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I Guess That's Why They Call It Kind of Blue

A new book examines the ins and outs of Miles Davis' enduring monument

Alex Fine

By Michaelangelo Matos | Posted 4/21/2010

"Lovers give each other Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, even though its mood offers no consolation, let alone ecstasy," veteran British sportswriter and music critic Richard Williams writes near the top of The Blue Moment: Miles Davis's Kind of Blue and the Remaking of Modern Music (Norton), his thoughtful look at what went into, and came out of, Davis's 1959 album. "But those who give it want to share its richness of spirit, its awareness of the infinite, and its extraordinary quality of constantly revealing more to those who know it best. Sometimes perhaps they are saying, if you like this, too, then we have the basis for something."

What Williams' book succeeds at is telling us what that something might be--and not just within jazz. One early chapter, for example, presents a potted history of the color blue. That might sound cheeky, or pretentious, but Williams' gift is his unflappable reasonableness: "Throughout history, our relationship with it has never been quite straightforward. It is, in that sense, the colour of equivocation, of uncertainty." Blue divided opinion: the Romans found it "good for little except mourning dress, and blue eyes were considered a deformity," and didn't gain widespread favor in Europe till the 12th century--making it, in a sense, a late-breaking color, as well as a relatively modern one, not unlike the blues-based music Davis would help upend.

Despite its singular title, The Blue Moment explores a number of moments where the ineffable sensibility that suffuses Davis' landmark touched down. Williams carefully lays out the steps by which Davis' music progressed toward the modal style of Kind of Blue. He examines the 1949-50 nonet sessions later collected as The Birth of the Cool and the 1956 founding of the Jazz and Classical Music Society by two participants of those sessions, John Lewis (piano) and Gunther Schuller (French horn): "This was the birth of the short-lived movement known as the Third Stream, an epithet devised by Schuller." (Williams' reasonableness is sometimes expressed, as here, by a vermouth-dry sense of humor.) Williams pays special attention to Davis' attraction to the modernist European sensibility, including his affair with French actress and chanson singer Juliette GrAcco, through whom Miles would encounter existentialist writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre.

When it comes to Kind of Blue itself, Williams writes sensibly without diminishing the ravishment at the album's core: "Now that the source materials have been pared to the minimum, and the setting of a medium tempo means that there is no obligation for the musicians to flex their muscles in a contest of athleticism, imaginations are sparked into vivid life." He traces the album's immediate aftermath in the work of its two key non-Miles voices, John Coltrane's Giant Steps and, later, A Love Supreme, and Bill Evans' trio dates at the Village Vanguard, works that differed in direction while still carrying some of Kind of Blue's inner fire. Later, Williams looks at German jazz label ECM (whose founder, Manfred Eicher, acknowledges patterning his initial output on Evans' work on Kind of Blue) and Australian trio the Necks, whose patiently unwinding, hour-long improvisations owe as clear a debt to Davis' album.

For listeners attuned to the kind of cross-genre canon proffered by the British magazine The Wire, Williams' touchstones for Kind of Blue's long-term impact beyond jazz will be fairly obvious: minimalist composers La Monte Young, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich; the dark droning rock of the Velvet Underground; James Brown birthing funk in the mid-'60s; experimental jazz-tinged English rockers the Soft Machine; the "fourth world" experiments of trumpeter Jon Hassell and the ambient and generative music of Hassell's late-'70s collaborator Brian Eno. Williams explores this terrain with as much care as he describes the Manhattan basement where Birth of the Cool was hatched. He's particularly illuminating on Brown's "Cold Sweat," whose two-note horn riff, Brown's then-bandleader Pee Wee Ellis explains, was based on the trumpet-sax motif of Kind of Blue's "So What": "And so it is--not so much subliminal as seen through a vorticist's eyes, its forms stretched and distorted."

The Blue Moment does flag some as it stretches toward the present: the Eno chapter, from a 2008 interview conducted at the producer's home studio, veers closely to a plug for his recent self-replicating computer-music programs. But for all his careful, concrete detail, Williams treats Kind of Blue as a kind of phantom, and far from being a dodge, that's an appropriate tack for a historian to take. A half-century after its release, Kind of Blue is no closer to giving up all of its secrets. As Williams demonstrates, that elusiveness just makes the album feel sturdier.

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