Miles Davis | Kind of Blue (1959)
Modal Jazz – 45:44
“Life is a lot like jazz…it’s best when you improvise…”
I have a recurring nightmare. I’ve been given a major role in a play that I’ve always dreamed of appearing in. I head out to my first rehearsal, excited to be finally stepping on to the stage and beginning an adventure. Except things begin to unravel. Instead of simply walking into a read-through, slowly trawling through the script with my fellow actors for the first time, I find myself entering backstage only to be told ‘It’s opening night!’. Despite my protestations that I’ve not even begun to look through the script, I’m pushed out from behind the curtain to a packed audience, waiting for me to begin my first speech. Only I can just stand there and stutter. I look about me for help; frantically, my eyes appeal to those standing in the wings, desperate for any assistance. But instead, I’m left to fend for myself, unable to do anything but falter and, finally, to awake in a cold sweat.
Fortunately, my experience on stage has been a little less heart-stopping. But that doesn’t mean I’ve never had moments when I’ve been left lost for words while treading the boards. Rather than coming out in a cold sweat, though, like my anxiety nightmare, I admit that I rather enjoy it. Not through some strange desire to torture myself; I simply like the art of improvisation. Since taking to the stage as a teenager with a fellow actor (and close friend) who seemed unable to remember the words and would consequently come up with his own (particularly impressive in a Shakespeare play), I’ve enjoyed the thrill of thinking on my feet and seeing where it would take it us. Having taken part in occasional impro nights (think amateur Who’s Line Is It Anyway), there is a real joy to taking a subject out of the blue and creating something for an audience to enjoy from it.
Spontaneity when performing is all about trust; you have to rely on those around you to help each other stay afloat. It’s the same whether you are improvising when acting or creating music. You need to surround yourself with performers you can rely on to have your back. It was something which Miles Davis certainly knew when he went about creating a whole new genre of jazz music – modal jazz. In technical terms, to quote the font of all knowledge that is Wikipedia, modal jazz “uses musical modes rather than chord progressions as a harmonic framework”. Or, to get down to the nub of it, chords are used to create a theme which other musicians then improvise harmonies over the top. At least, I think that’s what it means. I could be wrong. It’s at times like this that the words of another jazz great, Thelonious Monk, spring to mind: “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” I am trying to use one medium to explain another; and, it has to be noted, it is not always an adequate method.
But before I go about destroying my own blog through some existential crisis, let’s turn to an album regarded as the best-selling jazz record of all time. I say ‘regarded’ as sales figures are a little hazy but, given that many critics and fellow musicians consider it the pinnacle of perfection, it’s probably safe to say that it has sold more than a few copies. But, as with all of these things, the real question should really be: ‘Is it any good?’ After all, when bands like One Direction are able to achieve worldwide fame, faith in the public’s ability to spot a good tune suddenly becomes rather tainted. (Please note: I make no apologies for dismissing One Direction so casually; they are one of many ‘pop’ bands that are truly awful and have no right to even exist. I may have upset a few followers of those particular pre-pubescent warblers, although, if you’re reading this blog, it’s unlikely that you’re a fan of that particular band. You have the ability to read for a start. But I digress…)
There is no doubting that Kind of Blue is a beautiful album. Given the improvised nature of it, it would hard to call it beautifully composed, but certainly there is a structure behind it (despite Davis’ refusal to rehearse the album with his musicians before recording began). The opening track, So What, has a light, breezy feel to it; the notes seem to float over the chord structures. Unlike some of the jazz I have already encountered on this list, this is a much easier listen; something which surprised me. Perhaps it’s because I have become more accustomed to the sounds of the genre and have begun to pick it up; perhaps it is the skill of Davis and his fellow musicians to create something accessible despite pushing the boundaries of jazz itself. Either way, I have to admit to rather enjoying it. True, I am still struggling to recognise the difference between the tracks; it may be that, without lyrics (and bearing in mind that, as I said earlier, words are more preferred medium), I struggle to capture differences in my mind without words as markers. Is it the greatest album of all time? It’s debatable. But it can arguably be considered the greatest jazz album of all time. But, regardless of whether this is your style of music, this is certainly album worth listening to.
If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Kind of Blue here:
Next time: Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs by Marty Robbins