The ‘Have you heard’ series is a look into significant albums across multiple genres. We will explore what made these albums tick and why they’re worth listening to today.
Miles Davis holds legendary status. His musical legacy goes well beyond the years he was active, but few albums are as widely hailed as a masterpiece as his 1959 record Kind of Blue.
Kind of Blue has been seen as the signifier of an era in music from the 20th century. It’s name is synonymous with jazz music and music from the 50s. It has appeared in numerous films like Pleasantville, and television shows like The Wire, The Simpsons, Dexter, Mad Men and Better Call Saul. Critics have gone so far as to call this album one of the most influential of all time. But 60 years is a long time for an album to hold its mantle as one of the most influential. How does the album hold up in 2019?
Kind of Blue was put together by a group of jazz heavyweights led by Miles Davis. The ensemble consisted of John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Jimmy Cobb, and Paul Chambers. The discography of each of these musicians reads like a laundry list of influential jazz albums and genre defining records when they were released. But among all of these Kind of Blue still holds a special place in history.
The double platinum album was written in one of Davis’ career’s most well-known phases. He was just recovering from a heroin addiction and was shedding the Hard Bop style of jazz that he had become famous for. Unlike his 1958 album Milestones, Kind of Blue relies almost entirely on an approach to composition called modality. This is an approach to music and songwriting that deviates from set structures in songs and lends itself more easily to improvisation. Davis’ experiments with this new approach changed the very face of jazz music from there on out.
The first track on the album, “So What,” introduces listeners to this newer approach that Davis took to composition. The opening track is a cool, laid-back and highly improvisational opener. Its intro twists and turns for over 30 seconds before finding the right tone for the song. Jimmy Cobb’s bassline is the foundation for the entire song from there. The composition runs through solos from Davis and his ensemble, each one its own masterclass in musicianship and improvisation.
The most well known song in the album, though, comes in one song after “So What”. Davis’ “Blue In Green” is perhaps the most memorable from his entire catalog. The five-and-a-half-minute track is moody and introspective. It ditches the more laid-back and groovy swing of the first 20 minutes of the album and instead weaves an intricate and melancholic tapestry of music that has rarely been replicated.
One of the reasons that these songs are as well regarded as they are is because they allow the listener to make of them what they want. They are not telling you exactly how you should feel when you listen to them. The experimental style of composition also means that you can listen to this album and not encounter anything familiar. It is one of the few ways of having a novel experience when listening to music. While the album’s popularity does precede it, listening to it today without ever having heard jazz before can still be an enriching experience.
Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue is the stuff of legends. It combined the creativity of some of jazz’s best known names to deliver a track list that has thrived for over 60 years.