I haven’t talked much about jazz yet. As I mentioned in a previous post, I got into it via the Velvet Underground, reading the Rolling Stone interview with Lou Reed in the superb Velvet Underground Companion, where he says that “Sister Ray” was their attempt to do something like Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor but with a rock feel. At the time, the Velvets were probably my favourite band (excepting of course The Beatles who always tower far beyond everyone and everything else), and “Sister Ray” my favourite song of theirs, so I was interested. I started in the time-honoured fashion of Kind Of Blue and swiftly became a rabid Miles Davis fan, devouring every album I could find – everything from Birth Of The Cool to Milestones to Agharta to Jack Johnson to Bitches Brew, while not forgetting Miles Smiles and In A Silent Way. This naturally lead to Coltrane, with Blue Train, Impressions, Ascension, My Favourite Things and A Love Supreme just some of my favourites. (Wasn’t so keen on his screeching atonal free jazz stuff like Live at the Village Vanguard… Again!, where he takes “My Favourite Things” and makes a monster of it.) Also the free jazz stuff – of course, Ornette Coleman’s pivotal Free Jazz (which is actually quite fun, though the bass and drum solos are tedious), Archie Shepp’s The Way Ahead and Cecil Taylor’s Jazz Advance.
But Kind Of Blue, that was the one was I played most often. Some jazz is very academic and you can appreciate it intellectually but it lacks emotion. (For instance, Giant Steps by Coltrane). Kind Of Blue on the other hand is all emotion and lyricism: the sophisticated melancholy of “Blues In Green” and “Flamenco Sketches”, the rich rhythmical backdrop of “All Blues”, my favourite track on the album, with Davis on the harmon mute trumpet reedy, pensive and haunting. Davis, Coltrane and then “Cannonball” Adderley solo in superb fashion, with Coltrane’s solo particularly memorable: searching, restless, the sound of a city. “Freddie Freeloader” on the other hand is relatively upbeat, with Wynton Kelly’s sparkling piano solo and Cannonball’s on the alto sax, starting caperingly and ending almost raunchy. (Coltrane’s is magnificent, a dazzling starburst of sound).
What I find enduring about Kind Of Blue is what you might call its spiritual quality. It is the sound of creativity and technical mastery. What is most interesting is that although there’s little interplay as such (the horns only play together on the choruses, if there are any, which in the case of “So What” and “Freddie Freeloader” are simple phrases), the solos comment upon and follow from each other with great empathy: they’re all obviously listening intently to what’s being played. Thus, Davis takes the first solo in “So What”, leaving lots of space (as is his wont); Coltrane follows, modifying his typical “sheets of sound” approach to one more akin to Davis’ (ample spacing); then Adderley, more playful than the other two.Similarly, the opening phrases to “Freddie Freeloader” are as sardonic and simple as the opening to “So What”, but Wynton Kelley’s wonderful solo gives it an exuberant kick, leading to Davis’ trumpet exclaiming “Freddie Freeloader!” (at 4.07), then followed by Coltrane and Adderley in the fashion I’ve mentioned above. Thus, despite the melancholic and sardonic atmospheres, repeated listenings to Kind of Blue reveal it as sublime.
Why is this important to me? Well, after graduating I had a shitty old time. Most of this was self-inflicted, but still, despite doing well at university I couldn’t find any kind of decent job; and having imagined the kind of luminous future you see and read in all the “working class lad done well” kind of books and films, I felt bitter and miserable. As well as this, I was an uppity know-it-all: not an appealing combination. And the thing with know-it-alls is that they are not open to other perspectives, to anything outside their box, which is what makes them so chronically fucking stupid. Eventually, several things combined to make me realise my utter asswipe behaviour, and I gained a little humility. I opened the doors and started trying to stretch myself: new music, new books, new hobbies (learning the piano, cycling), hell, I even tried a little painting (Jackson Pollock-style, heh-heh). I became a youth group leader, went new places, met new people – anything to get out my rut. The openness, empathy and appetite for new perspectives I relate to and even trace back to Kind of Blue, which during this period I played daily.
Cliche it might be, it really is a magnificent album.