Depending on your viewpoint, Miles Davis' Kind of Blue either is the most significant jazz album ever recorded—or one of the most over-hyped. Opinions on the 1959 classic vary, with tempers often flaring over who played the biggest role in the LP's artistic development and the album's meaning and message. I personally never cared much for Kind of Blue and carefully explain why in this month's cover story in Jazziz magazine. But I am overjoyed to see that Sony BMG is re-issuing the album on Tuesday as part of its Kind of Blue: 50th Anniversary Edition set. What makes this box so compelling is that Sony has wisely combined it with earlier recordings by the same sextet that I've long felt were superior.
My beef with Kind of Blue in general is that it's a relatively sterile work that dwells obsessively on icy modal riffs. These extended riffs offer plenty of cool and posturing but for me they've always come up short on heart and beauty. This isn't to say that the album should never have seen the light of day or that it isn't an essential recording for any jazz collection. It's certainly an artistic snapshot of an increasingly polarizing time in jazz and social politics. And most everything Miles Davis recorded has enormous aesthetic value.
My point here simply is that Kind of Blue may not be quite as monumental a work as we're repeatedly told it is, and that its significance has been somewhat inflated over time for a variety of reasons. For one, the compositions aren't as purely original to Miles as believed (we can thank bassist Oscar Pettiford for So What's theme and Bill Evans for two or more of the gloomier pieces). For another, the album's totemic stature owes quite a bit to Columbia's brilliant marketers of 1960, including the strategic use of the Columbia Record Club. Along the way, the label's promotional efforts even managed to win over a generation of rock musicians and convince rock record producers that it was far easier to fill albums with extended, repetitive solos than to expect more original work from their artists under contract.
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. The difference is that Kind of Blue had Columbia's marketing juggernaut behind it following Miles' success with Porgy and Bess. For all we know, Kind of Blue's marketers may have been behind Columbia's decision to delay Time Out's release until 1961. Personally, I never bought that story about Columbia's president worrying about how all the group's different time signatures would play with consumers.
Here's the intro to my article in Jazziz:
"On the afternoon of Monday, March 2, 1959, Miles Davis met his working band at Columbia Records' 30th Street Studio in New York City and handed out sheet music. After running down the modal sketches, Davis and the group set about recording three songs, adding two more later, on April 22. The result was Kind of Blue, an album that is now widely considered to be the greatest jazz recording of all time. Rolling Stone magazine ranked it No. 12 on its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list—right after Elvis' The Sun Sessions and two notches ahead of the Beatles Abbey Road. Rockers like the Doors' Ray Manzarek have hailed the album as a major influence, and Kind of Blue has sold millions of copies worldwide, making it one of the record industry's best-selling jazz albums.
But is Kind of Blue really as original or as influential as many jazz critics have claimed? Compositions said to have been written solely by Davis for the session actually were adaptations and collaborations. The sonic quality of the album is frustratingly sub-par. And it's even debatable whether Kind of Blue is this sextet's best work.
How then did Kind of Blue rise to become jazz's Mona Lisa—an unassailable icon symbolizing an entire art form? The album's early marketing efforts by Columbia certainly played a pivotal role. So did rock's embrace and the jazz industry's need for an album—any album—to serve as an intellectual jetty against rock's relentless incursions."
That gives you the gist. I also note that the Miles Davis Sextet's recordings of May 1958 for me remain far more interesting. Which is why I was gratified to see that Sony's plush Kind of Blue: 50th Anniversary Edition box has included the recordings from this date: On Green Dolphin Street, Fran-Dance, Stella by Starlight, Love for Sale and an alternate take of Fran Dance.
These May 1958 tracks originally were released on the second side of Jazz Track, an LP that foolishly paired these works with Miles' original soundtrack work for the French film Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud. The problem is that most jazz fans already owned the original Ascenseur LP and passed on Jazz Track. As a result, the material was largely overlooked and forgotten until it turned up in 1974 on the LP Basic Miles and then on a poorly remastered CD Miles Davis '58 Sessions in 1991. The tracks, of course, appeared in 1999 remastered with Kind of Blue on Sony's Complete Columbia Recordings of Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
To understand the point I'm making about the difference between the two Sextet sessions, simply listen to So What followed by On Green Dolphin Street. To me, On Green Dolphin Street (along with the other tracks from the date) are modern yet retain a sensuality that So What and the rest of Kind of Blue lack. The 1958 tracks inhale and exhale, and each artist exhibits a special beauty. Also, the tension that exists doesn't snap completely free from the listener. Listen to Cannonball Adderley's and Bill Evans' solos on On Green Dolphin Street. By contrast, the compositions on Kind of Blue have always struck me as kind of bleak.
Kind of Blue may be considered by many to be jazz's greatest recording and an unassailable work. To me, the album isn't nearly the work of perfection that many rave about. The Miles Davis Sextet recorded its best and most tender work in May 1958. Dig the two dates and compare for yourself.