Kind of Blue

The soundtrack for your reading...

I borrowed a copy of the anniversary edition of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue from my library. It comes with a documentary DVD and includes copies of Bill Evans's handwritten notes (they became the liner notes). It's nice, but at $75, I can get by just fine with my regular CD edition of the album.

I'm no jazz authority. I can't tell you who played alto sax on a track when I hear it unless I'm looking at the liner notes. I need to read other people's writing to have any background on the album. I probably tend to like more jazz that is closer to the border of pop than hardcore jazz. But Kind of Blue is one album I always liked.

I always borrowed jazz albums first before I bought them. I bought Time Out by The Dave Brubeck Quartet after I had borrowed it from the library a few times. Same thing with A Love Supreme by John Coltrane. Not very radical purchases, but then none of my friends listened to any jazz and definitely didn't buy any jazz records.

I borrowed a bunch of Bill Evans albums to listen to before I bought one. And, like many kids, I really liked Vince Guaraldi's piano on that Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack.

In 1958, Davis added Bill Evans to his band. Evans was a classically-trained pianist and I think that changed Davis' sound. (Don't ask me to explain modal jazz, but that's what people talk about about here.)  Evans left later that year and was replaced by Wynton Kelly.

Spring 1959: Davis was in the studio with a sextet to record what became Kind of Blue and he calls back Evans for the sessions because his piano style was key to the sound. (Kelly played only on "Freddie Freeloader.")

Kind of Blue was/is the best-selling jazz album of all time.

The anniversary set made me reread Bill Evans' liner notes. (Do you miss liner notes and 12" record album covers? I do.)

"There is a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment. Erasures or changes are impossible. These artists must practice a particular discipline, that of allowing the idea to express itself in communication with their hands in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere.

The resulting pictures lack the complex composition and textures of ordinary painting, but it is said that those who see well find something captured that escapes explanation.

This conviction that direct deed is the most meaningful of reflections, I believe, has prompted the evolution of the extremely severe and unique disciplines of the jazz or improvising musician.

Group improvisation is a further challenge. Aside from the weighty technical problem of collective coherent thinking, there is the very human, even social need for sympathy from all members to bend for the common result. This most difficult problem, I think, is beautifully met and solved on this recording. As the painter needs his framework of parchment, the improvising musical group needs its framework in time. Miles Davis presents here frameworks which are exquisite in their simplicity and yet contain all that is necessary to stimulate performance with sure reference to the primary conception.

Miles conceived these settings only hours before the recording dates and arrived with sketches which indicated to the group what was to be played. Therefore, you will hear something close to pure spontaneity in these performances. The group had never played these pieces prior to the recordings and I think without exception the first complete performance of each was a take.

Kind of a zen (small z) thing going on there.

That painting might actually be shodo (calligraphy), but I think he meant brush painting ( sumi-e). That's something I have tried myself.

I try not to lift the brush until the end of the line. No strokes like you're used to in oil paint. No going back over the line.

Calligraphers can sometimes do the whole word in one flowing move.

That lack of complexity can be very freeing.

On this album, that simplicity is what I really like, especially compared to other Miles Davis albums like Bitches Brew which I will freely admit that I don't get.

From what I've read, Miles Davis was not a nice man. If you can separate the work from the man, then it's easier to appreciate the music. That's all I'm writing about here - the music.

One little Davis story that I can appreciate is that in 1964 Jackie DeShannon urged him to use his influence at Columbia Records to get a rock band a contract. He did and that band was The Byrds. Thanks, Miles.


  1. Mr. Ronkowitz (or Ronk as I'm guessing you prefer and as a former middle school student of yours, I'd have to adjust to); if you are not familiar with it, then do yourself a much deserved favor and pick up "Sketches of Spain". It will improve your day. While "Kind of Blue" is the best, "Sketches" is my favorite Miles Davis record. There, I said it. Happy New Year.

    Dave Friedman

  2. Dave

    I can also be "Ken" now... though former students sometimes have trouble with that.

    I may have Sketches somewhere in my vinyl collection - I will revisit it.