Miles along the bookshelf 

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 influence.


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 for it.