All that jazz: Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue at 60

I enjoy jazz, but never could I possibly claim to be in any position to critique it like I would do other musical genres, such as rock, pop, electronica or Bowie. My knowledge is narrow and my experience is limited, only really investigating its avenues through the prism of Sinatra and easy listening once I got in my thirties.

1970’s Bitches Brew — the ‘other’ classic in Miles Davis’ vast collection — is practically a head start for modern jazz listeners who cherish the likes of Flying Lotus and Matthew Herbert, and even psychedelic rock bands. Kind Of Blue offers a different strand of jazz: less weird, chaotic, but just as luxurious. Within its opening moments, it’s easy to see why this remains the essential choice.

Kind Of Blue kind of transcends time. It was released on 17 August 1959 and six whole decades later hasn’t aged a single day. That sort of endurance always carries a sense of mystique, an aura that lends records a whole other charm of their own. The performers here are well known, tremendously beloved and recognised as one of the greatest sextets of all time. And still, when listening to Kind Of Blue, I rarely think about the recording itself. Each player is a master of their craft, yet not one of them flaunts their talent. It’s seamless communication, a result of the immense understanding between the performers under the rule of improvisation. It plays out like a beautiful alien language.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pwc1d4qxz4M

It’s also possibly the first album I’ve ever listened to where using headphones felt like a disservice to what I was hearing. Playing it through speakers was a revelation. The music fills whatever space it’s granted, a solemn, expansive jazz ensemble at the peak of their powers. The record’s middle stretch is what really gets me, in the thick of it all.

Listen to it intently and one can find a lot of beauty in the detail. The flow is irresistible, and the production blows most modern releases out of the water. It’s a sign of a skilled collaboration when each instrument shines in its own right, and a sign of great musicianship when no one person steals the show. This is by no means the Miles Davis show, with John Coltrane’s sax soaring vibrantly in the knowing, hilariously titled Freddie Freeloader, and Bill Evans’ piano swimming in melancholy in Blue In Green that’s enough to make you weep. (admittedly I usually don’t, but it’s enough to.)

And then there’s All Blue, and So What, one of the most famous compositions in jazz: simple, melodic and instantly recognisable from its introductory bass phrase. Miles‘ orchestrator  Gil Evans would later helm a vocal version by Smiley Culture for the David Bowie movie Absolute Beginners in 1986. Good to cover all bases, as they say.

An Absolute Beginner trumpeting his achievements with Miles’s famous red instrument. Miles once said of him: “Bowie? Isn’t this the guy who dresses like a woman?” Not today, Jose.

Detractors I’ve made up just now may be tempted to call the record passive, but I think it just needs quite a specific context to truly shine. Think of it as sitting in heaven’s lobby.

Give Kind Of Blue time and space and it will enchant. It’s a mighty force with a deft touch, guiding thoughts and feelings so gently that you barely even realise it’s happening. Blink and you’ll catch yourself walking cobbled backstreets on a starry night, or sharing a dance in some basement bar somewhere. Or something less trite. You get the idea. Lightness like that doesn’t just happen.

I think one of the most spectacular things about Kind Of Blue is that it can work in many different ways for many different people. It can be appreciated as high art — studied note for note by jazz connoisseurs — whilst also working incredibly well as (don’t shoot me here) superior background music for those less acquainted with the genre.

I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t enjoy the music in some capacity. It doesn’t rank as one of my all-time favourite albums, purely because I don’t have the romance or personal connection for jazz like I do other genres, but I couldn’t possibly fault it. Listening to Kind Of Blue is an experience essential to anyone with an interest in music, whether that interest is slight or significant.

Kind of Blue whispers dreams, and I can’t speak highly enough of it. So get me.

Steve Pafford

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Steve Pafford
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