By late 1958, Davis employed one of the best and most profitable working bands pursuing the hard bop style. His personnel had become stable: alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Bill Evans, long-serving bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb. His band played a mixture of pop standards and bebop originals by Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and Tadd Dameron. As with all bebop-based jazz, Davis's groups improvised on the chord changes of a given song. Davis was one of many jazz musicians growing dissatisfied with bebop, and saw its increasingly complex chord changes as hindering creativity.
In 1953, the pianist George Russell published his Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, which offered an alternative to the practice of improvisation based on chords and chord changes. Abandoning the traditional major and minor key relationships of classical music, Russell developed a new formulation using scales, or a series of scales, for improvisations: This approach led the way to "modal" in jazz. Influenced by Russell's ideas, Davis implemented his first modal composition with the title track of his studio album Milestones (1958). Satisfied with the results, Davis prepared an entire album based on modality. Pianist Bill Evans, who had studied with Russell but recently departed from Davis's sextet to pursue his own career, was drafted back into the new recording project, the sessions that would become Kind of Blue.
Kind of Blue was recorded on three-track tape in two sessions at Columbia Records' 30th Street Studio in New York City. On March 2, the tracks "So What", "Freddie Freeloader", and "Blue in Green" were recorded for side one of the original LP, and on April 22 the tracks "All Blues", and "Flamenco Sketches" were recorded, making up side two. Production was handled by Teo Macero, who had produced Davis's previous two LPs, and Irving Townsend.
As was Miles Davis's penchant, he called for almost no rehearsal and the musicians had little idea what they were to record. As described in the original liner notes by pianist Bill Evans, Davis had only given the band sketches of scales and melody lines on which to improvise. Once the musicians were assembled, Davis gave brief instructions for each piece and then set to taping the sextet in studio. While the results were impressive with so little preparation, the persistent legend that the entire album was recorded in one pass is untrue. Only "Flamenco Sketches" yielded a complete take on the first try. That take, not the master, was issued in 1997 as a bonus alternate track. The five master takes issued, however, were the only other complete takes; an insert for the ending to "Freddie Freeloader" was recorded, but was not used for release or on the issues of Kind of Blue prior to the 1997 reissue, Pianist Wynton Kelly may not have been happy to see the man he replaced, Bill Evans, back in his old seat. Perhaps to assuage the pianist's feelings, and also to take advantage of Kelly's superior skills as both bluesman and accompanist, Davis had Kelly play instead of Evans on the album's most blues-oriented number, "Freddie Freeloader". The live album Miles Davis at Newport 1958 documents this band. However, the Newport Jazz Festival recording on July 3, 1958 reflects the band in its hard bop conception, the presence of a Bill Evans only six weeks into his brief tenure in the Davis band notwithstanding, rather than the modal approach of Kind of Blue.
Kind of Blue is based entirely on modality in contrast to Davis's earlier work with the hard bop style of jazz and its complex chord progression and improvisation. The entire album was composed as a series of modal sketches, in which each performer was given a set of scales that defined the parameters of their improvisation and style. This style was in contrast to more typical means of composing, such as providing musicians with a complete score or, as was more common for improvisational jazz, providing the musicians with a chord progression or series of harmonies.
Modal jazz of this type was not unique to this album. Davis himself had previously used the same method on his 1958 Milestones album, the '58 Sessions, and Porgy and Bess (1958), on which he used modal influences for collaborator Gil Evans's third stream compositions. Also, the original concept and method had been developed in 1953 by pianist and writer George Russell. Davis saw Russell's methods of composition as a means of getting away from the dense chord-laden compositions of his time, which Davis had labeled "thick". Modal composition, with its reliance on scales and modes, represented, as Davis called it, "a return to melody." In a 1958 interview with Nat Hentoff of The Jazz Review, Davis elaborated on this form of composition in contrast to the simple chord progression predominant in bebop, stating "No chords … gives you a lot more freedom and space to hear things. When you go this way, you can go on forever. You don't have to worry about changes and you can do more with the line. It becomes a challenge to see how melodically innovative you can be. When you're based on chords, you know at the end of 32 bars that the chords have run out and there's nothing to do but repeat what you've just done—with variations. I think a movement in jazz is beginning away from the conventional string of chords… there will be fewer chords but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them."
Released August 17, 1959
Recorded March 2 and April 22, 1959 (New York, New York)
Producer Teo Macero
* Miles Davis – trumpet, leader
* Julian "Cannonball" Adderley – alto saxophone, except on "Blue in Green"
* John Coltrane – tenor saxophone
* Wynton Kelly – piano, only on "Freddie Freeloader"
* Bill Evans – piano on all, except "Freddie Freeloader", liner notes
* Paul Chambers – bass
* Jimmy Cobb – drums
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