With a legendary influence on jazz, rock and classical music for over 50 years, and often referred to as the greatest selling jazz record of all time, “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis is an album that can be appreciated by seasoned jazz listeners as well as those that are new to the genre. Davis and his sextet recorded the album in New York City during March and April of 1959 and released it a few months later in August. What has made “Kind of Blue” so unique and historically significant is its use of modality – implementing a series of scales as opposed to rapid chord changes. Davis had experimented with modal jazz during 1958, but “Kind of Blue” was the first album he prepared based entirely on modality. The goal was to allow the musicians more freedom to create, and they do that from the very first track, “So What.”
“So What” begins with a quiet pairing between bassist Paul Chambers and pianist Bill Evans. The intro moves slowly initially before its pace increases. Often, Chambers plays dissonant notes which create a sense of unease. Right after he hits an especially dissonant interval, Chambers launches into the piece’s signature bass line, one of the most magical moments during the song. Equally memorable, few listeners will be able forget the first time Evans enters in with “So What”‘s two note melody along with drummer Jimmy Cobb’s ever-so-light touch on the ride cymbal.
Compared to most jazz tunes where the horns play the melody and the bass supports them, “So What” reverses the conventional method by featuring the bass with the melody and the horns playing a supporting role. Before and during the solos, try to listen for the chord changes, as this song is only made up of two chords. The modal form of the song allows the soloists, Miles Davis on trumpet, John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, and Cannonball Adderley on alto saxophone, to really stretch out and explore their scales. All of the solos are great to listen to, but the opening of Coltrane’s solo is especially beautiful and reveals his talented playing style. There is no saxophonist who compares to Coltrane. There is also no better song to set the style for an album like “Kind of Blue” than “So What.”
The second song on the album, “Freddie Freeloader,” has a more traditional format when it comes to the arranging. The horns play a very simple head, then the solos commence. Playing first is Wynton Kelly, who replaces Evans on piano for this tune. Kelly demonstrates great skill with the blues during his solo, combining single piano notes with chords all while keeping the listener interested. Davis plays the next solo and similar to his playing on the first track, takes a relaxed and methodical approach to his playing; there are no rapid notes to be found here. Conversely, Coltrane’s solo is much more lively with big jumps around his tenor. His aggressive start might be off-putting to some listeners. Adderley plays next with an alto solo full of many runs, but firmly rooted in the blues. The solo section concludes with a bass solo by Chambers, which demonstrates his skill on the big double bass. Overall, “Freddie Freeloader” is a simple, well-executed blues tune.
“Blue in Green” is the third tune on “Kind of Blue” and it is a tender ballad beginning with a nostalgic piano and bass opening. Davis enters with his signature Harmon-muted trumpet as Cobb enters with brushes on the drums. Davis’ entry is a bit harsh and at times his playing seems a bit morose, but it is Evans’ piano playing that makes this piece a great ballad. Evans’ solo sounds generally heartfelt as does the tenor saxophone solo played by Coltrane. Just like on “So What,” Coltrane’s entry is impeccable and he shows that he is able to back off from rapid runs to give this ballad the kind of attention it needs. This is another magical moment on the album. Evans’ concluding piano solo provides the perfect ending as the dynamics and speed rise and fall displaying true emotion and a bit of angst and frustration. Listen for Chamber’s bowed bass solo during the ending and note how the low notes support the piano.
Following “Blue in Green” is “All Blues,” which is played in 6/8 time and opens with more brush drumming and an underlying piano trill line. Davis plays the melody as the other horns gently play a supporting line. He again uses the Harmon mute, which combined with the time signature, gives many of the passages in the song a “snake charmer” feel. As a listener, there is a strong temptation to move like a charmed snake during these passages. For the first solo, Davis removes the Harmon mute and plays in his own style using space to add emphasis to what he is doing. Another change between the head and the solo is Cobb’s change to regular sticks from his brushes. This is a traditional 12-bar blues, and once again the modal nature of the tune allows the musicians to stretch out and explore. Despite being over 11 minutes long and having a repetitive bass line, the creativity of the solos and rhythm section keep the piece from becoming dead.
The album concludes with the final song, “Flamenco Sketches.” In contrast to the other songs on the album, this one has no written melody; it is entirely made up of improvisation from the musicians. The tempo of this song is very moderate and the backing is most often very simple and light. There is a brief intro by the rhythm section before Davis begins playing with the Harmon mute. During the middle of every solo section there is a change where the tune takes on a bullfighter feel based on the chords. Coltrane uses the same approach as he uses on “Blue in Green” and his solo is both emotional and heartfelt. He sets up the bullfighter chord transition expertly and even throws in a few rapid runs from the bottom of the instrument to the top. The other solos also complement the ballad tempo.
Upon listening to “Kind of Blue,” it is clear that the album still has something to offer today. The ability for the musicians to express themselves free from rapid chord changes allowed them to play meaningful and creative solos. The simple song structures are not hard to listen to, and they are varied enough that the album does not have just one mood. Both new and experienced listeners can sit down and enjoy “Kind of Blue.” It is sure to be available on almost every music service, so play it in the car, or on a portable player and hear why it is one of the most influential jazz albums of all time.