Required Listening: Kind of Blue

I could speak endlessly about the merits of rock music. No matter where the location, I can be seen listening to my iPod, generally with Radiohead, Modest Mouse, or some other group blaring in my ears. However, there are times when rock won’t cut it. It is then that I pull out one of the greatest records in the history of music: Kind of Blue by Miles Davis.

A split response often results from discussion of Miles Davis, and even of jazz. Some view jazz as an uninteresting, overly difficult genre to be involved with. Long, self-indulgent solos are stereotypically layered atop each other as big-name players all work to hold attention. This doesn’t even begin to describe the confusing nature of modern or freeform jazz. Instead of proper time signatures, rhythmic norms are simply tossed aside, and the sonic equivalent of a child throwing paints at an easel is accomplished; some people find brilliant modern art, while others see a mess.

Miles Davis is not immune to this critical examination. His later works in the realm of fusion are met with great disparity of remarks. Some view the album Bitches Brew as one of the greatest artistic statements of the 20th century, where others scoff at its style and complain about the very nature of the music. Seemingly, the majority holds a positive view of the album, but the current output of fusion (seemingly none on a popular scale beyond Herbie Hancock) suggests that the far-reaching powers of Bitches Brew are limited. Other artists have cited its influential nature, but few seem to follow the trail.

Enter Kind of Blue. There are few albums that can be considered “all-time greats” by a universal following. Even fewer still seem to possess a status of perfection. Yet nothing on Kind of Blue manages to sound wrong, or even “just” good. The stellar combination of Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb simply cannot be matched. Even here, grasping for a metaphor in rock terms, the task is impossible. No single rock artist can fulfill what these men represent in a musical scale. This fact makes the performance even more impressive. Presented with rough sketches for songs (formed by Davis), the group then took to the studio and recorded some of the early takes. And no section of any song sounds overdone. Davis, despite being the leader, doesn’t dominate any song. It could be argued that the saxophone work alone makes this album worthwhile. But here still, no solo becomes overbearing, and each chart is governed by the fantastic rhythm provided by Chambers, Cobb, and the two pianists.

The first track on the record, “So What,” is an excellent opener. Barebones piano and bass serve to slowly lead the listener into the musical waters, creating a welcoming and interesting atmosphere. From here, the song goes in countless directions – all of them good. After the essential speed of the song is established, Davis starts the round of solos, exhibiting his insane range and technical skills. These, while important, are even more amazing in the delivery. Davis makes his trumpet sing. The emotion is clear and striking. Triumph and pain combine, creating a sublime sensation. Quite simply, it’s best to sit back and let the man work: your mental investment will occur automatically.

And then Coltrane and Adderley do their work. “Freddie Freeloader” showcases some of the most impressive sax statements ever put to record. The effortless motion from note to note, from idea to idea, is mind-blowing. Here, the statements complement each other. While the particular phrasing is clearly unique to each player, the overall essence of the song is preserved, creating a stunning sense of unity. As Adderley completes his solo, Coltrane picks up, using individual-yet-familiar runs. While credit is clearly due to the rhythm section, the restraint and skill of the saxophone players is unrivaled.

The most appropriate adjective for Kind of Blue is “smooth.” When blended, the music from each artist creates this flawless artistic achievement. The record is welcoming, and easy to listen to the first time. Impressive instrumental talent will captivate and form a great interest for future plays. And continued listening only serves to reward. Intricate details become more apparent and the depth of each song is slowly unraveled. “Blue in Green” will win your heart some days, and proceed to tenderly break it on others.

There is a bold statement to be made after listening to such a profound album: this is surely a perfect record. Through the first experience, each song is stunning and fresh. Jazz-haters will bend, quickly receiving the album as inviting and fun. On the hundredth play, every song seems like an old friend, revealing more hidden details, forming a clearer picture of personality and history. Jazz-lovers will enjoy the longevity of the record, representing some of the greatest instrumental achievements in the entire genre. Kind of Blue deserves a position in every music collection, and will manage to be appropriate to many situations. Do yourself a favor and buy this record.