Today marks the birthday of jazz great Miles Davis, who, on the very day of my birth in 1959, released his landmark album Kind of Blue. For today’s post, I entertained the possibility of selecting a track from a different album—the main contenders were Sketches of Spain (1960) and Bitches’ Brew (1970)—but I feel I have to honor myself in this indirect way and go with the album that began its public life when I began my life.
It’s also the first entire Davis album I heard. I got a CD of it in 2009—50 years after its release, you’ll note—and that led to me eventually acquiring the other two albums I named. I have a Miles and Coltrane compilations album, and an early Miles compilation album as well. When I returned to vinyl in 2011, I got Kind of Blue and Sketches and Bitches on nice audiophile copies. Ah, the fetish of listening.
The track I picked from Kind of Blue is of course the opening track, “So What.” The other frontrunner was the track that opens Side Two, “Green in Blue,” but that’s the one that, it seems, was actually written by pianist Bill Evans, or at least should be seen as a collaboration. Seems that, on his birthday, I should pick a track Davis wrote, indisputably. The latter is the “bluest” song on the album and I’m very fond of it. Both it and “So What,” I’m told, are exemplars of Davis’ new modal approach to jazz music, to offset the reliance on chords of be-bop. I couldn’t have told you what the structural difference is, but I can say that be-bop, to my ears, is generally a bit too frantic, I guess because the imperative to improvise on a song’s chords promotes constant innovation. It gets a bit fatiguing on the ears, to me.
That is never the case with Kind of Blue. Its ability to hold long notes and to let sounds sort of drift is what gives the album its peculiar fascination, to me. Every track feels like it’s meandering, even when there is a pretty steady propulsion going on, as with “So What.” That bassline in the first minute of the track gives a lively basis to the opening, after those clear and pure notes from Evans’ piano. The intro, like the intro to Mingus’s “Better Git It In Your Soul,” is the part of the track I know best. Up till that great cymbal crash about 1:30 and then Miles steps in and the trumpet starts speaking. The little descend he does as he announces himself is probably the most instantly recognizable part of the track to me. He seems to step into the space the sound is creating. After that, it becomes a succession of leads—including Coltrane on, I believe, tenor sax—that draw toward, eventually, that little progression that becomes so familiar as the “tune” of the piece.
What is the track’s mood? To me, it has a kind of insouciance that makes it match well its title. It’s romantic in its trumpet sounds, primarily, but not always. Davis also plays it cool at times and lets little flourishes remind us of the modern city and its pace. It’s a very urban sound, a kind of soundscape that is never wholly silent, but has quiet passages that underscore the more cutting sounds. Even when instruments begin to overlap and the drummer’s brushes seem to be going like mad, the track never feels frantic. It’s not mellow either. It’s a sound that matches a certain up late at night and letting the hours unwind kind of vibe. Stick around till 6:55 on the track when Davis does this little bit that then gets underscored by the piano; that segue is probably my favorite part, feeling like a sudden agreement or sun after shower. That till the end is like a sunset drive, full of possibility, with the little notes from the horn giving it a feel of something coming, while marking time. Then we’re back to that great bass part again.
Davis is the jazz composer/musician I’ve listened to the most and so, to an extent, he defines jazz for me, and nothing does that more than Kind of Blue, which, when I was not so happy and struck with serious back pain, I would sometimes play on repeat for 6 or 8 hours straight. So what?