Monday, September 29, 2008

The Best Jazz Album Ever?
This Statement Is "Kind of True"

There was a good article in the paper yesterday about a recording that's near and dear to the hearts of many jazz listeners: Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. On the eve of the release of the 50th anniversary collector's edition of the famed recording, the jury is still out on whether "Best Jazz Album Ever" is a fitting title for this work. As the Dallas Morning News' Thor Christensen writes,
Kind of Blue was just 3 years old in 1962, but Miles Davis was already fed up with the spotlight that album and its successors were shining on him.

"It bugs me, because I'm not that important," the trumpeter told Playboy. "Why is it that people have so much to say about me?"If he were alive, the grumpy genius probably wouldn't be happy about the lavish 50th birthday party being given to Kind of Blue, which comes out Tuesday as a four-disc box set with a list price of $110.

Nor would he agree with its reputation as the best album in jazz history – although he'd have a tough time convincing the world. So many critics and fans agree on the greatest-ever label that it's all but etched in marble.
I can certainly make that argument in the positive, but the naysayers may well have their points:
The problem is that as sublime as the album is, it's too mellow to be canonized as the ultimate achievement in jazz, a music born in rowdy bordellos, bars and dance halls.
As the title suggests, Kind of Blue isn't so much a jazz album as an experiment in the blues. It's mournful, melancholy and slower than molasses in January.

"Miles sounded lonely, like he was sitting alone on an iceberg on the North Pole," Kind of Blue drummer Jimmy Cobb said in Made in Heaven, a 2005 short film about the album.

That's exactly the remote quality Mr. Davis was going for.

"The music has to have air in it – you can't fill all the holes," Mr. Davis told the St. Petersburg Times shortly before he died in 1991.
But the album's place in jazz history is cemented, if for no other reason than it's acknowledged as the launching pad for the style known as modal jazz:
Both Mr. Davis and [pianist Bill] Evans were already experts at cool jazz, but they envisioned Kind of Blue as a total deep freeze. Their secret weapon was modal jazz – a then-new concept where musicians improvised over basic scales, or modes, instead of complex chords.

Mr. Davis didn't invent modal jazz. But in one grand stroke, he taught the world how liberating it could be.

"It's one thing to just play a tune, but it's another thing to practically create a new language of music, which is what Kind of Blue did," pianist Chick Corea said in the book Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece.
And while audiences may not have responded right away, the selling power of the music half a century later is astounding:
Released on Aug. 17, 1959, the album wasn't a huge commercial hit like Dave Brubeck's Time Out, the year's other cool-jazz classic. But critics raved, with Downbeat calling Mr. Davis' album remarkable and comparing the music to Maurice Ravel and Belá Bartók.

With time, the album's profile mushroomed so much it became one of the top-selling jazz albums ever, with three million copies sold in the U.S. and an estimated 10 million worldwide. Today, it's the only jazz CD a lot of people own.
I have certainly sent a lot of young jazz students out in search of that CD, and I have in fact called it the one CD that should be in everyone's jazz collection. And pretty much everybody uses Miles' solo on the opening "So What" as their first transcription assignment for me, either in lessons or improv class.

I suppose that I'll have to plunk down the green for this boxed set eventually, as it sounds intriguing:
The box set (list price: $110) features the original album on both CD and blue vinyl, an additional CD of outtakes and live tracks, a 55-minute documentary DVD, various pieces of memorabilia and a 60-page book of essays.
So if it's not the greatest jazz album ever (and there's no saying that such a title really has to be held by a single recording), it's certainly one of the most influential, and its staying power can't be disputed. If jazz truly is the American classical music, one would hope that people are still having this debate a century from now, when the 150th anniversary boxed set is released, likely on a microchip to be implanted in your head.

Feel free to weigh in on this debate in the comments.

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