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Home / Brunch / Why Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue is one of the greatest jazz albums of all time

Why Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue is one of the greatest jazz albums of all time

Musician Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue is one of the greatest jazz albums of all time, writes Sanjoy Narayan.

brunch Updated: Aug 28, 2016 09:59 IST
Musician Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue is one of the greatest jazz albums of all time.
Musician Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue is one of the greatest jazz albums of all time. (Getty Images)

On August 17, The Vinyl Factory, a British indie music enterprise, tweeted a 40-second video clip to mark the 57th anniversary of the release of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. Many believe that the 1959 record has changed the shape of not only jazz but also music.

The slickly edited clip features five great musicians – pianist Herbie Hancock, double-bassist Ron Carter, rapper Q-Tip, the late singer and pianist Shirley Horn, and guitarist Carlos Santana – giving their one-sentence take on the album. Hancock says it’s a cornerstone album; Q-Tip says it’s like the Bible, every home has a copy; but it’s Santana’s quote that kept recurring that evening when I dug out my copy of Kind of Blue and spun it. He says in the video: “How do you go into the studio with minimum stuff and come out with… eternity?”

So much has been written about Kind of Blue that anything one says about it can seem superfluous and banal. People consider it a giant of an album, a definitive record in jazz and one that can be a decider. If you are about to explore jazz you could listen to it first – if you like it, jazz could be for you; if you don’t, just give up the effort.

Chances are, you will fall in love with Kind of Blue. The tone is set from the very first bass line on the opening track, followed by the piano and then the horn. The band comprises geniuses: Miles Davis on the trumpet, of course, but also Cannonball Adderley on the alto sax, John Coltrane on the tenor sax, Paul Chambers on double bass, Jimmy Cobb on drums, and Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly on piano. Yet there’s marked absence of one-upmanship of the sort that you sometimes hear in hard bop. That’s because this album is one of the pioneering works of what is known as modal jazz, which uses musical modes rather than chord progressions. For the recording of the album, the tunes were not rehearsed by the musicians. Instead, Davis gave them harmonic sketches and the band riffed on them.

Also watch: Miles Davis - “Love for Sale”- John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley

Everyone has his or her favourite track on Kind of Blue. Mine is All Blues. First, it’s the length of the track, nearly 12 minutes, but also because it sort of, at least for me, epitomises the blues-influenced, understated flow of Kind of Blue. It’s a very versatile album – you can play Kind of Blue in low-volume ambient mode; or you can sit in the dark with the volume cranked up and enjoy every nuance of it. That’s what I did after getting the cue from The Vinyl Factory’s tweet.

The Vinyl Factory’s website is a trove of delightful things. In the films section, there are full-length documentaries: I discovered a short film series, Analogue, which features musicians whose love for analogue has defined their music; a film on an Amsterdam radio station and record store that has set up shop in an erstwhile brothel deep inside that city’s storied red-light area; a vinyl FAQ that tells you when you should change your turntable’s needle; and a docu on New York’s famous jazz clubs. Besides stories, news and features, The Vinyl Factory also has a label and record shop and, indeed, its own vinyl pressing plant.

80s Redux: The Boston band Pixies have a new bassist, Paz Lenchantin (in picture), and will soon release their sixth album. (Photo by Frank Hoensch/Redferns) (Redferns)

A band that I like teased us in recent weeks with releases from their forthcoming album. They are the Pixies, the influential Boston alternative rock band formed in the 1980s – they broke up in 1993 but came back in 2004 and later lost their original bassist, Kim Deal. Well, the Pixies are back with a new bassist, Paz Lenchantin and I had the good luck of seeing them play in New York last year.

The Pixies play their own brand of punk rock inflected with the pulsating style of surf rock. Their songs are, in true punk style, short but with high pace and impact. The yet-to-be-released sixth studio album is called Head Carrier but the band has dropped two singles from it – Talent and Um Chagga Lagga. Both are upbeat songs and older Pixies fans would probably love their throwback to the band’s early sound such as on albums from the late 1980s like Doolittle.

Borne identity: MC Heems, of the now disbanded Das Racist, is back with Riz Ahmed as the Swet Shop Boys.

Tailpiece: When Das Racist, the New York rappers, broke up a few years ago, I was dismayed. MC Heems, Kool AD and Dapwell (real names: Himanshu Suri, Victor Vazquez, and Ashok Kondabolu) had just one studio album and two mixtapes but their work was clever, funny and funky. Given their ethnicities, their lyrics often explored issues of identity but in a clever sort of way. And they evolved a style of hip-hop that was very distinctive from anything else in the genre.

Also watch: Pixies Debut Brand New ‘Um Chagga Lagga’

So, I was glad to see a single dropping from the Swet Shop Boys, MC Heems’s new venture with Riz MC (Riz Ahmed of Pakistani descent). The track T5 has a shehnai soloing through it and is about the humiliation and harassment of random checks at airports. The single precedes the release of their album, Cashmere. If T5 is an appetiser, the meal will be worth waiting for.

Download Central appears every fortnight

From HT Brunch, August 28, 2016

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