Happy Kind of Blue Day!

On August 17, 1959—50 years ago exactly—Columbia Records released Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, which became not only the best-selling jazz album of all time but also one of the best jazz albums, period, the spearhead of the “modal” revolution.

For an elaboration of why Kind of Blue is such a great and revolutionary recording, see my column in Slate today (with illustrative sound clips included).

But for you readers of Stereophile blogs, most of whom know a lot about that sort of thing anyway, let’s deal with the important question: which LP and CD pressings of this album are the best-sounding? (And, as engineered by the shamefully unsung Fred Plaut, this is one of the best-sounding jazz albums as well.)

The version that I’m most prone to put on the ’table (and I say this as someone who has all of them) is the four-disc, 45rpm LP reissue by Classic Records. (It’s four discs because each slab of vinyl has only one side with grooves implanted; the other side is blank, which is to say flat, to minimize groove resonance against the platter. Yes, sounds wonky, but it does have an effect.) Anyway, this is the one: the instruments sound so there, so 3D; the tonal colors are just right; Paul Chambers’ bass is plucky, Jimmy Cobb’s drums sizzly, and John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, and Miles Davis sound blissfully like themselves. (Bill Evans’ piano falls a bit short of the highest fidelity, but it sounds much better here than on other pressings.)

Classic also put out a number of 33rpm reissues of Kind of Blue, and they too sound excellent, if not quite as jaw-dropping.

As for original pressings, if you can find them in good condition, the original (with the center label illustrated with six eyes—hence the collectors’ designation “six-eyes” pressing) is terrific, though the Classic 45 is at least as good in every category, often better, except for the bass, where the original is a bit more tuneful.

Columbia’s second-pressing LP, which says “360 Sound” on the label, is just a couple notches below the original. Later pressings from the ‘70s, which have no such fancy work on the label (and which have a different serial number, beginning with “PC” instead of the original “CS”), are not worth getting: the music’s still great, but the sound is flat, one dimensional, less involving.

Last year, in celebration of the then-impending 50th anniversary, Sony Legacy (which long ago took over Columbia) put out a deluxe box-set, which included, among other things, a newly mastered blue-colored LP. The folks at Sony say they used the Classic pressings as a sound check, but I’d like to know what kind of playback gear they used. It sounds much like the 1970s reissue.

Kind of Blue has a checkered history on CD. Do not get the early ones; they sound bad. A startling breakthrough came in the late 1980s, when Sony’s engineers discovered an error in the original recordings. It turned out that the tape-recorder used on that fateful day at Columbia’s 30th Street Studio was running a quarter-tone slow, meaning the playback was a quarter-tone fast. The engineers for this gold CD dug up a backup tape, which ran at the right speed; the gold CD was mastered from it; and what do you know, the correction made a real difference; the music sounded a bit hip-groovingly bluesier still.

All subsequent CDs (and all of Classic’s LP reissues, which came a bit later) incorporated this speed adjustment. But caution: Do not get Sony’s SACD of this album, a very early stab at the technology, which was often used as a demo disc by people who tried to argue that SACDs were lousy.

The next CD, which came out in 1999 and was mastered on the three-channel vacuum-tube equipment used in the actual recording, sounded much better, though, for reasons that have never been explained, it includes an unusual amount of tape hiss.

The newest CD, a double-disc 50th-anniversary edition, removes the hiss, but the music has been stripped of a smidgen of high frequencies as well. You’ll notice this shortfall only on really excellent hi-fi systems. The bonus CD consists of other recordings by the same sextet, some live, most out of print; the sound is superb, and the music much worth having.

Jonathan Mayhew's picture

I enjoyed the Slate article, but I think oversimplify a bit for the general audience. Modal jazz does not appear out of the blue but is part of a pattern of innovations including Cool jazz, hard bop, etc... Ornette had already developed his approach by 50 too. A technical point: you state that a scale consists of 12 notes. That would only be true of the chromatic scale.

ruud's picture

Last year I bought the 50th anniversary collector's edition, kinda assumed the album therefor was made in 1958. Good to have websites like this one to keep me from just assuming LOLcheers,Ruud :)

Shoehorn's picture

I bought the SACD- Doh !

jrmandude's picture

For me the great lesson of this album is the spaces that are not played. I recall Miles Davis saying that he learned the importance of what not to play as he got older. So very often I'll find myself at a performance wishing more musicians understood this. The beauty of Kind of Blue comes from the silence.

Robert Horowitz's picture

Can anyone comment on the availability of the 4 disk 45 RPM set?Robert

Tadd's picture

A bit of journalistic noodling for Slate. Why not write an appreciation of "Kind of Blue". It's possible to respond intelligently to a poem, a movie, a novel or a painting without explaining its technical aspects. It's disappointing that Jazz isn't written about with the same depth that other art receives. Your technical explanations were misleading and sometimes wrong: "The horns, blowing harmony in the background, are playing the same notes in each bar; they're not shifting them to follow the chord changes; there are no chord changes."Not true. In "All Blues" Coltrane plays the figure B-C-D-C over the G7 chord in first 4 bars, but in the 5th bar he plays a B flat. For some clarity read Ashley Kahn "Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece"

George Kaye's picture

This music transcends the medium. As a jazz musician I've learned to listen through scratches, tape hiss, edgy treble etc. I'm listening for the choices made by the players. I'm a big Paul Chambers fan, of course-I'm a jazz bassist. Listen for big intervalic leaps and unusual but brilliant bass lines. Listen for the simplicity and dead centered swing of Miles playing. Trane's brilliance in his dense lines, the perfect foil for Miles' lyricism. Hear how Cannonball struggles with modalism. He is used to playing music with lots of chord changes. Listen to voicings and precision of both pianist, note the difference in solo approach. Listen to the steady swing of Jimmy Cobb, the out of time brush work on the intro to All Blues. The brilliant engineering as Cobb makes the switch to sticks. Listeners, take the time to learn about the music. The more you know the more enjoyment there is in music. You can hear the wheels turning in the minds of the musicians as the musical stories unfold. An

Hal Espen's picture

There's no accounting for taste; I've got the SACD, and to my ears, on my system, it sounds fantastic and nearly holographic. Many a jazz-loving friend has been agog when I've cranked up that disc.

Fred Kaplan's picture

It may well be that I have to revisit this issue. The one I heard, several years ago, was a single-layered SACD. Definitely sounded bad. If a dual-disc version has come out since then, I don't know about it. I'll look into it. If it turns out there is one, and it sounds really good, I'll let you all know about it...Fred Kaplan

Hiro's picture

agreed, Kind of Blue on SACD Hybrid sounds simply marvelous...PS there's also a new A/DSD transfer of KOB master tape available on SACD http://sa-cd.net/showtitle/4866