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September 26, 2008

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Michael J. West

Marc, you ask:

"Let's be fair: Is Kind of Blue really more important or enduring than John Coltrane's Giant Steps or the Dave Brubeck Quartet's Time Out? Both were recorded in 1959."

I happen to love Kind of Blue very much, but what surprises me is the 1959 album you DON'T mention. I've argued and will continue to argue that the most all-around significant recording of 1959 is The Shape of Jazz to Come by Ornette Coleman.

'59 was a banner year, no doubt, with a glut of major albums, but none so thoroughly called into question the very foundation of jazz theory and practice -- and certainly none inspired as much discussion or as many passionate opinions. (And certainly that fact does give doubt to the claims about Columbia, Brubeck, and Time Out.)

Kind of Blue is both experimental and accessible, which gives it its reputation, but if you want to talk about a truly monumental record, and one that's an immediate contemporary of Kind of Blue at that, well, there's my suggestion.

Dean

Interesting points. Don't forget Mingus Ah Um. 1959 was a great year for jazz.

Mark Gorney

I am no jazz aficionado but to my ears (at least the SBM CD that came out some years ago, remastered from the original 3-track), this sounds like a damn fine recording. I have no problem with the fidelity.

DJA

I don't get the beef on the sound quality either -- it's as good or better than most other recordings of the period. Also, I'm not sure why it's relevant to the quality of the album that Miles took credit for other people's tunes on the album, especially since that was pretty much par for the course for him.

Marc, you have beef with Kind of Blue's "icy" vibe but that's precisely what so many people love about the record and why it's been so enduring -- from the opening, Gil Evans-penned intro to "So What" to the last chord of "Flamenco Sketches," the album sustains a singular, focused, contemplative mood. At the time, the idea of an album as a complete, unified work -- not just a collection of tunes -- was a relatively new thing, and Kind of Blue did it better than most.

Certainly better than Time Out, which has not aged well at all. You ask, rhetorically, "is Kind of Blue really more important or enduring than […] the Dave Brubeck Quartet's Time Out?" The answer is, unquestionably, "yes." I honestly do not know of a single jazz musician who thinks Time Out is a great record. It's true that odd meters are very popular today, but they are popular despite Brubeck's (admittedly somewhat pioneering) efforts in that direction, not because of them.

Greg Lee

"Time Out" and "Kind of Blue" both share something else in common that none of the commentators (Marc included) have said explicitly but I will: they both are great "gateway" jazz records -- you know, like marijuana is a "gateway" drug... (pardon the tawdry jargon). I have found that self-professed jazz avoiders can be reached by these bright moments on record. They can't explain why, and they don't even realize that these are not just any jazz recordings but timeless ones.

reuben jackson

It is always good to have a bounty of opinions about, well, anything, but this piece semi-reeks of reactionary nitpicking.
Oh well. Such is the case with so much "jazz literature" today...

Ian

I know Marc ISN'T a reactionary nit-picker, so I took this post as a legitimate question, and one that deserves to be asked periodically of any canonical artwork.

Aside from the question of whether KoB can be separated from its reputation, as I thought about this post I realized the more difficult task for me was separating it from my memories of the record. Although I'd grown up hearing my dad's copies of the Miles/Gil Evans compilations, KoB was the first jazz CD I bought myself, mainly because of its rep (and despite the cheesy cover the first Columbia CD issue featured). My first listen to it was a sort of rubicon, and maybe because of its reputation, I listened to it with a focus I'd never given any other album. It was moody without being somber; bluesy without being corny; intelligent without being effete; virtuosic without being cold.

And even though over the years I've come to see it in the continuum of Miles' output (and jazz history in general), it still remains above and beyond for me because of that near-religious response I initially had to it, and which has stuck with me.

The other Miles records mentioned are great, too, but I hear them as great jazz albums, whereas KoB still feels like the Gutenberg bible (even if I hear it in Starbucks). How much of that is due to the hype-based expectations of a teenager, it's hard to say--but I'd still rather take it to a desert island than any other jazz record.

Bill Forbes

I first heard "Kind of Blue" when it was released in the UK, which I think was in 1960. At the time it seemed a first-class album, as did "Milestones" for example, but certainly not something which would totally outsell other Davis albums of the time. To my youthful ears its modal innovations weren't apparent, but then I'd already been exposed to "Milestones"' pointers in that direction. When I heard - some thirty years later - that it was the biggest grossing jazz album of all time, I was astonished. I question that Columbia's marketing on its release had much to do with this, as continuing sales during the following decades seem to have been the big factor - sales to a new audience for whom the Miles Prestige sides or Bird and Diz, for that matter, had never existed.

Tom

The confusion here seems to me to be the factual content of the recording vs. the historical event. As some of the posters commented, it is problematic separating the music itself from its iconic/historic status and personal meaning in their lives (it was also my "gateway" album). I don't blame the author of the article for trying -- it encourages us to see critically and integrally --but I would suggest it is not possible. Rock fans of today often see "Sgt. Pepper" with a similar confusion -- "it's not even their best work!" Anyone interested in a theory of historical events that includes the non-time-like aspects that influences our value-judgments is encouraged to read J.G. Bennett: The Dramatic Universe, Vol. 4 History.

starry

I don't care about historic 'iconic' status, I don't write music histories I simply listen to music. Influential? I don't care less if something is influential I just want something which is good on its own. I want music I enjoy and find most stimulating not music which is just a snapshot of the time, or just because it's a particular style. And yes hype is huge among albums in general, maybe it's the same with all art. Hype seems to have gone into overdrive in the 2000s in particular, alot of decent music being pretty much unknown. People tend to obsess over performance, sound quality and production over the actual music nowadays as well.

Just listening to Kind of Blue again now and yes it does feel a bit overrated. Listened to Arthur Blythe 'Lenox Avenue Breakdown' before that and it felt more stimulating overall, probably more invention.

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  • Marc Myers writes on music and the arts for The Wall Street Journal. He is author of "Why Jazz Happened" (Univ. of California Press). Founded in 2007, JazzWax is a Jazz Journalists Association's "Blog of the Year" winner.
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