“Good music is good no matter what kind of music it is.” – Miles Davis
With five songs unfurling over the course of a fluid and vitalised 45 minutes, Miles Davis and his all-star band helped to bring jazz full circle and changed the landscape of music once more. It is said that the entirety of popular music is the child of jazz, but by the time of the approaching dawn of the sixties, the golden age of the genre itself was slowly being subsumed by the reckless offspring of rock ‘n’ roll that it had borne itself several decades earlier. However, in the summer of ’59, with Kind of Blue, Miles Davis would once more assert its dominance and reinvent the musical wheel, with an explosion of sound that still resonates in the ripples of influence today.
Being a pioneer was simply in Miles Davis’ nature, “I have to change, it’s like a curse,” he once declared. And this was a mantra ratified by his frequent drumming collaborator, the legendary Billy Cobham, who said that “everything was experimentation. There was not one moment that whatever was put on a piece of paper would not be changed.” This endless innovation and drive to the future is mirrored in what David Bowie said when he philosophically declared: “Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it.” On Kind of Blue, it served Davis so well that many describe it as the greatest jazz album of all time.
However, excellence, and even innovation for that matter, does not always equal influence or the sort of art that could be dubbed ‘defining’, so what is it about Kind of Blue that has established its legacy as a seismic moment in music? In his early years, Davis was a propagator of what was known as bebop jazz, which is, in layman’s terms, the sort of scatty complex style of the genre with constant chord changes. However, Davis soon became disillusioned with this method of playing, and his inherent need to change things up found its muse in the modal exploring work of pianist George Russell.
Although when we witness a musical maestro behind their chosen instrument it might seem like constant improvisation as though they can just think up a sound and play it on a whim, the roadmap of chords makes it a lot more structured than that. Music might seem like poetry, but it also has a mechanical form. However, with modal jazz, the ordinary structure of things is turned on its head.
As Miles Davis put it in his autobiography: “The challenge here, when you work in the modal way, is to see how inventive you can become melodically. It’s not like when you base stuff on chords, and you know at the end of thirty-two bars that the chords have run out and there’s nothing to do but repeat what you’ve done with the variations.”
Away from the nitty-gritty of the musicology behind modality, what it creates from a listener’s point of view is floating sonic structures that explore feeling more so than sound. The driving force of the piano means that all of the instruments in the ensemble have equal billing allowing for a greater exploration of a theme than traditional soloing.
As Nick Cave told The Quietus about the modal sound: “I love all of those live albums around Get Up With It but I think it’s On The Corner is one that I really like. It really stands out because the band use solos in the same way as a lot of that jazz stuff… with egalitarianism between the instruments that creates this incredibly unique wall of sound that I just love so much.
“It doesn’t draw you in to any particular instrument like most music does; and I really enjoy listening to music in that way. And the playing on it is amazing. On The Corner… I remember first hearing it and it wasn’t that long ago. Maybe 15-years-ago and it had that [starts stamping on floor and clapping hands to rhythm] handclap rhythm to it and I remember being as completely knocked out by it as I was when I heard John Lee Hooker for the first time.”
On Kind of Blue, this new style was laid out for the first time as a sort of rudimentary off-road map for the future of jazz and every other genre that would disregard song structure and turn more towards this wall of sound approach. The sound of the record is effortless, which is remarkable considering it was pure alchemy at the time, and this would prove influential beyond measure not just in its reinvention of the rules, but the fact that Davis dabbled in the future so freely and disavowed any naysaying from the purists in an emotional maelstrom that was all his own. In short, it was musically as Promethean as splitting the atom and, in spirit, it was pure punk before there was a word for it.