Friday, 15 January 2010


Richard Williams has written an admirable history of the classic Miles Davis album Kind Of Blue, but what he is trying to do in this book is much more than that, in those efforts he is only partly successful. There is no doubt that the Davis sextet with both John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly on saxes is one of the high points of 20th century music--and if it isn't the album right at the apex it probably signals the beginning of a period of frenzied change in musical energy, in New York, that may culminate with Coltrane at the Village Vanguard. That's food for another argument.

Williams tells the story of the record with precision and understanding. The use of both Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans on piano, and the racial undercurrents behind that. He may give somewhat short shift to Adderly's album Somethin' Else, with Miles, which is very much a precursor to Kind Of Blue and, as you might expect from Cannon, somewhat more engaging, but overall Williams is a very sympathetic portrayer of the people involved, he has a balanced and empathetic view of Davis, and he is accurate and telling in his analysis of the record itself.

What is harder to is to make the case for it as the most influential, even of Davis' own records. At least three times in his career, Davis changed the course of jazz, with Birth Of The Cool, Kind Of Blue, and Bitches Brew. Since Birth more or less led to Kind Of Blue, and since the revolution Bitches Brew sparked more or less fizzled out, to be replaced by a sort of return of hard-bop, you'd think it makes sense, until you consider In A Silent Way, which even Williams concedes may be Davis' greatest work. But this is head-of-a-pin kind of quibbling.

More important is whether Williams makes the case for the centrality of Kind Of Blue to his 'Blue Moment', whether there is an era which it can be said to encapsulate. He makes the case in one way; certainly the record reflects and sets the mood music for a certain sense of the 'hip' character of the late 50s, the Hugh Hefner ideal which would bleed into the Rat Pack kind of JFK glamour of the early 60s. Whether this fits in with Fellini or Antonioni I'm not so sure. In musical terms, however, Williams makes the case well, especially the influence of what you might call the Impressionist composers, Debussy, Ravel, Faure. You could argue this sort of jazz carried on those experiments, where modern classical music moved in another direction which was then carried on by free jazz. In the jazz world, George Russell and Gil Evans' influence is pervasive, and Williams makes the case so well you wonder whether some of the music he cites is obviously influenced by Russell far more than Miles himself. Trying to distill an era into one record is difficult, but with a few limitations, most notably the narrow range of influence jazz had even then, when it was at its creative peak, Williams does a fine job.

As a sidebar, while I was listening to Kind Of Blue, I re-read the original liner notes, written by Bill Evans. This struck me as a kind of condescension by Columbia; there is a piece to be written about the underlying tone of the (admittedly loving) commentaries written by white jazz writers about black jazz musicians in that era, but the choice of the one white musician (and Davis--and Adderly's--bands were almost always integrated) to actually explain the music seems a device to give it a certain 'respectability'.

Williams' other task it to trace the influence of Kind Of Blue, and here he is less successful. This is partly because it's hard to see it as the, or even a, main factor in the rise of rock bands like The Velvet Underground or King Crimson, and partly because those bands are in a large dead-in you might label 'art-rock', which Davis-influence or no, shows no organic flow from his music. That I'm no fan of the sub-genre may influence me somewhat here. Williams is better on the modern composers, like Terry Riley, but again, modern classical music followed a different path, before maybe ending up in a similar place--Kind Of Blue doesn't constitute a prime, direct source. Even ECM, whose music does bear a lot of direct connection to the record, started with a lot of musicians trying to be Russell, or Coltrane, or Bitches Brew Davis, before settling into that KOB groove (and of course Keith Jarrett, ECM's biggest seller, came through Davis' BB band, after Charles Lloyd's.

It's an engaging read: Williams writes well enough to avoid the Anorak Syndrome which infects so much jazz (and music) writing, and it's refreshing to see him trying to make the links between the various types of music he loves. That he almost manages to do that, convincingly, makes this book a success.

The Blue Moment by Richard Williams Faber £14.99 ISBN 9780571245062


Anonymous said...

Aah yes, books about music..... books about musicians work but books about music generally do not.
I agree entirely with your comment that it is hard to see the links between Kind of Blue and the prog-rock of the late sixties and seventies. Whoever the young Fripp or Cale were listening to, I would bet quite a lot it wasn't mid period Miles. (And I would bet the same is true of Richard Williams.) I was engaged with rock music in this period as well as liking jazz and no-one I knew was listening to King of Blue in 1964-7. By then we were all digging a spectrum from Paul Butterfield at one end through to the then emerging avant garde of New York on the coat-tails of Coltrane.
In fact Kind of Blue looks more like either a kind of dead end or the beginning of that strange beast 'smooth jazz'.
The only obvious link to Kind of Blue might be Steely Dan, for whom Williams, when writing for Melody Maker in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was a big boster.

Michael Carlson said...

It's a good point. I think RW is feeling a certain 'cool' attitude or approach, but if you dont find Eno or Reed or Fripp or whomever cool, you won't make the connection musically: I see Coltrane and Shankar more directly, and maybe the Bitches Brew Miles too....

Anonymous said...

Two further thoughts on Kind of Blue (and Miles in general).

The first is that three of the band that recorded that LP - Miles, Coltrane and Bill Evans - were heroin addicts and probably were heroin addicts when the record was made. And, if you think about the LP, it does have that kind of slightly droopy, slowed down feel that junkies seem to display. (I've never taken heroin so cannot comment first hand.)

The second is a comment on Miles qua trumpet player. I played trumpet from age 12-21 and got good enough to know what's what. Miles' playing begins to deteriorate in the late 1960s for the simple reason, as he obliquely admits in his autobiography, that he simply stopped practicing. Brass instruments require you to practice daily, more or less. If you don't the embouchure deteriorates and with it your playing. Miles' playing got worse and worse and he compensated for it by (a) hiring terrific sidemen (b) wearing increasingly snazzy clothes and (c) footling about with keyboards.

Critics (and most musicians to whom whom I have presented this) simply will not acknowledge this. I guess there is something about hero-worship which prevents people from acknowledging that their heroes are human.

But there it is. By In A Silent Way Miles was basically playing not very much and making lots of mistakes; and it got worse from then on. I think you could say that from Bitches Brew til the end of his recording career he led a series of superlative bands which were all damaged by the presence of this crappy trumpet player whom they couldn't fire 'cos it was his gig.

Michael Carlson said...

on the other hand, form follows function: bitches brew works partly because of that limited percussive trumpet sound, which may have been necessity, and may have been saved by teo macero editing different takes together, but what did we stoned kids know abt embouchshire or wherever it was he came from...

if kind of blue does reflect scag it would make the lou reed/john cale connection more of a, uh, connection?