Miles Davis—a definite first choice

Miles Davis: Kind of Blue

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An important moment of every move I’ve made as an adult is setting up the stereo in the new place. There’s just something about doing this that makes the place feel like home to me. So Sunday night, after we’d spent a bone-wearying weekend of hauling things around, unpacking and organizing, I assembled the low shelving unit where the stereo lives and put it together. Miles of tangled wires and cables were involved, as were equally long strings of expletives—the kitchen isn’t the only thing that is sometimes blue in our household.

But finally it was done. And it was time to pick the first piece of music to play on it in the new place.

We own a lot of Miles Davis, perhaps more than any other single musician. This surprises me, thinking of it now, because I can go for long stretches without listening to Miles or even thinking of him. But during the move, an old cassette of his music made it into the car. I mentioned recently [and will again, I’m sure] how much Chicago commercial radio sucks. And on the weekends, even my semi-reliable college stations head south. Since a good chunk of the weekend was spent in the car running errands, the cassette got a lot of play and reminded me of why we have so much Miles. So when I needed that important first piece of music to play in the new apartment on a rainy Sunday night, I knew where to turn.

First released in 1959, Kind of Blue is the best-selling jazz album of all time. It is also a watershed moment in jazz. Miles had begun experimenting with “modal” jazz—in which musicians are given a scale or series of scales [or modes] to improvise from, instead of chords—with his tune Milestones in 1958. But this was the first album to totally embrace this approach. Since we’ve all heard so much jazz influenced by this album, it’s hard to understand how revolutionary it was. But it fundamentally changed jazz.

And what a stellar line-up. Miles on trumpet, John Coltrane and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on saxophones, Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums.

The first track on Kind of Blue, Miles’ So What, opens with Evans’ solo piano sounding at first like it’s going to take an introspective, contemplative turn. But within a few notes, it’s already signaling the energy that will keep propelling the music forward, keep it building, leaning into what comes next.

With all its popularity, there have been many reissues of this disk. This 1997 release is the one to look for. It was remastered on an all-tube three-track machine that restores the rich, full sound of the recording sessions. Other CDs—and apparently even some of the vinyl releases—have had a tinny sound.

On a recent rainy Sunday night in Chicago, that rich, full sound filled our new apartment beautifully.

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