Blue Squared

Blue Squared

Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece
Ashley Kahn
Da Capo Press, $23.00
The Making of Kind of Blue: Miles Davis and His Masterpiece
Eric Nisenson
St. Martin's Press, $22.95

By Greg Masters

copyright © 2000 Greg Masters

Forty years after the Miles Davis LP Kind of Blue was recorded, two writers have sat down to assess its impact. Each book approaches from a different direction and between the two investigate every aspect of the contributions of and interplay between the musicians on the date -- Miles Davis, trumpet; John Coltrane, tenor sax; Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, alto sax; Bill Evans, piano; Wynton Kelly, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Jimmy Cobb, drums -- and the supporting cast of producers, engineers, front office people and musical influences.

The Ashley Kahn approach digs for the tangible. He's done a tremendous job of researching and gathering sources and putting it all together into a cohesive story. Kahn is at his best assembling the facts of the recording event, dig ging into the minutae of taping procedures and uncovering engineering habits. We learn from Kahn, for instance, what brand audiotape was used to record (1/2-inch Scott 190), where the mikes were placed in the East 30th Street Columbia recording studio, which engineers were in place for the dates.

These details add to our appreciation of the record, and it's fun to listen to the recording while reading Kahn describe key moments in each composition, continually hitting the remote to re-hear musical events he singles out. But the book is less successful in describing the music itself -- granted, an impossible task. Is it fair to ask Kahn to explain the effect this music has on its listeners, or explain what is actually being created, how this particular music makes one feel? Sloppy editing mars Kahn's effort. Captions are faulty at times with images being mislabeled (left and right designations reversed, i.e.), but this first printing is a vast improvement over the version I read in manuscript. It has benefitted greatly from a good job of copyediting.

Eric Nisenson is the more facile writer of the two, more capable of addressing the intangible issues Kahn can only allude to. Nisenson is more successful discussing the effect the album has on its listeners. He speaks more to the collective influence the album has had, how it introduces young listeners to mature and complicated possibilities. One of the book's strongest chapters, a substantial interview with composer and musical theorist George Russell, makes a convincing case for the influence of Russell's musical theories on the sound of Kind of Blue.

But in other parts of the book, Nisenson is prone to making grand generalizations without backing them up. Too often he makes a statement and moves on, leaving the reader lingering. Plus, Nisenson's book would have benefitted greatly from a sympathetic editor slicing out gratuitous sentences and reducing the personal asides. More problematic is the sloppy scholarship, not ascribing source materials, mentioning recording dates without bothering to mention the LPs or tunes that resulted. While he provides much richness, his gaps in precision and his failure to substantiate many of his statements and opinions, diminish the investigation.

The modal playing on Kind of Blue opened a doorway and freed musicians from key structures and the traditional song forms used previously. It's not music about embellishing familiar tunes or impressing an audience with technical virtuosity. Miles' music here, as always, is about connecting to a listener by enunciating physical feeling, slowing things down enough to remove the listener from the ordinary, to soothe or challenge him/her into a realm Miles defines and illumines and to which we are invited along.

What we still need after reading both these books is a more thorough contrast between playing in modes and traditional Western scales, a further exploration of the feeling of suspension achieved on this LP. Some part of the magic of this record is that no matter how familiar we think we are with these five tunes, they stand up to repeated listening and sound as fresh as ever, 40 years after creation.

How did these six musicians attain the ethereal, haunting, melancholic but so enraptured sound they achieved at the three recording sessions seven weeks apart (two on March 2 and finishing up on April 22, 1959)? These books provide riches and further the discussion, but I'm still longing for a satisfactory explanation of what is so beautiful about the music. Is it too much to ask of a writer to capture in words the ineffable qualities of this music, to unravel the mysteries of the effect the music has on its listeners?


C o m m e n t s

Scholarship on KOB 1 of 2
James Hale December 20, 00

Musicologist and professor Mark Gridley has done some of the scholarship that Greg yearns for in his review. A few years ago, Mark delivered a paper with musical examples at the Tri-C Festival in Cleveland in which he shared some of the insights about KOB that he had gleaned from conversations with Bill Evans. One of his more interesting points concerned the way Paul Chambers improvised the famous opening to "So What" over the modal scale suggested by Evans.

Not sure if Mark has ever published a full paper on it or not.

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