By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Apr 9, 2009
The biggest sellers in any category are often cringeworthy.
Top-selling music CD: “The Eagles Greatest Hits”. (If I hear “Hotel California” one more time, I'll scream.)
The hugest movie: ”Titanic”.
Highest book sales: After “Harry Potter”, it's “Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution” and “The Da Vinci Code”.
My conclusion: The public is often wrong.
One notable exception is the biggest-selling jazz record: Kind of Blue. Released in August of 1959, it's celebrating its 50th year of glory. And not just for lovers of jazz --- it's #12 on Rolling Stone's list of "500 Greatest Albums of All Time”.
There are reasons why this album is so significant. The musical ones are technical but boil down to this: Miles Davis changed the language of jazz from improvisation based on chords to threads based on scales. That opened the music up and maximized the opportunity for melodic sweetness.
If you have heard Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud --- the movie soundtrack Davis recorded a year before “Kind of Blue” --- you have a fair idea of the sound here. Hard bop's vanished. Noisy improvisation's been sent packing. The trumpet is breathy, spacey, minimal; it's a late-night walk on a deserted Paris street.
That soundtrack was mostly improvised, with French musicians backing Davis. “Blue” is built on the same idea, only the band is made up of giants: John Coltrane and Julian "Cannonball" Adderley on saxophone, Paul Chambers on bass, Jimmy Cobb on drums, and the pianists Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans. As with the movie soundtrack, they recorded with no rehearsal and minimal conversation --- all the musicians had to work with were sketches of scales.
None of that really matters. What counts is what you hear --- and the welcome news this time is that the music which breaks tradition and makes history is surprisingly easy to listen to. Most of the songs are slow, trance-like, relaxed; this is Barry White for hipsters. Any fool can hear this CD and feel space opening up and possibility enlarging --- it's at once totally serious and extremely accessible.
The proof is in the listening. And for half a century, the listeners and critics agree: If you own only one jazz record....