Thursday, September 25, 2008

Book Review: "Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece," by Ashley Kahn

"Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece," by Ashley Kahn, 2000.
John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, and Bill Evans at the session for "Kind of Blue," 1959.
I just finished Ashley Kahn's 2000 book, "Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece." It's a terrific read, and I would recommend it to any jazz fan, or anyone who is interested in learning more about how this remarkable album was created.

To anyone who doesn't know, Miles Davis's 1959 album "Kind of Blue" is widely regarded as the greatest jazz album ever. It's a landmark of small group jazz improvisation as its finest. The band Miles assembled was one of the greatest ever. On the album, Miles started to explore modal jazz, a very different way of playing jazz. In his book, Kahn explores Miles's career during the 1950's, and what led him to make the album.

Kahn did a great job of researching this book, and he interviewed Columbia Records photographer Don Huntstein and drummer Jimmy Cobb, the only two people still alive who actually witnessed the recording sessions. Sadly, when pianist Bill Evans died in 1980, just twenty-one years after the album was recorded, that left only Miles and Jimmy Cobb still alive from the "Blue" band. Which is really odd, considering that Miles was the oldest member of the band in 1959, at just 32 years old. John Coltrane died at age 40 of liver cancer in 1967, bassist Paul Chambers died at just 33 of tuberculosis in 1969, Wynton Kelly died at 39 in 1971, and Cannonball Adderley died in 1975 at 46.

Kahn should be praised just for the simple fact that we actually get some insight as to how this classic album was made. The answer is, pretty easily, at just two recording sessions. There was only one complete alternate take from the sessions, an earlier version of "Flamenco Sketches." But that doesn't mean that these were all first-take performances, despite what Bill Evans claimed in the liner notes. Miles would end takes if they weren't going well, giving the players terse directions.

Pianist Bill Evans is probably the person other than Miles most responsible for how "Kind of Blue" sounds. Miles even said, "I wrote that album around Bill Evans's piano playing," even though Evans had quit as a member of Miles's working band by the time of the sessions. Both Evans and Davis loved classical music, even though Evans had more classical training. (Miles had quit Juilliard after just one year.) Davis would often spend time checking out classical scores from museums and libraries, and didn't understand why he couldn't get other jazz musicians to accompany him. But in Evans he found someone similar to explore his ideas with. Miles wrote of Evans in his autobiography, "Bill had this quiet fire that I loved on piano. The way he approached it, the sound he got was like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall." Which would also be an accurate way of describing Miles's playing style in the late 50's. Since Miles was not an explosive bop virtuoso like Dizzy Gillespie, he had to get his playing across in a different way. So he started using space more in his solos, (influenced by the pianist Ahmad Jamal) and playing fewer notes to get the emotion of a piece across. He also started playing in the middle register of the trumpet more, as opposed to players like Dizzy who would fire off a rapid series of extremely high notes. Miles also started using a Harmon mute on ballads, which gave his playing a breathy, smoky, late-night sound.

According to Evans, he and Miles wrote "Blue In Green" and "Flamenco Sketches" together, despite the credits on the album listing Davis as the sole writer of all the tracks. When Evans recorded a version of "Blue In Green" for his own album, "Portrait in Jazz," he insisted that his name be listed alongside Davis's as co-writer. Both songs sound like Evans, and it would seem likely that he got screwed out of his writing credit. But Evans also kind of screwed himself out of his credits, as he wrote the liner notes to "Kind of Blue," and in them doesn't make any mention of his co-writing role. Who knows what really happened between Davis and Evans, but a telling factor would be that Miles never performed "Blue In Green" and "Flamenco Sketches" live, at least not on any known recordings. (He also never did "Freddie Freeloader" live, which seems odd because of its bluesy structure.)

The alchemy that made "Kind of Blue" possible never came together again. Evans had left Miles to form his own trio, and within a year Cannonball and Coltrane had each formed their own groups. And Miles didn't seem interested in revisiting former glories by trying to record another album with the same sound. "Kind of Blue" would remain a unique masterpiece in jazz history. And thanks to Ashley Kahn's book, we get to feel like we were there at the creation.

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