Updated: Sep 13
Post-war America was a state of shifting ideas. Newfound affluence throughout the 1950's and a growing uncertainty of the future created a sense of everything or everyone"chilling out". This was a time were the reserved intellectual became a cultural trope. This wasn't just in white-ivory thinking - it transcended into entertainment where the TV show replaced the Dance Club and fictional heroes like James Bond stayed cool while the world exploded around him. This was a cultural shift that spilled over into music, and Miles Davis was uniquely suited to become the king of cool.
Musically this album cut through the complexity of bebop and hard bop. Miles' musical interest was centered around a basic question - what new creative potential opens up when the music stays on one chord for 4, or 8, or even 16 measures? In many ways this album, and Davis in particular are credited for "inventing" modal jazz. But it didn't. He didn't. This album is to jazz what the Model T Ford was to manufacturing. Similar to the Ford all the elements where there, Miles just put them together in a way that made the collective musical world say "Ah." It was the crystallization point rather than the inception. For instance, both the signature introduction of So What as well as the compositional character of Blue in Green and Flamenco Sketches bear the hallmark of Bill Evans. In fact, this album seems to owe a lot to his inspiration and some of that can be heard on his 1958 Album, Everybody Digs Bill Evans. Kind of Blue was also not the start of Davis's interest in Modal Jazz. The title track of his 1958 release Milestones is identifiable Modal and served as a template for tunes like So What. In fact, the entire Milestones album is required listening to gain an even greater appreciation for the Kind of Blue album. Milestones serves as a critical link from the "post-bop" Classic Quintet recordings of 1956 (Relaxin, Workin, Steamin' Cookin').
The second guiding principal for this Album is the concept of the "first thought, being best thought." Kind of Blue is legendary for being all single-take recordings, where the musicians hadn't even seen the music until they entered the studio. There is a certain degree of truth to that, however, it may be slightly more nuanced to say that the album was a collection of first "complete" takes. There are examples of false starts and "re-do's." Still, what is very true was that this was not material that had been road tested, and perfected through months of touring. When we hear the music, we are hearing musicians at the white heat moment of inspiration of new ideas. Something that also allows each musical personality to shine exceptionally bright. This is particularly heard through the horn players. Through Miles, we hear someone who is engaging a minimalist perspective, finding the shades of color within the modal scales. In Coltrane, we hear the beginning of a spiritual exploration of music in a period that has been coined "Sheets of Sound." And in Adderley, we hear the post-bop blues and gospel inspired sounds that would lead him through the 1960's and 70's.
The influence of this album really can't be overstated. Kind of Blue, for many, is the starting point for listening to jazz. It is one of top selling albums of all time. Musicians from near every genre can identify it as one of the great musical statements of the last century. And, over sixty years after its release, it sounds as fresh and cool today as ever.