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Stuff of Legends: Miles and Co. and Kind of Blue

R.J. DeLuke By

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Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece From the first notes of Bill Evans piano intro it starts to hook you. The resonant tones from Paul Chambers bass tip-toe in and the head to "So What" is played. Then the warm, soulful trumpet enters as a resounding, but subtle, symbol crash from drummer Jimmy Cobb sets off the beginning of Miles Davis' solo and musical journey. That expedition doesn't last for just one song, but an entire album. And not just any album.

It's Kind of Blue, a musical odyssey created more than 40 years ago whose vibrations turned into tremors felt around the world. They can still be felt.

It's been called the musician's Bible. What many consider the greatest jazz album of all time also routinely makes lists of the greatest music of all time. Its simple style belies a music deep in riches, pleasing to fans and critics alike, as well as turning the musicians upside down—something nearly unheard of in one package.

Duane Allman adored it. Herbie Hancock calls it "a doorway for the musicians of my generation," and Quincy Jones says if one album had to explain jazz, that one is it.

And now, marking its anniversary, two books have been released solely to discuss the legendary album and the legendary musicians who made it possible.

People wanting to know the behind-the-scenes story about the mythic creation—cut in only two sessions, March 2 and April 22, 1959—can do so with the reading of Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, by Ashley Kahn (Da Capo Press) and "The Making of Kind of Blue; Miles Davis and His Masterpiece, by Eric Nisenson (St. Martin's Press).

Both are roughly 200 pages long and while, naturally, they cover much of the same ground, the tone of each is different, as is the route the authors take to explain this extraordinary music. Both contain interesting revelations for those who like stories behind the stories, as well as those who may be Milesophiles or Coltranians who lust for more inside information about such larger-than-life figures.

Kahn's book (read interview) is borne out of his own appreciation of the record, which he calls "the premier album of its era, jazz or otherwise." He did extensive research on the events by talking to Columbia staffers and various musicians and he presents a tale that begins with how Miles came to prominence and follows the path that led to the development of his special, unmistakable trumpet sound. The trail led not only to "Kind of Blue" but to other groundbreaking concepts by the ever-exploring trumpeter.

The forward of the book is by Cobb, the last living member of the group that laid down that music for the ages: Miles, saxophonists John Coltrane and Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, pianists Evans and Wynton Kelly, Chambers and Cobb. Cobb sheds no great light on the proceedings in the short intro. He remembers being excited because he was to make a record with Miles that day, always an event in itself. In retrospect, he says there was no way of knowing the music would have such a prevailing influence—one that is not likely to ever go away.

Cobb also recalls his fondness for recording in Columbia's studio on New York City's 30th Street, a former Greek Orthodox church that has since fallen to the wrecking ball. It was a venue treasured by musicians for its feel and sound and a site where many superb albums were cut. Kahn devotes a section to it.

Kahn's story follows Miles' early career and how the band was assembled. He explains things like Miles' influence on 'Trane, and how Davis' music evolved from his days with Charlie Parker to the modal form on which "Kind of Blue" is based. The form, while not invented by the group, was packaged and performed in such a way that it shook up the world.

Both authors acknowledge, rightfully so, the importance of George Russell, a composer, arranger and theorist who had been developing the modal form that Miles was so intrigued with. The many conversations the curious Davis had with Russell about modal music were key in the development of the style and the album. Based on improvising on scales inherent in a given note, the modal form allows solos of undetermined length, as opposed to the chord-based system of bebop, which is more structured and established solo length based on "running out" the changes on one's instrument.

The new system confused many musicians at first, even 'Trane, who was profoundly influenced by it. (Without a "map" of chords, Coltrane was at first confused on when to stop his solo, one anecdote has it. "Tell him to take the horn out of his mouth," Miles said dryly, in his distinct manner of cutting to the chase).


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