Week 1: Kind of Blue by Miles Davis

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The first album in my album of the week series is Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, released on Columbia Records in August 1959.  A ubiquitous album in the jazz world, with an influence that spans the decades, Kind of Blue was rated in the top 15 albums of all time by Rolling Stone magazine in 2003, as well as being the best-selling jazz album of all time.

When recording the album, Davis had accumulated a sextet that was jam-packed with extremely talented jazz musicians including saxophonists John Coltrane, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, and pianist Bill Evans, who assisted in much of the new modal conceptualizations from his teachings from pianist George Russell. 

Miles Davis's Some Kind of Blue

Calling for an extremely small amount of rehearsal, and often conceptualizing aspects of the tunes only a few hours before recording, Miles focused on modal experimentation — as compared to his previous hard-bop playing — to create a new and fresh sound.  Part of this new sound could be attributed to Miles’s method of witholding song information from his band and only giving them certain parameters such as scales or lines on which to base their improvisation.

The first song of the album, the classic “So What,” begins with a tasteful piano solo and, as the song progresses, the album’s unique style quickly becomes apparent.  Modally-speaking, improvisation over the song consists of 16 bars of D Dorian followed by 8 bars of Eb Dorian, and following the classic 32-bar format, a return to 8 bars of D Dorian.  This is indicative of the album’s revolutionary approach to jazz: it was the first example of modal jazz in which many musical ideas were played over a single prolonged chord. In the past, conforming to increasingly complex chord progressions of many areas of bebop, a few ideas were played over fast-moving chords.

A fantastic album and a masterpiece of jazz, Kind of Blue is still affecting many musicians today with ideas that weren’t just new for the time — musicians today are still often surprised with the album’s innovation, brilliant composition, and crisp modal experimentation.  It’s for this reason this is the first album of the week. I expect many of the preceding album of the weeks to be affected by these works.

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          January 31, 2015