When I First Became Kind of Blue

Just after Christmas 2000, armed with a gift card for a big box electronic store, I paced the limited selection of CDs and DVDs desperately trying to find something I might enjoy. I was mostly listening to jazz, as I was bored to tears by everything else. I’ve been listening to jazz since I was a teenager, even when I didn’t get it. I liked the players, but the music didn’t always make sense to me.

I walked past it when I arrived at the allotted section for Jazz, and it wasn’t until I turned back, I spied it sitting there, innocuously. The sticker quietly proclaimed it to be “the best selling jazz album of all time.” I’ve heard countless musicians drop the reference to both Miles Davis and the album, Kind of Blue, without knowing the first thing about either. So armed with my gift card and the prospect of nothing to excite or inspire me, I figured, why the hell not? Let’s see what all the fuss is about, and I made the purchase. I spent the balance of the gift card buying gum I didn’t want either, swearing at the crap-tastic audio and video selection.

I really knew nothing about the disc I was about to hear or the artist at the helm when I popped it in the CD player; only distant praise as to its greatness.  The opening strains of “So What” played out with the bass and piano chattering back and forth before the bass established a groove on which the horns built a refrain; suddenly the trumpet came alive over the song’s restrained groove. Nice, I think, but I’m not overwhelmed. Not like the first time I heard “Elegant Gypsy Suite” and stood staring at a speaker in disbelief.

When that was over, I called WFIT to find out what I had just listened to. This was overwrought guitar work designed to pummel a listener with it’s virtuosity. I made the DJ tell me twice, as I’d fully expected the guitar workout to belong Yngwie Malmsteen or some other heavy metal speed freak. I was undone to discover this was Al DiMeola and it predated the 80’s guitar madness by a full decade.

Kind of Blue played all the way through, and I started it once again. I went about my routine, and every time the CD ended, I pressed play again. A month passed and I realized this was all I was listening to. Everything old and new was of no consequence. I heard other music at work, or when I was practicing with my band, but when I got home, this was all I listened to.  I’d read somewhere it’d been referred to as “the ultimate make out album.” It was this and so much more.

It really only has one speed, creeping along like a car in second gear, unhurriedly taking the scenic route. Everything about the album lacks urgency; like a beloved uncle telling a great story with a million asides, this music hemmed and hawed, hesitated, stopped and restarted as it worked out everything it had to say. “Blue in Green” indeed. Only “On Green Dolphin Street” is up-tempo, and it swings beautifully, rising and falling again repeatedly.

We are hearing first takes on almost all these tracks. As the music is sussed out by the musicians, there’s an ache of longing and pain in the drawn-out sustained notes. In “Flamenco Sketches”, the horns trail off, return, then suddenly break off; falling into a rest, the space they leave is adorned by a solitary piano chord striking, filling an otherwise empty space. The sound feels like watching a man standing outside his door, unwilling to enter and face what awaits him. It’s as though he’s moved on, while not yet willing to be perfectly honest with the person waiting on the other side of the door, casting a melancholy pall over everything.

Recorded over two nights in 1959, without the luxury of overdubs and a minimal amount of charting, these performances are all off the cuff. Miles gave directions to his players, but everything was nominal. He chose his players carefully, and soon they would all be legends in their own right. All of them would go on to be band leaders, Bill Evans, Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb, and Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderly.

Drummer, Jimmy Cobb plays behind the beat, allowing his cymbals to chatter away, they glisten, pop and ping against the effortless musings of Paul Chambers fluid bass. The whole band seems to ease themselves in and out of the transitions seamlessly. Often it feels as though the horns are whispering stories to another under the covers. So, I’d play a track again trying to better understand what I’d heard previously, to see what I had missed. Inevitably, some new phrase would call my attention, distracting me.

To Mile’s credit, he never tried to repeat himself. He’d stay in artistic periods for a while, but he balked at the notion he ought to imitate something he’d already done before. So when someone mentions to me that they like Miles Davis, I ask which period. Bop, orchestral, fusion or . . . what, exactly? “Doo-Bop,” the album he was working on when he passed away featured rappers, samples, drum machines and the ever-forward looking Miles.

Much has been written about Miles Davis and the importance of Kind Of Blue but I don’t expect these words to contribute a great deal to the dialogue. I can hear its influence in so many places, I often smile when it catches me off guard. My mind eases into a comfortable place; almost lost. There are moments when the piano picks out a few notes against the bass’ low murmuring approval from somewhere in the dark recesses of the speakers, it’s like hearing two voices confide their deepest feelings to one another and suddenly they become aware of my presence. They continue their conversation unconcerned with what I may be thinking.

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