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1959: The Year Classic Albums Were Born

By Published: November 2, 2009
Miles DavisWhen the year 1959 began, there were only 48 states. Alaska and Hawaii would became part of the United States during that annum, the third year of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's second term. It was the year Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba and took a goodwill tour of the U.S., two months after an interview with Edward R. Murrow on CBS television.

Mattel toy company launched the Barbie doll. In professional basketball, the Celtics beat the Lakers for the NBA crown—but it was the Minneapolis Lakers.

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan
b.1941
composer/conductor
, (then Robert Zimmerman), graduating from Hibbing High School in Minnesota might have gone that year to see the epic motion picture "Ben Hur" or the comedy "Some Like It Hot" that made cross dressing acceptable under certain circumstances—especially if it involved wooing Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe
1926 - 1962
vocalist
. Or he might have tuned in television shows like "Bonanza" and "The Twilight Zone," both premiering in 1959.

In music, the Grammy Awards were created and debuted. And on the darker side, a chartered plane transporting musicians Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson crashed in an Iowa snowstorm, killing them and the pilot, a tragedy later termed "the day the music died" in Don McLean's song, "American Pie." Famed New York disc jockey Allan Freed at WABC Radio refused to sign a statement saying he never accepted payola—payment for getting an artist's records on the air—and was fired.

But in jazz, there was no such bad news (if one discounts the increasing popularity of rock n' roll music that was pushing jazz toward the fringes of popularity). The year 1959, for whatever reason, whatever alignment of the planets or whim of the Fates, was a glorious year.

At Columbia Records, albums were made that year that became some of the most influential music of its time. In fact, any time. Much has been written and said about Miles Davis

Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
and Kind of Blue and its great popularity and influence over the years. Two books have been written about that recording alone.

But 1959 was also the year that the first recordings for what was to become Sketches of Spain were done. It became the third major large-group project Miles did with his collaborator and trusted friend Gil Evans

Gil Evans
Gil Evans
1912 - 1988
composer/conductor
. In a totally unrelated way, Miles and that album captured people's fascination and took music out in a different direction. Like Kind of Blue, it attracted listeners who weren't necessarily jazz fans.

Label mate Dave Brubeck

Dave Brubeck
Dave Brubeck
1920 - 2012
piano
was popular among young jazz fans of the day, yet had some skeptics not only in the critical world, but among a segment of jazz musicians. His albums were popular, however. But when he released Time Out in 1959, it became food for thought for both musicians and fans, with its odd time signatures and intriguing sound. Like Miles' seminal album, it, too, was revolutionary for its day. A half-century later, it is still the album for which Brubeck and his renowned quartet are best known.

That magical year 50 years ago also saw the larger-than-life Charles Mingus

Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
1922 - 1979
bass, acoustic
come out with Mingus Ah Um, which has been hailed as a summation of his great career to that point. Compositions from that Columbia recording are still a staple for jazz groups. Mingus was at a creative peak at the time and the band he assembled to carry out his vision was exceptional.

Those are colossal recordings in the history of jazz and it's remarkable they were developed around the same time by diverse musical minds. Those minds, however different, also had things in common. Davis, Brubeck and Mingus were—and in Brubeck's case are still—all about music. And they had a penchant for exploring. Those jazz giants were enormously inquisitive about music, and, as such, willing to absorb things they heard, applying them to their art with their own inimitable stamp.

There is no way to explain why things happen as such in 1959. Music lovers certainly appreciate that things came to be. As Gil Evans once said about Miles, "I sure am glad you were born." The same can be said about the birth of these creative albums.

"Looking at it from the perspective of 2009, a major record label (Columbia) was really doing a pretty good job documenting jazz. If not the whole spectrum, at least it wasn't a narrow focus," says Bob Blumenthal, noted jazz critic who has received Grammy Awards for Best Album Notes and the Jazz Journalists Association's Excellence in Newspaper, Magazine, or Online Feature or Review Writing and Lifetime Achievement awards. "They had Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
at the time. His soundtrack from "Anatomy of a Murder" was also very popular that year. But if you're thinking of the iconic Ellington album on Columbia, it would be Ellington at Newport from 1956. They had Erroll Garner
Erroll Garner
Erroll Garner
1921 - 1977
piano
at the time. I'd be willing to bet whatever Errol Garner was putting out in 1959 sold more copies than Miles Davis or Mingus and possibly Brubeck. But, when you think of his iconic Columbia album, it's Concert by the Sea from 1955. It's not as if there weren't other things going on at Columbia."

Gil Evans and Miles Davis in the studio in 1959

But those four projects became momentous. Sony Music, which owns Columbia, celebrates those four albums by releasing them in their 50th anniversary editions that includes expanded writing, additional music from the bands involved, and, in the cases of Kind of Blue and Time Out, DVDs documenting the making of the music and its impact. Each package is available as part of a Colombia/Legacy series.



The impact of these musicians and their creativity was not lost on the extraordinary musician/educator Gary Burton

Gary Burton
Gary Burton
b.1943
vibraphone
. "As I was finishing high school and becoming totally devoted to jazz, some of the greatest recordings in jazz history came along at just that moment to show the way: Miles Davis with his sextet and with Gil Evans transcended bebop, Dave Brubeck unlocked the constraints of meter, and Charlie Mingus brought Ellington's legacy into the modern era. It was truly an era of giants."

Saxophonist Gerald Albright

Gerald Albright
Gerald Albright

saxophone
notes, "the musical works of Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, and Charles Mingus are wonderful examples of innovators who literally changed the face of jazz forever. In each piece you can hear the commitment, uniqueness, and the desire to strive for perfection. Each artist has inspired me to be the best that I can be, and to use the best musicians possible to fulfill my visions."

"For years, jazz's archetypal artist have been conditioned to fit the constraints of this industry and starved into acknowledgment of the insincerity that is requisite to their musical survival. Kind Of Blue, Sketches Of Spain, Time Out and Mingus Ah Um all illuminate the type of conviction these artists refined to allow themselves to be vulnerable enough to compel us to listen," says the remarkable young trumpeter Christian Scott

Christian Scott
Christian Scott
b.1983
trumpet
. "In my opinion, these albums prove that when an artist allows the music to work as a conduit for sincere expression, the sentiment of the group becomes more apparent and thus more captivating."

Blumenthal notes the development of these albums is somewhat tied to the artists' way of dealing with the relatively new format of the long-playing album format.

"The format of the 12-inch long-playing albums had really only come in about 1955. Some companies, 1956. So the idea that you have 20 minutes on each side. You make an album. You can make the album hang together somehow, differently than if you were just putting out singles or albums where you had a bunch of three-minute recordings. I suspect part of what was going on is people realizing, 'We can do something with this format.' One thing about all these albums is they have an impact as entire albums, even though there are certain tracks that you remember on them. I think that may have something to do with it, above and beyond the quality of musicians who were making recordings at that time."

Mingus left Atlantic Records in 1959 for the chance to sign with the bigger label, Columbia. It meant a bigger budget project was possible and Mingus surrounded himself with musicians he was comfortable with, including Jimmy Knepper

Jimmy Knepper
Jimmy Knepper
1927 - 2003
trombone
, Booker Ervin
Booker Ervin
Booker Ervin
1930 - 1970
sax, tenor
, John Handy
John Handy
John Handy
b.1933
saxophone
, Horace Parlan
Horace Parlan
Horace Parlan
b.1931
piano
, Shafi Hadi
Shafi Hadi
b.1929
and of course his perfect rhythm mate Dannie Richmond
Dannie Richmond
Dannie Richmond
1935 - 1988
drums
. All were familiar with the mercurial Mingus and his music. They went into the studio in May.

"It was kind of two bands," says Blumenthal. "He was clearly very satisfied that these guys in the band could play his music the way he wanted to hear it. To that extent, it may be his best album in terms of the entire band being on his wavelength."

The result is an album of superior energy and creativity. They brought compositions like "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," "Better Git It In Your Soul," "Jelly Roll" and "Fables of Faubus" to life in grand style. If it stands as a career summation at that point, it certainly wasn't a stopping point. Mingus was also moving forward.

Says Blumenthal, "You could pick a piece, like 'Better Get It In Your Soul,' and say that's (Mingus') gospel music references from his youth, his experiences in church. He wrote other pieces like that. 'Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting' from around the same time is very close to being the same piece. But maybe this version is a little more succinct, so the impact is a little more. 'Jelly Roll' is very similar to a piece called 'My Jelly Roll Soul.' 'Self Portrait in Three Colors,' I believe, uses two pieces he wrote and recorded under a different name somewhere else. He's really been working on some of this music and improving on it and editing it down and getting a stronger idea of how to make it work than some of the earlier versions.

Charles Mingus

"There's some stuff he wrote around this time, as well, like 'Fables of Faubus,' which was very contemporary in terms of commenting on what was going on in the country at the time," he added. It was a protest against Orval E. Faubus, governor of Arkansas, who in 1957 and sent the National Guard to prevent black children from attending high school in Little Rock. The music is delicious, and the words Mingus used to chant during live performances of the piece, openly questioning and criticizing the government, were appropriately biting and chastising.

The Legacy package also includes a second album Mingus made in 1959 with some of the same musicians, but adding others like Teddy Charles

Teddy Charles
Teddy Charles
1928 - 2012
vibraphone
, Don Ellis
Don Ellis
Don Ellis
1934 - 1978
trumpet
and others. Mingus Dynasty continues to show the composer's brilliance, both in writing and arranging, particularly covering some Ellington material. It was done in November of that year.

On Mingus Dynasty, "There is stuff on there that's much more of him trying to relate to classical music, than on Mingus Ah Um. I think that was part of Mingus' character as well. He was very ambitious. He wanted to write long, extended pieces. I don't think you would necessarily come away from Mingus Ah Um with that feeling. I don't know that (Mingus Ah Um) is a complete portrait of him to that point. I think it's probably the best recording of him executing a lot of the ideas that he was already known for: his blues stuff, his historical reference, his political protest, his very passionate, emotional playing when he writes ballads. There are great examples of all of those sides of him on there," says Blumenthal.

"I think it was a nice idea they added that album ... There are things that sound a little different on there. The band is different. He's using different instruments. He has vibes playing, but it's not like vibes solos, more than the orchestral sound of the thing. He was moving forward. He was going in different directions. Even after he made what many people might consider a perfect album (Mingus Ah Um), he was already looking for other things to do.

To give a picture of his musical personality, you really need Dynasty. 'Far Wells, Mills Valley' is probably the most obvious example, although I think 'Song With Orange' and 'Diane' also have the feeling of Mingus the composer, who is writing all these complex parts. Above and beyond the ability to improvise on the music, the musicians have to interpret it like an orchestra would interpret a symphony. I think that's an important part of the guy. You can hear in the music that he has a lot of diverse and volatile moods to him."

Meanwhile, in the 1950s Brubeck was taking flack from people, even though he was popular, so much so that Time magazine made him their cover story feature in 1954. Some people said what his group—Paul Desmond

Paul Desmond
Paul Desmond
1924 - 1977
sax, alto
, Eugene Wright
Eugene Wright
Eugene Wright
b.1923
bass, acoustic
and Joe Morello
Joe Morello
Joe Morello
1928 - 2011
drums
—were playing was not jazz. It didn't swing, was a complaint. Others didn't like Desmond's sound, which was more out of Johnny Hodges
Johnny Hodges
Johnny Hodges
1907 - 1970
sax, alto
than Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
. Time Out caused further confusion at first, though "Take Five" skyrocketed as a single, getting radio play, and became jazz's first million-selling single.

Brubeck broke not only time signature rules, doing music in odd meters, but he also approached Columbia with an idea of all-original material. The record label preferred to have something interspersed that listeners could attach themselves to, i.e., interpretations of standards or some popular fare. Thankfully, Goddard Lieberson, president of the label, supported the project.

"Time Out had a huge impact on me," says pianist David Benoit. "My parents played this record in the early '60s, then I learned 'Take Five' in high school and began experimenting with odd time signatures. I loved the mix of sensual odd time grooves mixed with beautiful rich melodies and harmonies. This record was clearly the basis of how I developed my own sound. I later had a the good fortune to become very good friends with Dave Brubeck and performed a series of concerts with him. Time Out remains one of my favorite recordings of all time."

Blumenthal notes that there was also a controversy apart from Brubeck's worthiness at the time, that being does jazz have to be 4/4 time or not. "People had played jazz waltzes, but they were kind of controversial. Benny Carter made a record in 1936 called 'Waltzing the Blues' and a lot of people that were in his band said, 'This is a good record. But it's not a jazz record because it's a waltz. Max Roach made an entire album of waltzes before Time Out came out. It was called Jazz in Time (Verve, 1956). That was considered a very radical thing to do. When Time Out appeared, for some people—forget about that it was Dave Brubeck—they get an album where everything was 3/4 or 5/4 or 7/4. They couldn't understand it."

He references the former jazz program in Lenox, Mass. (The Lenox School of Jazz, 1957-1960), which featured panel discussions on the art form, as well as instruction for and by musicians. "I remember Brubeck telling me at the one they held in 1960, they had a panel about time signatures in jazz and some critics were getting up and saying, 'this album Brubeck made is not a jazz album with all this 5/4 time and stuff.' And an African musicologist got up to say, 'In Africa, we have music that uses all these different time patterns. That sounds like jazz to us.' That part of it was controversial at the time."

He notes that Brubeck's music and Desmond's sound had the support of people like Ellington, Bird and Coleman Hawkins

Coleman Hawkins
Coleman Hawkins
1904 - 1969
sax, tenor
, among others. "So, it's not as if they didn't have strong supporters among great jazz musicians ... They made their commercial recordings. They did an album of Disney songs and they did an album of songs from the south, like "Oh Susanna" and things like this. But this was kind of their avant-garde record of the period. It sounded like strange music the first time people heard it. The idea that a song in 5/4 time would not only become acceptable, but become a hit record was the farthest thing from anybody's mind when they made this album."

Adds Blumenthal, "When you've got a successful group, particularly at that moment, historically, if you had a working band you might release three albums a year. So you had to have a lot of material and enough ideas to make one album set itself apart from the other albums. There are some very predictable ways to do that, like the George Gershwin

George Gershwin
George Gershwin
1898 - 1937
composer/conductor
songbook, the Cole Porter
Cole Porter
Cole Porter
1891 - 1964
composer/conductor
songbook. You can just make albums about individual composers. You can do albums about movies. The movies of Fred Astaire. The movies of Walt Disney, what have you. This was more of a musical concept than any kind of a marketing concept. To have these more abstract and musically challenging projects in the mix was a healthy thing for a band like Brubeck's to have."

It opened doors for musicians to start thinking about moving music in different ways.

"I think the tendency among creative musicians when they hear something new is to see what sense they can make of it. Even though you might not hear the influence in the sense that you count up the number of people who recorded specific songs. When you realize more people are playing in these more unusual time signatures, this album had to play a part in it," says Blumenthal. "You can say nobody made a cover version of Time Out until so many years later. But I don't think you can measure the impact in that kind of simple way. I think it's very complex. Hearing a song like 'Pick Up Sticks' in 7/4. When you hear people playing in 7/4, I'm sure part of it is because they heard that and said, 'Can I do that? And if I can do that, how can I use it?'More that than, 'Can I copy the Brubeck recording?'

l:r: Joe Morello, Paul Desmond, Eugene Wright, Dave Brubeck

That album has more longevity than any Brubeck recorded in his illustrious career. Right up to today, Brubeck, who will be 89 in December and tours regularly, can't get off the stage without playing "Take Five."

"I wonder if part of it is because the rhythms are so unusual for that time," surmises Blumenthal. "The melodies had to be very clear. For all the great music Brubeck wrote, like 'In Your Own Sweet Way' or 'The Duke,' they don't have that succinctness, melodically that 'Blue Rondo' and 'Take Five'—which Brubeck didn't even write, Desmond wrote. Though it sounds like Brubeck put it together for him. I think that might have something to do with it. A melody on piece like 'Take Five' is very basic, once you get down to it. 'In Your Own Sweet Way' goes through all 12 keys in eight bars, harmonically. That's pretty complicated. It's popular, but it doesn't have that common appeal that something like 'Take Five' might have."

To Blumenthal's point, Brubeck explains in a very insightful DVD documentary included in the Legacy package that he did, indeed, influence and encourage Desmond in regard to "Take Five," the idea for which confused Desmond for a time. It would almost seem that Brubeck could have claimed co-authorship, though he did not. The package also contains a CD of live music played by the group after the making of the album. It's a good representation of the band and a great treat for the listener.

"Dave Brubeck was a mathematician of time and space," says the young singer/saxophonist known as Jessy J

Jessy J
Jessy J

saxophone
. "His complex meters and bouncing swing had us all guessing, what's next? And where's one? I love his compositions and his signature sound of beautiful complexity, mixed with that soft West Coast swing."

Outtake from 1959 TV special, The Sounds of Miles Davis

And then there was Miles.

At two recording sessions in 1959, with a group of jazz giants—John Coltrane

John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
, Bill Evans
Bill Evans
Bill Evans
1929 - 1980
piano
, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley
Julian
Julian "Cannonball" Adderley
1928 - 1975
saxophone
, Paul Chambers
Paul Chambers
Paul Chambers
1935 - 1969
bass, acoustic
, Jimmy Cobb
Jimmy Cobb
Jimmy Cobb
b.1929
drums
and Wynton Kelly
Wynton Kelly
Wynton Kelly
1931 - 1971
piano
—he recorded a jazz album for the ages, that has been called by many the greatest album ever. Qualifying anything as "greatest ever" seems an impossible task, but certainly its reputation as being at the highest echelon is proper. It has sold more copies over the decades than any other jazz album. But that developed over time. At first, it didn't grab the public right away. Many musicians, however, have recounted stories of being immediately intrigued, at once confused, and straight away influenced.

Herbie Hancock

Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
b.1940
piano
calls it "a cornerstone record, not only for jazz, but for music," Ashley Kahn writes in "Kind of Blue; The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece" (DaCapo Press, 2000) that "In the church of jazz, the album 'Kind of Blue' is one of the holy relics."

"It brought to the fore "modal" playing, in which musicians improvised on a series of scales, not frequent and frantic chord progressions that were the basis of modern jazz in the 1940s and 1950s. People weren't writing like that in jazz in 1959 and it caused a revolutionary stir—not the last that Miles would bring about in his legendary career. "So What," "All Blues" and "Freddie Freeloader" are significant standards in jazz and its ballads; "Flamenco Sketches" and ""Blue and Green" maintain their beauty and continue to fascinate a half-century later.

"You can listen to that record and not open your eyes, know what I mean? It's crazy like that," the excellent trumpeter Jeremy Pelt

Jeremy Pelt
Jeremy Pelt
b.1976
trumpet
told All About Jazz a few years back. Adds Jessy J, "Miles Davis was ahead of his time. His style, technique, improvisations, and desire to stand out from the crowd really affected me growing up. When I first heard Kind of Blue, I knew he has created his own world. A world where blue meets green and the colors of the music became the main focus, not the notes. Just the sound. He is supreme master of style and his concept originality will continue to challenge the conformity of music as we see it today."

"I think it had a consistent idea behind it and a consistent mood," says Blumenthal. "Somebody said, 'OK we've got 40 minutes of music. How can we put the 40 minutes together so it'll be something from beginning to end you'd want to listen to?' That's about as good an example as any that are around. So that had a lot to do with its longevity. Then the particular mood it evoked is the kind of thing where people who don't necessarily feel passionate about jazz can still respond to it. All of that's in there."

He points out that Coltrane a short time later recorded one of his great albums, Giant Steps in 1959, a short time after Kind of Blue, also using the modal form. But Coltrane's album is "very complex music and very intellectual music, in a way. That is challenging musicians to respond with that level of complexity and that kind of thinking. Kind of Blue is very different. It simplified everything. Whereas Giant Steps made the harmony much more complex, Kind of Blue makes it much more simple. So now the challenge is to respond to that kind of direction, based on what the standard was at the time. Sometimes, simplifying can be a greater challenge than complicating it."

He adds, "You don't have to learn the fingering to play those substitute chords. You just have to learn how to play a melody that is going to retain interest over a long period of time. Not so much virtuosity in terms of speed and execution, as much as virtuosity of thought and creative process."

"I don't know how it happened, but it happened. I'm glad it happened," says Cobb, who at 80 is the only surviving member of that band. In 2009, he toured with a superb band playing the music of Kind of Blue to celebrate its 50th anniversary. The band's appearance at Freihofer's Jazz Festival in June 2009 was excellent.

"The only thing I'm sorry about is I'm the only one left to talk about it." he says. He reminisced of Miles that "I loved playing with him. We were pretty good friends. I used to go with him to the gym and take pictures of him shadow boxing and all that;" and of Coltrane, "He was a sweet guy. He was much more mild mannered than he sounds on the saxophone. We didn't really have that many conversations because most of the time, he was practicing. [chuckles] Even when he'd take a 20-minute solo and get off the bandstand and go in the dressing room, he practiced. That's how dedicated he was to getting to what he got to."

Blumenthal says Cobb's presence is not to be overlooked.

"I really think Jimmy Cobb has never gotten the credit he deserves for the whole feeling of the album. He followed Philly Joe Jones

Philly Joe Jones
Philly Joe Jones
1923 - 1985
drums
into Miles' band. Philly Joe was a much more bombastic drummer who was up front, kind of like Art Blakey
Art Blakey
Art Blakey
1919 - 1990
drums
with the Jazz Messengers. Whereas Jimmy Cobb was very comfortable just creating an aura you almost feel more than you hear. He just is perfect with the music on Kind of Blue. For me, it's hard to imaging Kind of Blue with Philly Joe Jones on drums, being the success that it is or having the appeal to the broad audience that it has. That's not to take anything away from Philly Joe Jones. That's not to say that Jimmy Cobb can't kick butt when he's called upon to do that. But what he does here, that's a different feeling in the Miles Davis band. It really contributes to the success of the album."

Cobb says while he can't pinpoint the reason for the success of that groundbreaking artistic statement, its sheer popularity speaks to its greatness. Blumenthal concurs. "Fifty million Frenchmen can't be wrong, is that what they say? If enough people respond to it, how can you deny its power and its greatness?"

He adds, "Miles Davis was a guy who you can go along and see his ideas developing and his interest changing. This is clearly one watershed moment in his development. The fact that it happened at a time when he not only had a band of great musicians surrounding him, who could respond to the same challenges he was trying to find for himself, but one in particular who was right on that wavelength, and that was Bill Evans."

He acknowledges that Miles had a great knack for "finding the partners that would be inspiring and make his music work. Whether it was Gil Evans or Bill Evans or Coltrane or Wayne Shorter

Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
b.1933
saxophone
or Joe Zawinul
Joe Zawinul
Joe Zawinul
1932 - 2007
keyboard
or many other musicians. He was like Duke Ellington in that sense. Some people question whether Miles Davis deserves to be credited with composing all these pieces, or Bill Evans. People say the same thing about Duke Ellington. 'He didn't really write 'Mood Indigo.' Barney Bigard
Barney Bigard
Barney Bigard
1906 - 1980
clarinet
did.' Or, 'He didn't really write 'Do Nothing 'Til You Hear From Me.' Cootie Williams
Cootie Williams
Cootie Williams
1911 - 1985
trumpet
did.' But yet, these guys on their own wouldn't have created those pieces of music. That same thing holds for a lot of people who worked for Miles Davis. Maybe Bill Evans could have come up with this stuff, or something close to this stuff. There are recordings, like 'Peace Piece' that sound a lot like 'Flamenco Sketches.' He did come up with things that were close to this, but they weren't this. This came from the synergy of Miles Davis and Bill Evans and the other guys in the band approaching this particular music. It worked as well as any other situation you can imagine."

Evans claimed authorship of "Blue and Green" and was at times perturbed about not getting credit. But that's now a side issue. It's clear that Miles—who always loved Evans style and sense of touch at the piano—had Evans in mind when he conceived of the album and the presence of Evans is a vital part of the artistic statement. The two in tandem were necessary—and wonderful.

"Miles Davis, I'm sure, could hear that, 'For what I'm thinking about, Bill Evans gets that.' Wynton Kelly is great, but he gets something else. Bill Evans gets that that thing I'm looking for here,'" says Blumenthal.

The Legacy package includes an outstanding DVD documentary about the making of Kind of Blue, but also other music done with this version of the Miles Davis band, with Evans, that shows a broader picture of the group and how well they played, with expanded repertoire that includes "On Green Dolphin Street," "Stella by Starlight" and "Fran Dance." "Even though they're not modal, and the (extra) music is based on standard chord changes, they have the same kind of emotional feeling that fits very well with Kind of Blue," adds Blumenthal.

With all that said, the renowned author and critic states unabashedly that "if I had to take one Miles Davis album to the desert island with me, Sketches of Spain is the one. There's so many to choose from. This is just my favorite ... I probably heard this before I heard Kind of Blue. It came out right at the time I was starting to listen to jazz. I think it's a masterpiece all the way around."

The album, Davis/Evans pursuit of Spanish music (at time more specifically Andalusian music) is one of the trumpeter's most popular and revealed a very different style of music. Though Miles was his same self throughout—his great trumpet sound and melodic expression are on display. They bring Gil Evans' arrangements to life in way that nothing else, and no one else, could duplicate or surpass.

Miles, in his autobiography, says the music was very challenging and getting the right expression and emotion, the had to be combined with precision, took a lot out of him.

"It's so unique," Blumenthal says. "The idea of recording this orchestral record for a feature soloist and an orchestra. But it's not a big band record at all. In a way, you can say Miles Ahead and Porgy and Bess (The previous Gil Evans/Miles Davis collaborations on Columbia Records) are very good big band albums. Individual tracks. The rhythm section is playing jazz time most of the time. There's that kind of call-and-response sections you might hear if Duke Ellington had written pieces for Miles Davis. While they have the individual stamp of Gil Evans and Miles Davis on them, and while they endeavor to make them sound like album-length works, you can still almost hear them as exceptional big band concepts. I don't think you hear Sketches of Spain that way at all.

"I think it's much closer to Brahms piano concerti or something like that. A soloist surrounded by an orchestra. And the orchestra is not functioning as a horn section and a rhythm section, brass and reeds, in that way. But just a blending of colors. I think that's great about the album. To me, they found the perfect material that had an obvious relationship to jazz in terms of its emotional content, its harmonic colors. And yet was something separate and apart. You actually could place a solo voice within an orchestral setting the way a classical composer would do it, while still providing enough leeway for the improvisation you expect to hear. It's got incredible melodies to it."

Saxophonist Paul Taylor says Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain are "classic, quintessential Miles. These two albums help define the 'cool' sound of jazz and the minimalist approach used to phrase a melody helped influence me in my playing."

Blumenthal notes that while Davis wasn't regarded in the same category with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie

Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
1917 - 1993
trumpet
in terms of pure trumpet technique, albums like Sketches of Spain showed the visceral and artistic heights Miles could reach that others could not. "The music and the setting and everything else turns his limitations into virtues." He notes—as does the great musician and historian Gunther Schuller
Gunther Schuller
Gunther Schuller
b.1925
composer/conductor
in his excellent album notes that are part of the Legacy package—that at one point on "Solea," Miles "flubs" a note and he stops. But "then he plays this great comeback. He didn't say, 'Stop the tape. Let's start again.' He sputtered around, then he let the band play for a few seconds, then he came in with this incredible thing. To me, that's real life. That's the best music. It's when somebody is trying to finds their limitations, which means risking finding them, then having to get up and start over again. He does it in the context of the piece and it's very moving."

The album does a lot to strengthen Miles' reputation as being beyond a trumpet player. He's regarded as a "voice" that almost transcends the instrument on which he expresses himself. Miles is not just a trumpet player.

Recording of it started in November of 1959, but it wasn't wrapped up until sessions in March of 1960. In total, it took 15 three-hour sessions to record and many hours of post-production with Teo Macero and Evans working the material. Again, Lieberson believed in the project and helped push it through, as that kind of time and expense for a jazz album was unheard of at the time.

Blumenthal says Miles "understood that this long-play record thing created a lot of possibilities, including the possibility to develop an intimate relationship with the person who's listening to the album. I think you can go back to him playing 'My Funny Valentine' in 1956 with the Harmon mute (Cookin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, Prestige) and say, 'OK. This guy is the voice.' I think Porgy and Bess was that way. But this one really does it to the hilt."

The Legacy package contains some extra music, including the only live version of "Concierto de Aranjuez," performed in 1961 at Carnegie Hall (part of the two-CD package Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall, Columbia Legacy, 1998). It also contains rehearsal music in which certain sections ran down the music of different songs at different times. The latter part has no real relevance and adds nothing artistically to the package. Some of the complete takes of songs, plus the Spanish tinged "Maids of Cadiz," swiped from Miles Ahead, the first Davis/Evans Columbia record, are appropriate.

The album notes by Gunther Schuller are excellent and a strong addition for the purchaser, whether musician or fan.

Blumenthal says the Carnegie Hall performance "is interesting because there are little, slight changes in the arrangement. The recording they released (Sketches of Spain) was spliced together from who knows how many takes by the time they were done. When they played it live, they had to go from beginning to end without stopping. As a result, there may be some things they took out of the recorded version just because they didn't get them right in the studio."

He adds, "It's nice they included 'Maids of Cadiz' and 'Teo,' because I think that stuff is related. But I think they could have taken the first disc, added 'Maids of Cadiz' and 'Teo' and had a single-disc release if they'd so chosen ... In the notes they talk about 'Blues for Pablo,' but they don't include that. That would have been a nice addition and they could have left out some of the rehearsal conversation, the orchestra running through the arrangement without Miles Davis being there. That was the one record where I had some question about the added stuff. (Mingus Ah Um) they gave you an entire second album as a second disc. In Kind of Blue they gave you four studio tracks by the same band, which really belongs. (Time Out) they give you live takes where he plays two of the songs again. I thought it was nice. It kind of showed you where the music from it fit into Brubeck's overall presentation at the time. In other words, yeah, it was successful, but he didn't play (live) only stuff from that album. He had other things he was identified with and he found a way to mix them all in."

Blumenthal says another thing that helped add to Miles' mystique was a something that appeared on the Sketches of Spain album cover, simple and understated.

"They've got that image of him bending, playing the trumpet and the bull charging. That little silhouette of the trumpet player became his trademark for a while. I think they used it on other albums. They used it for quite a few years, if I'm not mistaken ... it's like a whole layer of his mystique is created with that image"

He notes that the Columbia album covers contributed to the overall impact of all these iconic albums.

"The Brubeck and Mingus (covers) are both abstract paintings. But they're great ones and they really stay with you. And the Miles Sketches of Spain, especially with the silhouette of the bull and Miles Davis, they send very strong messages about the music too. They seem to capture the music. Even the abstract paintings seem to capture the music."

So, amid other fine albums of the time, like the Ellington Sound Track, Ornette Coleman's Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic, 1959), Coltrane's Giant Steps and Everybody Digs Bill Evans (recorded in December of 1958, but released in May of 1959), these legendary albums, from these eminent artists, eventually rose above all and took on lives of their own.

Why any song or any album strikes that kind of chord with people—with the culture—is a mystery. But the "why" isn't important. The music is there and it enriches us.

As Blumenthal notes matter-of-factly, " I look back and say, 'Gee. A major label was doing a surprising admiral job at documenting what was going on.'"




Selected Discography

Miles Davis, Sketches of Spain (Columbia/Legacy, 1960

Miles Davis, Kind of Blue (Columbia/Legacy, 1959)

Charles Mingus, Mingus Ah Um (Columbia/Legacy, 1959)

Dave Brubeck, Time Out (Columbia/Legacy, 1959)

Photo Credits

Courtesy of Sony Music



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