50th Anniversary of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue Celebrated with New Documentary and Box Set
Like a fine vintage wine -- an epicurean delight near and dear to Miles Davis (1926-1991) -- the music contained on Kind of Blue reveals added nuance and unexpected pleasures the older it gets. And yet with each year that Kind of Blue ages, it goes through a rejuvenation process that is exciting to behold. The essence of the 1959 album has never been duplicated. That may account, in part, for its RIAA triple-platinum status in the U.S. and worldwide recognition as a timeless masterpiece, #12 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the "500 Greatest Albums Of All Time."
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Kind of Blue: 50th Anniversary Collector's Edition is an expansive and lavishly-designed box set. The contents of the box include: two CDs (running time over two hours); a newly-produced black-and-white documentary DVD (55 minutes); a full-size 60-page book of critical essays, annotations and photography; and an envelope chockfull of memorabilia. The box also includes the 12-inch LP package pressed on 180-gram blue vinyl and an enormous 22x33 fold-out poster of Miles. The box will be released on September 30th by Columbia/Legacy, a division of SONY MUSIC ENTERTAINMENT.
Of special importance to Miles Davis aficionados around the globe is the DVD, Celebrating a Masterpiece: Kind of Blue. The new DVD incorporates material from the 2004 mini-documentary, Made In Heaven, including black-and-white still photography of the recording sessions and the voices of Miles (at the sessions), as well as excerpts of radio interviews with the late Bill Evans and Cannonball Adderley. There are interviews with musicians and luminaries including composer/performer David Amram, the late Ed Bradley, Ron Carter, Jimmy Cobb, Bill Cosby, Herbie Hancock (who demonstrates "So What" at the piano), Eddie Henderson, Shirley Horn, Dave Liebman, the late Jackie McLean, funk-rocker Me'Shell Ndege'Ocello, hip-hop's Q-Tip, Carlos Santana, John Scofield, Horace Silver, and many others.
The DVD also unearths the group's entire 26-minute appearance on "Robert Herridge Theatre: The Sound of Miles Davis," a CBS television program recorded in 1959 and broadcast in 1960. Another bonus feature is the gallery of images captured by Columbia staff photographer Don Hunstein, covering the original recording sessions, as well as a key performance at New York's Plaza Hotel in September 1958. In conjunction with the latter, an unprecedented four-week exhibit of Miles Davis photography will be mounted at New York's downtown Morrison Hotel Gallery in November-December 2008. The exhibit will then travel to other Morrison Hotel locations and Starwood Hotels in 2009.
At the absolute core of the box set is the original 45-minute album program, whose five titles -- "So What," "Freddie Freeloader," "Blue in Green," "All Blues," and "Flamenco Sketches" -- are indelibly etched in our contemporary musical DNA, be it jazz, rock, third through fifth stream classical, or beyond. They are familiar old acquaintances on the LP as it existed in the marketplace for nearly three decades: the first three numbers occupying side one (which happened to have been cut on the first day of recording, two three-hour sessions on Monday, March 2, 1959); and the last two numbers on side two (recorded at the final three-hour session of Wednesday, April 22, 1959).
On CD One of the box set, after the original five tunes are presented, there is the alternate take of "Flamenco Sketches," the only complete alternate take from the original recording sessions (a track first unveiled on the 5-LP/4-CD box set of 1988, Miles Davis: The Columbia Years 1955-1985, the first Miles Davis box set ever issued by Columbia). Following the alternate take, there are "studio sequences" (ranging from 11 seconds to nearly two minutes) for every one of the five titles, and one "false start." As transcribed and fleshed out by Ashley Kahn, these short tracks are eye-opening revelations into the studio relationship between Miles, the musicians, Columbia staff producer Irving Townsend, and recording engineer Fred Plaut, at this still-early stage in Miles' career as a leader (though he had been making records since 1945).
The 1959 sessions occupy CD One -- and then CD Two turns back the calendar to May 26, 1958. The five completed tracks from that session with producer Cal Lampley -- "On Green Dolphin Street," "Fran-Dance" (with an alternate take), "Stella by Starlight," and "Love for Sale" -- are the only other studio recordings of the sextet with Adderley, Coltrane, Evans, Chambers, and Cobb (though live recordings exist from the Newport Jazz Festival in July, and the Plaza in September).
The five 1958 studio tracks, scattered on various LP through the years, were united in one place for the first time on the double Grammy Award-winning 6-CD box set issued in 2000, Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings 1955-1961. Now, for the first time, the five 1958 studio tracks are rightfully coupled -- at last -- with the five sextet tracks of Kind of Blue. The final track on CD Two is a mesmerizing 17-minute live concert version of "So What" (without Adderley, with Kelly), recorded in Holland, April 1960.
In late 1958, after some eight months, Bill Evans left the lineup and was replaced by Wynton Kelly. As Miles began to formulate his next studio recording, Evans was invited back for the sessions and became an integral spark on the album's concept. Cobb bears witness to the fact that "the concept behind Kind of Blue grew out of the way the two (Miles and Evans) played together," as Francis Davis writes. "Evans and Davis were certainly on the same wavelength, and the pianist certainly contributes more than a sideman's share of Kind of Blue's air of pensive melancholy. In addition to which, his eloquent liner notes -- titled 'Improvisation in Jazz' -- cued listeners to hear the album as the very essence of jazz, an unmediated exercise in spontaneity."
The session-by-session transcripts compiled and expounded by Ashley Kahn are an indication of the quantum advance in scholarly exegesis that has grown up around Miles Davis in general and Kind of Blue in particular. This intellectual pursuit is given full exposure in the course of the box set's 60-page book. Kahn's 3,000-word section, titled "Between The Takes," reflects the full scope of research that went into his book Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece (DaCapo Press, 2000; updated edition, Perseus, 2007, foreword by Jimmy Cobb).
Kahn's section is preceded by two major in-depth studies from writers who have also studied their subject for their entire careers. The book's opening essay is a 4,000-word overview written by Francis Davis, contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly, jazz columnist for The Village Voice, and winner of five ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards for Excellence in Music Journalism. In addition to writing many books (among them The History of the Blues, Hyperion, 1995; and Jazz and Its Discontents: A Francis Davis Reader, Perseus, 2004), he has also written liner notes for over 60 jazz and pop albums, including titles by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Bill Evans.
"The two recording sessions for Kind of Blue," Francis Davis writes, "took place in the nick of time: it's impossible to imagine Davis, Evans, Coltrane, and Adderley coming together so harmoniously a year or two later, by which point each had become not just leader of his band but practically founder of his own school."
The second essay, "The Last King Of America: How Miles Davis Invented Modernity," is a 3,000-word study by Professor Gerald Early of Washington University in St. Louis. Early, who has served as consultant on numerous Ken Burns documentary projects (Baseball, Jazz, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, The War), is a widely published author who has written about subjects diverse as Negro baseball, Motown, Sammy Davis Jr., Muhammad Ali -- and Miles Davis. Early was the editor of Miles Davis and American Culture (2001), a compendium of essays.
"Kind of Blue would not have been possible if the LP did not exist," Early says. "It was jazz conceived for the record album, not only because of the playing times of the tunes but also because of how the album creates an overall mood. Kind of Blue is not simply a series of tracks as the standard small group jazz album of the day was. Kind of Blue was one of the few jazz records of its time that had a sense of narrative, a cohesive inter-relation between the tunes. It was a work, not a bunch of disparate tunes used to pace a small group jazz album: one fast-tempo piece, one ballad, one blues, one or two standards, a bop-oriented original. The sense of the album as an organic whole added to its appeal."
Even so, the Kind of Blue LP was possessed by another kind of voodoo for decades. Musicians who tried to "play along" with the first three tracks (side one) were perplexed because the music always sounded slightly sharper than pitch. In 1995, the problem was traced back to the old Columbia 30th Street Studio, and a 3-track tape machine that was running slightly slow during the March recording sessions. As a result, after the mastering process, those first three tunes always sounded sharp. In 1995, this pitch problem was finally corrected. At the same time, it was decided to remix the original 3-track tapes on a Presto all-tube recorder, similar to the one used in 1959. The mixes were brought back to "real life." The rich, full instrumental sound was restored, rendering every previous configuration obsolete.
Listening to Kind of Blue today, the ground rules come quickly: This was an exercise in solo and group improvisation, a break from the conventions of chordal complexity, "improvising on the sparest and starkest of scales as an alternative to bebop's dense thickets of chord changes," as Francis Davis writes. It was a "return to emphasis on melodic rather than harmonic variation," as Miles told The Jazz Review the year before. The works were composed (as it were) just hours before the sessions, so there could be no rehearsals as such. Once the group got past the "studio sequences" described earlier, the results were all first takes; only "Flamenco Sketches" was given an alternate take.
Moreover, as Davis and Early and many other writers and musicians have openly discussed -- and Miles would frequently accede -- the five works all had their roots in other sources. Kind of Blue was the first Miles Davis album comprised entirely of songs credited to his name, even though at least two of its themes were provided by Evans: "Flamenco Sketches" (whose piano intro derived from Evans' "Peace Piece," itself based on Leonard Bernstein's "Some Other Time" from On The Town); and "Blue in Green," which (writes Davis) "sprang verbatim from [Evans'] introduction to 'Alone Together' on an earlier recording of that standard by Chet Baker." This may have been business-as-usual in the jazz scene, but the financial impact of Miles not crediting anyone else certainly hastened the departure of Evans from the group.
How and why has Kind of Blue held on to its status as an album that crosses genres, speaks to generations, and is one of the first (if not the first) album that any new jazz acolyte purchases? It "was one of those records," Early concludes, "along with Dave Brubeck's Time Out, another Columbia jazz record released in 1959, that made jazz a middlebrow music, a respectable music for middle-class, educated people who felt they had refined taste. This was enormously important for Davis both commercially and artistically for the rest of his career. As jazz ceased to be dance music, it needed middlebrow status in order to survive as art music. Davis was essential in making this transformation possible."
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