Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the release of what is widely considered the greatest jazz album ever recorded: Kind of Blue by Miles Davis.
Although the record didn’t spring Athena-like out of Miles’ head, there was precious little warning that preceded it. In 1953, composer/arranger George Russell (who passed away just a few weeks ago) published the first treatise on jazz music theory, The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization. “The Concept” proposed a new theory of jazz harmony that allowed performers to rely less on chord structure and more on scales or modes. Miles latched onto Russell’s idea (“The motherfucker who taught me how to write” – Miles) just as he was growing dissatisfied with the state of be-bop and post-bop music:
The music has gotten thick, guys give me tunes and they’re full of chords. I can’t play them … 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 variation. There will be fewer chords but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them.
Miles tested modal improvising in 1958, first with his solo in the Gil Evans arrangement of “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess, then with “Milestones” from the record of the same name. With those two warmups under his belt, he assembled one of the finest ensembles in his long history of fine ensembles and recorded all of Kind of Blue in two sessions on the spring of 1959.
But enough history, watch and listen instead. This video is a promo for the 50th anniversary reissue from Legacy Editions, but the sentiments are no less heartfelt:
Here’s the complete performance of “So What” excerpted on the promo video. The pianist was Wynton Kelly, who had replaced Bill Evans after the studio sessions. Listen and be amazed by the searing tenor solo from the almighty John Coltrane:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qlIU-2N7WY4
You have Kind of Blue in your collection. If you still have vinyl or CDs, it’s on the shelf next to Sketches of Spain, Brubeck’s Time Out, or Coltrane’s Giant Steps. Find your copy and give it a listen. Not as dinner music, but music that requires your complete attention. Rediscover what makes it a masterpiece.