, you become a disciple of the anointed of God.”

I do wonder what Coltrane himself would think of this, seeing that he was determinedly non-denominational?

But the influence for positive, good values is clear.

Coltrane said in 1966: “I hope whoever is out there listening, they enjoy it.” Thank you, St John, we do!