The Fifth Element #34 Page 2
There is only one taxing page-flipping exercise. At 8:30 into "So What," at the conclusion of Paul Chambers' bass solo, you have to flip from p.37, where it says "D.S. al Coda," back to p.21, where a short stretch of the music repeats itself. The repeated section ends at the top of p.23, at 8:54; the music picks up again on p.37 at the Coda sign.
I know that that is the real sheet-music way of doing things, and it does have the advantage of making obvious that the brief sections where the two-note "So What?" theme modulates up half a step and then back down serve as bookends around the solos. But for a mere 24 seconds of music, I would have written the music straight out as it is played, rather than requiring a flipping back and forth that seems to take almost as long as the repeated section itself.
Apart from that, the only criticism I could possibly make would be that for the interested reader who is not familiar with score-reading, adding the start times of each solo (or even a time-check every 30 seconds) to the score would make it a lot less likely to get lost. Again, that's not the way scores are usually printed, but in this case I think it would make sense.
Ashley Kahn, whose volume on John Coltrane's A Love Supreme I profiled in the August 2005 Stereophile (Vol.28 No.8), gives similarly definitive treatment to Kind of Blue in Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece. Kahn's book is the best all-around treatment, and I highly recommend it. But I would still advise getting the scores first, and reading them over until you can see them with your eyes shut.
Eric Nisenson, a jazz fan who became an occasional companion (and errand- and drug-runner) for Miles Davis, has written his own Kind of Blue–specific book, The Making of Kind of Blue: Miles Davis and His Masterpiece. There is much worthwhile information in it, and some moments of real insight and empathy. But to get to them, you'll have to grit your teeth through a lot of poorly written, clich-ridden, politically correct twaddle.
The most worthwhile yet most exasperating aspect of Nisenson's book is his treatment of George Russell, an under-appreciated composer and musical theorist whose "Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization" is generally acknowledged as the impetus for the modal-jazz explorations of Bill Evans, Miles Davis, and those who followed them. The narrative part of Nisenson's text that covers Russell is engrossing. However, the Appendix, which purports to explain the musical mechanics of Russell's system, is incomprehensible.
Another disappointment in all things Kind of Blues-ian is Made in Heaven, the brief documentary that is the video content of the album's recently released DualDisc edition. What were they thinking? There's a total of perhaps three minutes from Miles Davis' 1959 CBS TV special, which included the live performance of "So What" that is closest to the album version. Instead of more rare footage of Davis actually playing, we are treated to agonizingly extensive monologues by many people who have little significant to say.
A person who goes by the name of Q-Tip assures us that Kind of Blue is both important and influential. Gee, thanks, Mr. Tip. Bill Cosby tells us that when he was a college student, most mornings, as soon as he got out of bed, he would cue up Kind of Blue. To quote Miles Davis, "So what?" Meshell Ndegeocello, manifesting the affect of clinical schizophrenia, also assures us that Kind of Blue is both important and influential. Ms. Ndegeocello, meet Mr. Tip; you have much in common.
What would have been much more valuable would have been for someone who really knows what they are talking about (Dr. Billy Taylor, perhaps?) to sit down at a piano and demonstrate the differences between major, minor, and modal scales, and perhaps even show how "Blue in Green" would have sounded with all its tonal ambiguities squared up into F major. Or have a trumpet player show how Davis' first solo in "Flamenco Sketches" would sound with all those accidental flats turned into the naturals or sharps of its nominal key of D major.
In addition to the shortcomings in content, I found Made in Heaven's production values artsy-fartsy in the extreme: intentionally bad focus, stupid close-ups of the side of someone's nose, etc.
Miles Davis and American Culture, a collection of essays and interviews edited by Gerald Early, is notable for its complete coverage of Davis' entire career, as well as his antecedents in the St. Louis jazz scene from 1926 on. An excellent chronology places each event in Davis' life in the context not only of larger jazz history, but of African-American history as well.
The Miles Davis Companion: Four Decades of Commentary and A Miles Davis Reader are well-chosen selections of contemporary source materials and retrospective criticism, with surprisingly little overlap. Both cover the entirety of Davis' career.
And the fusstification is?
If I had to explain in one paragraph to a visitor from Mars why Kind of Blue deserves so much attention, it might go something like this:
In a few hours, on two spring afternoons in 1959, Miles Davis and his colleagues somehow managed to combine several disparate and previously tentative musical innovations, all at once and in confident full strength. They abandoned popular songs, and even song form, as the bases for jazz improvisation. They freed themselves from harmonically organizing their solos by cycling through chord changes, instead letting the internal tension of modal scales provide the driving force. They opted for implied reference rather than outright quotation. They stripped out all fanfares, flourishes, and instrumental virtuosity for its own sake. What was left was pure music, equally capable of reaching the most casual listener and transfixing the most expert.
However, as Cannonball Adderley later pointed out, modal jazz's internal contradiction was that by getting rid of the discipline of conventional harmonic structure—and, often, making fewer demands on instrumental technique—players who had little of value to say could use modal jazz as a paint-by-numbers technique. But the fact that the coinage was later debased does not mean that it was not once pure.
Miles Davis was not only a supremely talented player; he fairly deserves the lion's share of the credit for bringing to the point of critical mass three of the most important developments in jazz history: cool jazz, modal jazz, and jazz fusion. But, as critic Stanley Crouch pointed out, Davis' curse was his compulsion to change, constantly. Whether any given change was for the better was less important than the fact that it was change.
Consciously or not, Davis internalized the lesson of the Orpheus myth: to look back brings only loss and sorrow. One of the most affecting vignettes in Eric Nisenson's book is his recounting of how, toward the end of Davis' life, Nisenson managed to get Davis to listen to some of his work from the Kind of Blue era. Davis listened as though hearing it for the first time, but then turned on Nisenson: "How could you do this to me, Eric? I thought we were friends."
Davis' preternatural ability to move hearts through his horn was darkly mirrored by his titanic insecurities, and his propensity to dominate and exploit those closest to him. Books have been filled with Davis' manifest and fell betrayals, ranging from his early pimping (he also stole Clark Terry's trumpet and sold it to buy drugs) to, later on, well-documented instances of beating his wives and girlfriends and stealing writing credit from Eddie Vinson and Bill Evans. (The Miles Davis Estate now concedes on its official website, that Bill Evans was the sole author of "Blue in Green.")
In a famous photograph of Davis, taken in his home in 1971 by Anthony Barboza, he stands before a large walk-in closet. The adjacent walls are book-matched hardwoods. The closet is two steps above the bedroom floor; the risers are carpeted. Davis is dressed in period mod attire. Above him, countless plaster stalactites hang from two crescent-shaped sections of the room's artsy, with-it ceiling. From inside the closet spill onto the floor countless articles of clothing, socks, shoes, and boots. Dozens of belts and scarves hang over a valet. The expression on Davis' face may be in earnest or it may be mocking. Whether mocking himself, the photographer, or the eventual viewer of the image, who is to say?
Davis was well-read (he hated Hermann Hesse's novels, telling one girlfriend that either they or she had to go), so I think it unlikely that he was unaware of the eerie resonances between the scene he created (or allowed himself to be set in) and the famous scene in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, in which Gatsby attempts to impress on Daisy Buchanan that he is no longer the penniless drifter she had known years before. Gatsby attempts this by opening the massive clothes cabinets in his bedroom and throwing dozens of luxurious tailored shirts onto a table. In his novel, Fitzgerald showed in a quintessentially American way the tragic costs of fixated love and obsessive ambition. One could argue that, but for Mark Twain's Huck Finn, The Great Gatsby is the most American of American novels.
Miles Davis approached life as though it were a matter of surface sheen—his elegant clothes and deportment, the Mercedeses and Ferraris and all the other Hefneresque elements of conspicuous consumption. Some cultural critics have found in this echoes of Oscar Wilde's aestheticism.
For me, however, what fits Davis more closely is Jay Gatsby's simultaneous and self-contradictory craving for acceptance by those of more fortunate birth, while hoping to be seen as not giving a damn. In real life, Davis' bulging clothes closets could no more fend off looming tragedy than could Gatsby's.
Miles Davis once remarked that he considered Kind of Blue a failure, compared to his ambitions for it. He said he had wished to evoke both the haunting sound of the spirituals he heard as a child while walking at night on a back road in rural Arkansas, and the sounds of thumb pianos he heard at a recital of the Ballet Africaine of Guinea. But listening to Davis' solos on "Flamenco Sketches," I do hear lonely laments; and listening to Bill Evans' solos on "Blue in Green," I do hear gently percussive dissonances. My verdict: If Kind of Blue is a failure, it is one of the most glorious failures ever.
Some people fear that by studying a work of art too much (or even at all), they will lose the ability to appreciate it, or at least, that it will lose its freshness. If that ever is the case, perhaps there was less to the work than first met the eye. For a work of the stature of Kind of Blue, I think that there will always be an element of mystery, no matter how much we read, study, and ponder it. Yes, I clearly see the notes on the printed page. But how the players managed to come up with most of those notes on the spur of the moment remains, for me, a matter of wonder and gratitude.
Footnote 1: There are single-layer nonhybrid SACDs for the US market and double-layer SACD/CD hybrids for Asia. The SACDs sounded great, so I had no qualms that they might turn out to be royal screwups on the order of Norah Jones' Come Away With Me, which used the lo-rez CD master for the SACD layer. However, I was curious about the equipment and techniques used.