Miles along the
If you believe, as I do, that "Kind Of
Blue" always refreshes, then you have reason to rejoice. A pair of volumes devoted to
the study of that classic Miles Davis album appeared within weeks of one another late last
year and they reward careful perusal.
First off the press in August 2000 was Ashley Kahn with "'Kind Of Blue': The
Making Of The Miles Davis Masterpiece" [Da Capo Press, 2000]. In November, Eric
Nisenson arrived with "The Making Of 'Kind Of Blue': Miles Davis And His
Masterpiece" [St. Martin's Press, 2000]. Don't allow the similarities in the titles
to confuse you, for the approaches of Kahn and Nisenson are sufficiently different that we
can overlook the inevitable overlap in some of the material. Though they have a subject in
common, the authors, by a happy coincidence, have produced a natural, complementary pair.
Kahn's method could almost be called "forensic jazz," if there were such a
thing, because he comes very close to reducing the album to the frequency of the
vibrations in each note, distilling the musicology of his study into highly readable prose
that informs as it entertains. Though it is not aimed strictly at musicians, Kahn does
assume a certain musical familiarity in his readers. But this is a mere quibble. The book
contains some studio chat from the master tapes of the two-day session and a feast of
photographs of the famous sextet -- Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Jimmy Cobb, Cannonball
Adderley, John Coltrane and Paul Chambers -- Miles assembled for the session.
One special treat is a shot of Adderley's music stand, upon which rests a scrap of musical
staff paper with the scales of "Flamenco Sketches" penciled in by Bill Evans and
the admonitory note, "Play in the sound of these scales." Across the lower
flange of the stand are scattered an open box of Newport cigarettes, reed packet, sugar
substitute for the diabetic Adderley, aspirin and other medication, alongside an alto
saxophone mouthpiece cover.
Kahn also informs amateur Adderleys that the scales of the tune are "C Ionian, A-flat
Mixolydian, B-flat Major 7th, D Phrygian and G Aeolian." Another treat is a foreword
by drummer Jimmy Cobb, the only surviving member of the ensemble, who observes, "To
improvise as well as they did, these guys had to have learned a lot from the jazz giants.
You get to hear the spirit of all those players in the recording of 'Kind Of Blue'."
The run up to, and the aftermath of, "Kind Of Blue" is exhaustively covered by
Kahn's book, which is a delight for the musically sophisticated. Nisenson, on the other
hand, a takes a more general approach and his study is a good starting point for those who
are curious about jazz in general and the individuals who produced this recording in
particular. This is especially so in his discussion of the influence of George Russell's
"The Lydian Chromatic Concept For Tonal Organization" on the rise of modal jazz,
of which "Kind Of Blue" is the best and most widely known example.
Coltrane, Evans and Adderley get close attention in their journey toward the milestone
represented by the recording, and it's valuable attention, for the chapter-length
biographies supply a context invaluable to understanding the recording's subsequent
Nisenson's personal discovery of the work, as described in his book's introduction, is the
doppelganger of my own and echoes the experience of a great many jazz fans who, to this
day, can while away a long evening in a discussion of a recording they've discussed scores
of times without running out of observations to make about it. Most importantly, Nisenson
writes from the point of view of love and evinces his admiration for the profundity of the
album's simplicity. This is no small achievement.
Read these books together for as complete a dissection of "Kind Of Blue" as can
be found. But do not neglect the recording itself. It is, after all, the point.
For those readers more interested in biography than musical theory, Ian Carr's "Miles
Davis: The Definitive Biography" [Thunder's Mouth Press, 1998] is an exhaustive and
authoritative look at Miles' eventful musical life and it is delivered without tears.
An additional advantage is its leavening of Miles' own "Miles: The
Autobiography" [Simon and Schuster, 1989], co-written with Quincy Troupe. The
autobiography is laced with some harshness that springs as much from Miles' mercurial
nature as it does from vitriol, and Troupe, a respected poet and educator, was wise to
include the flavor of the musician's personality, an inclusion that earned him some
criticism from Miles himself. We know of that criticism because Troupe has written another
book, "Miles And Me" [University of California Press, 2000], that provides the
back story of his acquaintance with Miles and their collaboration on the autobiography.
So, bibliophiles, load "Kind Of Blue" into your music machines, crack open these
tomes and study some of the indelible moments in jazz history. You'll be a better listener