This groundbreaking 1959 album is as close to perfection as jazz gets without sacrificing its spontaneity
I had hoped that a blog on the popular and funky Hammond organist Jimmy Smith might attract more than the average number of commentators, but I wasn’t prepared for the gratifying deluge of responses following my inclusion of Smith in this series.
It has to be said it was a passing disappointment to discover that most of the comments were about the advanced age of the England World Cup squad, with fitting eulogies for Rosie Swash running a close second. But us jazzers are always being accused of living in a world of our own, and analogies between football and jazz (check out the Vortex Club’s World Cup Jazzball series) always seemed appropriate to me.
It has to be said, of course, that if jazz musicians greeted the unexpected moves of others with the reflexes of the England defence against Germany, the music would have died out a long time ago, but the best spontaneous jazz-making certainly brings Brazil or Argentina’s one-touch fluency to mind. In respect of which, commenter oohrogerpalmer’s aside about his Hammond-organ playing nan in his otherwise footie-centric comment brings to mind my venerable mother-in-law, and her observations on the England-Germany game: “There seemed to be a lot of people in white shirts playing football, and a lot of people in red shirts watching.” Gary Linekar et al could probably have done with her for the post-match analysis.
Anyway, I owe regular readers an apology that almost a month has gone by since the last blog in this series, a combination of the buzz of Wynton Marsalis’s June residency in London and the spiritual torpor occasioned by watching the England team, both of which made time stand still in quite different ways. But where better to pick up the series than with the album many consider the best jazz record of all time?
Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, recorded between 1958-59, has been a perennial
bestseller. People who have never bought another jazz album own this one. Whereas the busy bebop of the 1940s and 50s ricocheted with flying runs of notes and twitched with constantly changing chords, Kind of Blue was quiet, spacious and subtle, the improvisations built on note patterns or modes rather than song harmonies, so that the underlying chord-movement was peacefully minimal. Davis’s beautiful trumpet sound, the contrasting saxophone styles of John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, the graceful touch of pianist Bill Evans and the relaxed hipness of a superb rhythm section, brought an outcome as close to perfection as jazz can ever get without sacrificing its spontaneity.
At this transitional point in his life, a visionary relationship with composer/arranger Gil Evans, his work in 1957 with film director Louis Malle on the Ascenseur pour l’Échafaud soundtrack and the discovery of Bill Evans were among the factors leading Davis toward a radical reinvention of jazz. Moreover, in the year before Kind of Blue, Davis had worked with Evans on the orchestral album Porgy and Bess, and the arranger had given him a scale but no chords to improvise on for the track I Loves You Porgy. Around the same time, Davis was studying Russian composer Aram Khachaturian’s use of scales (drawn from Armenian folk music), and witnessed a New York performance by Les Ballets Africains from Guinea, which danced to highly rhythmic but pared-down modal forms.
“I think a movement in jazz is beginning away from the conventional string of chords, and a return to emphasis on melodic rather than harmonic variations,” Davis told the writer Nat Hentoff for Jazz Review in December 1958. “There will be fewer chords but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them.” As with most periods of his life, Miles Davis (like his even more experimental contemporaries Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane) was in tune with the spirit of his times when many of those around him didn’t yet realise what was going on. Art was taking a step back, as social, spiritual and economic changes in the 20th century were making listeners more aware of their individuality and independence. Kind of Blue felt like Miles Davis’s music. But it also felt like endlessly varied and personal music that belonged to all of its entranced listeners.
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