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Review: 'Kind of Blue' chronicle kind of great
"Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece"
(CNN) -- The moment of creation is an elusive one. Only one person knows when the inspiration for the Sistine Chapel, or Beethoven's Ninth Symphony or the Beatles' "A Day in the Life" actually struck. To those of us who later come to appreciate these works, the instant of their conception is forever lost. Scholars are left to sift through the fragmentary evidence in search of the source or spark of creativity.
Ashley Kahn, however, is not a scholar. He's a music journalist who has written for Rolling Stone and The New York Times and who once held the cryptic title of "music editor" at the VH1 music video channel. He brings the journalist's tools to bear on the question of creativity. In particular, he tries to find the headwaters of the jazz equivalent of the Nile: Miles Davis.
"Kind of Blue," Davis' 1959 album, is arguably the most popular and most influential jazz album ever made. It was a watershed moment in the development of jazz both because of its content and because of the talents it assembled. The music on "Kind of Blue" stretched the boundaries, indeed the very definition, of jazz. The musicians who made that music would go on to carve out legendary careers.
As Kahn set out to document how "Kind of Blue" came to be, he faced a daunting obstacle. Most of the people involved in the recording have died. Very few people who attended the sessions survive, and only one of them -- drummer Jimmy Cobb -- actually played the music. Fortunately, the other musicians left behind a large written and spoken record of their careers, and most of them recognized the importance of "Kind of Blue."
And what musicians they were. Led by Miles Davis, widely regarded as the most inventive trumpeter of his generation, the band that recorded "Kind of Blue" would have topped any instrument-by-instrument All-Star list of its day: John Coltrane on tenor sax, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley on alto sax, Paul Chambers on bass, Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly on piano, Cobb on drums. The lineup had evolved over the preceding couple of years as Miles made the transition from the Prestige record label to Columbia, then the dominant jazz and pop label in the country.
The music had been evolving, too. Kahn traces the development of postwar jazz from the Big Band era, through bebop to "cool jazz," of which Miles Davis was a leading figure.
But "Kind of Blue" took jazz into uncharted waters, literally and figuratively. Miles, working with arranger Gil Evans, had been experimenting with a musical structure known as "modal." It abandoned the traditional blues and pop structure of chord changes to support a melody in favor of musical scales. Gone were the "charts," or written arrangements, laying out what each instrument should be playing at each point in a song.
"Call it The Modal Manifesto," Kahn writes. "Subtitled You Can Feel the Changes. In one way, modal jazz was a step in re-simplifying the music, in that it created a structure over which to improvise that, unlike bebop, did not demand extensive knowledge of chords and harmonies. In another way, the use of modes implied a greater responsibility for the musician. Without the established chordal path, the soloist had to invent his own melodic pattern on the spot."
Kahn's excursion into music theory is relatively brief. It's also necessary to place "Kind of Blue" within the context of its times, and within the history of jazz. The author moves from the broader scope of the late-'50s jazz scene into the studio with Miles and company.
"Kind of Blue" was recorded at Columbia's 30th Street facility in New York, a converted church, and a favored venue for session players of the day. The technology of music recording was in transition, from mono to stereo, from acoustic to electronic. For example, the echo chamber at the studio was, quite literally, a chamber for producing echo.
Engineer Frank Laico recalls, "At 30th Street, a line was run from the mixing console down into a low-ceilinged, concrete basement room -- about twelve feet by fifteen feet in size -- where we set up a speaker and a good omnidirectional microphone." The sound from the session was piped into the speaker and the microphone captured the reverberations it made in the room. Laico calls it "a bit of sweetening."
Such rich details help Kahn bring the two "Kind of Blue" sessions to life. He has listened to the master recordings, which captured some of the studio chatter. "Say Wynton," Davis explains just before the first take of "Freddie Freeloader," "after Cannonball, you play again and then we'll come in and end it." Photographs from club dates and the second "Kind of Blue" session capably illustrate Kahn's text.
The five songs that make up "Kind of Blue" hit the jazz world like a magnitude seven earthquake. As Kahn documents, the album influenced generations of musicians and music lovers. He has provided scholars and fans alike an important behind-the-scenes chronicle of how those songs were conceived, refined and recorded. Now, everyone can put "Kind of Blue" on the stereo, open the book, and witness the moment of creation.
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