The Sound of Isolation: Miles Davis' Kind of Blue

Richard Williams celebrates a high jazz standard
Recording sessions for Kind of Blue. From left: John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis and Gil Evans at the pianoRichard Williams writes on Miles Davis's seminal jazz record, Kind of Blue, which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year:
It is the most singular of sounds, yet among the most ubiquitous. It is the sound of isolation that has sold itself to millions. Lovers give each other Kind of Blue, even though its mood offers no consolation, let alone ecstasy. But those who give it want to share its richness of spirit, its awareness of the infinite, and its extraordinary quality of constantly revealing more to those who know it best.

For many people, it is the only jazz album they own. They may have bought it after hearing it at a friend's house, or in a record shop, or floating in the background at a restaurant: something that imprinted itself during a casual encounter. But Kind of Blue is not the equivalent of a temporary and aberrant fad for the sound of Irish pipes or Bulgarian female choirs. It is not, in that sense, a phenomenon. Its increasing success over 50 years has been the result of a wholly organic process, the consequence of its intrinsic virtues and of its special appeal to a particular layer of the human spirit.

It began life with a series of warm reviews and the admiration of other musicians. They were swift to understand its implications and to replicate its methods and mannerisms, but its essence could never be recaptured. Not even, as it turned out, by the man who made it. Davis spent the remaining 30 years of his life as the leading figure in jazz, initiating trends great and small, often putting himself at the centre of the music's frequent crises of identity. But he never tried to do again the thing that he and six other musicians had done during the course of a mere nine hours spread over two days in the spring of 1959.

If it could not be counterfeited, what happened to it was something much more interesting, an effect that could only be seen in hindsight. Kind of Blue's atmosphere - slow, rapt, dark, meditative, luminous - became all-pervasive. It was as if Davis had tapped into something more profound than a taste for a particular set of musical sounds: he had uncovered a desire to change the scenery of life.

Before Kind of Blue there had been slow jazz, mournful jazz, romantic jazz, astringent jazz. But there had never been anything that so carefully and single-mindedly cultivated an atmosphere of reflection and introspection, to such a degree that the mood itself became an art object. Kind of Blue seemed to have taken place in a sealed environment, with all its individual sensibilities pointing inwards. In its ability to distill its complexity of content into a deceptive simplicity, in its concern for a sense of space within the music, for a unity of atmosphere, and for the desire to create a mood of calm contemplation in which the troubled western soul can take its rest, it has become one of the most influential recordings of our time. [Read more]