Blue Clusters

The Miles Davis recordings surrounding jazz’s most famous album

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in Features • Illustrated by Nina Pagano

If the Fates of Jazz oversaw an accounting service that charted advanced metrics like the album the most people had first fallen in love with, it’s a safe assumption that Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue would be at the top of the graphic. The LP was released 60 years ago on August 17, 1959, and it did not take long for it to settle into its celestial slot as a record, the record, you could not be without.   

We all know that person in possession of one jazz album, and this is, more often than not, it; or that hipster type who will solely, and can only, cite what became Davis’s most famous date, in a career of well-known dates, cited when the hipster is on a different kind of date, and it is time to get deep and impress a lady.  

This is both good and bad. Obviously, when you’re an artist at Davis’s level, you’re no one-hit-wonder, even when most people assess a single work as your presumed masterpiece of masterpieces. And certainly, at the same time, Davis buffs love to debate each other on the merits of the highly variegated components of his discography. Are you a first Great Quintet person or do you favor Second Great Quintet? Cool jazz or molten fusion? Proto-funk or slabby funk?  

But for the non-hardcore Davis people, Kind of Blue can function as a sort of trap, much like The Great Gatsby does for F. Scott Fitzgerald or Citizen Kane for Orson Welles. You could make — and it doesn’t take box loads of brainpower at that — arguments that Tender is the Night, for instance, bests Gatsby, or that Chimes at Midnight goes beyond the achievements in Charles Foster Kane’s fictional biopic. Items billed as THE BEST EVER can stop us cold, and even cause us to take them for granted, never reassessing them, as we instead gesture, often without thought, to where they sit in the corner, under a halo and backdrop of blue ribbons. Eh, everyone knows that’s the masterpiece, nothing to see here anymore.  

Kind of Blue, cut in the spring of ’59 over two sessions, was not the album I first came to with jazz. As an angsty teen, prone to cranking The Doors and The Velvet Underground in the car during early driving days, I went the John Coltrane route. He seemed edgier, the sonic rebel/prophet, a man who had to do his own thing, regardless if no one went with him, whereas Davis, whom I had read some about, cared more about connection between artist and audience.  

Funny how the things we can think are “less cool” when we are young are the things we most treasure as we become wiser. With Davis, I eventually understood that to blaze the trail, and to assimilate, widen the fold, simultaneously, was the real trick. Not a lot of artists pull off the blend of being vanguard and populist — Dickens, Radiohead, Handel, Monet — but Davis nailed it, and he nailed it repeatedly with Kind of Blue, with huge assists from his modal magpies in Trane, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb. 

And yet — I always had reservations. I favored what I call the various clusters of blue that surround the more legendary album, which themselves inform and reflect that album, both in how it came to be, and in how we might hear it anew. The Kind of Blue band was a short-lived unit. We talk about the record, not the band. The band itself, the parts, if you will, are rarely cited as one of jazz’s top individual units. It’s not uncommon for musicians to come together, have insta-chemistry, cohere as though they’d gigged it out together across the world for a dozen years, produce a single album, and split, all going their respective ways.  

I don’t know how many bands I’ve ever heard that can match the group Andrew Hill assembled for Point of Departure, for example, and they pulled apart faster than the Kind of Blue men. With Kind of Blue Davis went to the modal approach — that is, basing improvisation off scales — in part because that was a way for a band that didn’t necessarily gel as tighter-than-tight, to discover and explore a different strength: a propensity for unfurling matchless melody, issued forth seemingly with ease, in no hurry, under no pressure, a way for individual voices to pool into a whole, without necessarily being an organic band. It’s a huge strength, made from what might even be a limitation. For Davis, his band was his instrument, more so than his trumpet. He found a way to play his bands, much as Mozart might write a horn passage for a specific player.  

Kind of Blue really began with 1958’s Milestones, a disc I’d slot above it. Coltrane on tenor and Adderley on alto are the Mantle-Maris duo that stretch the boundaries of these various soundscapes, but Red Garland — a bluesy guy — is now there on piano, and Philly Joe Jones — a rhythm and bluesy guy — holds down the drum chair. Kind of Blue is ethereal; Milestones is earthy. Davis does better, I think, when his hands are in some degree of dirt. That plays well to his gift of rhythm; he’s more Lennon than McCartney, you might say. He likes the hard edge, more than the curve of the nimbus.

Jimmy Cobb is perfect for Kind of Blue. A regal player, you always had the sense that he could have set his sticks down on one of his toms after a gig, and got a cab across town to handle timpani and kettle drum chores with the big time symphony. This is, of course, the first Great Quintet, augmented by Adderley’s post-bop Parkerisms. It’s Coltrane that is working principally with Davis; that is, they play to and off of each other. They are the leaders of the overall sound, with Adderley reacting to Trane, so we have these two double-units, with the hugely gifted tenor man being the limpid denominator.  

That creates cohesion, the fully blended band, all members mega-blues acolytes, as much in their way as The Rolling Stones were in theirs. They sound to me like a band that could pretty much do this whenever they wanted; maybe not at this level every time, but close. They feel like an active, daily, mini-miracle, not a one-off, not an experiment, not jazz from the Petri dish.  

Kind of Blue has always felt a little Petri dish-ish for me, which is partially why I regularly return to the blue clusters. Another such cluster component is Jazz at the Plaza Vol. 1 (the second volume being a Duke Ellington set), cut at the Plaza Hotel in NYC, almost a year before the release of Kind of Blue, though it would not see release until 1973. This is a jazz party, the night’s rented out band being the full Kind of Blue line-up, minus Wynton Kelly, who only features on the one track, “Freddie Freeloader,” anyway. The unit has been plucked down from the heavens, and tossed out in the backyard to entertain us, a gigging band now.  

Modern ears might find the sound a little boxy — it’s like a high-grade bootleg, or what you get with 1950s airshots. It’s pretty standard Davis fare in terms of the set list — “If I Were a Bell,” “Oleo,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Straight, No Chaser” — but it registers as a Kind of Blue tryout. This is serious efforting. Davis is running this show, his trumpet dishing out directives as if to say, “Follow me here, if you can, let’s see what you got.” He’s working these guys over to see if they have the stuff to help formulate the ideas taking shape in his head. The modal approach is glimpsable, but you have to listen deftly. Davis hasn’t reasoned it out fully yet, nor does he know exactly what he has the personnel for. Evans could get lost in this sound. He wasn’t a sextet kind of guy. Smaller bands were his bigger friends. Not that the other players are ostentatious, but they strut more than Evans, they’re flashier, with meatier tones, but I dig this record because the band is workshopping, and integrating, in front of a paying audience. They’re finding an edge that they can live on and make art together. There is dissonance in this music, something that would be cast out of the Kind of Blue kingdom, but this is a sound of Davis trying to excise tendencies built up by established players, breaking down his crew so that his concept, still taking shape, could rise up.  

There is a very simple reason why Kind of Blue endures like it does, for both passionate jazz fans and casual friends of the medium: it’s the melody. As a document of pure melodic largesse, Kind of Blue is downright Schubertian. It’s that Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, Mozart level of melody. Perhaps nothing in music pulls us in and takes hold of us quite the way that melody can. Kids now trot out that phrase that something is God Tier? Well, Kind of Blue IS God looking up a tier to apprise the melody level.  

Best of the blue clusters for me is the set from the Kind of Blue band at Newport in 1958. This is a full-frontal rhythmic attack, with no melody forsaken.  

The seraphim vibe is in place, but also the smoky rhythm and blues flavor. “Two-Bass Hit” — a good test for how well a band meshes — is indicative of how this unit could flat out steamroll you — in a good way — when they wanted to. “Bye Bye Blackbird” is the exercise in modalities, a tinkering with an idea, in small-scale form, that is going to grow up to be mighty big before too long.  

Consider it the mash-up of Milestones and Jazz at the Plaza. Davis listens well at this festival. He might be jazz’s best listener. Ellington was a good one, too, a musician who created new makes of sound by immersion in what the other members of the band were doing, then reacting, which sometimes meant laying out. When Davis steps aside, as he sometimes does here at Newport, he sounds pleased, he sounds, as the English would say, gee’ed up — that big doings might very well be a’comin’. Ideas were being stoked and cooked in the New England sun, and, you might say, a cluster completed. One that doesn’t necessarily require halos and garlands, given the glow coming off of these crystals of blue. •

Colin Fleming’s latest book is Meatheads Say the Realest Things. His fiction appears in Harper's, Commentary, Virginia Quarterly Review, Salmagundi, and Boulevard, and his writings on art, film, music, literature, and sports run in The Atlantic, Salon, Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, and JazzTimes. He has three books coming out in 2021: an entry in Bloomsbury's 33 1/3 series on Sam Cooke's Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963; a story collection with Dzanc called If You [ ]: Fantasy, Fabula, Fuckery, Hope; and a volume looking at 1951's Scrooge as the ultimate horror film from Auteur; with a novel called Musings With Franklin: A Novel Told in Conversation That You Can Drink To to follow. His op-eds appear in USA Today, New York Daily News, The New York Times, LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. He's a regular radio guest and maintains the voluminous Many Moments More blog on his website colinfleminglit.com, which ranges in its explorations from ballet to film to sports to literature to music to art to nature to unique workout routines in historical structures while exposing the corruption and discrimination — and plain bad writing — rampant in publishing, and documenting what it truly means to endure and grow. Sometimes there are posts on Twitter @colinfleminglit

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