Miles Davis and his All-Star cast used modal scales to break new ground in the thick of hard bop.
“Kind of Blue” has a unique and ongoing place in Jazz. It is almost certainly the biggest selling jazz album of all time with sales of over 20 million (though no-one in the industry seems to have been keeping an accurate count). Fifty five years after its original release it is still selling at a rate of about 5,000 per week. “Kind of Blue” is widely held to be the first album based on modal jazz, establishing a basis for much of the jazz of the 60s and 70s, the jazz revival of the 90s and signposting the free jazz movement. In bringing modal forms to a wide audience, it has also been influential in the development of rock and world music. This reputation is large and deserved.
The band is spellbinding. John Coltrane at his fluent, inspirational best, playing tight sounding, beautifully crafted tenor sax solos; Julian “Cannonball” Adderly, so often liable to overstatement, here measured and controlled on alto sax; Bill Evans’ piano shining through and, of course, Miles’ muted trumpet perfectly anchoring the whole project. Paul Chambers plays a pivotal role, his bass lines triggering the modal changes, while James Cobb’s drumming is sparse and precise. This was Miles’ first great group; others were to follow; generations of jazz musicians were infused with Miles’ vibe and went on to carry that vibe in their music.
So if “Kind of Blue” is the first example of an album built around modal jazz, what exactly is “modal jazz”. You need to start with what modal jazz is not. Jazz developed from show tunes written by professional composers in Tin Pan Alley. It is a well known fact that a wide swathe of jazz compositions can be traced back to a single song – George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”. Blues is at the core of modern jazz (just as it was for much of Gershwin’s writing) but the sophisticated, swinging version of blues that is jazz owes its origins to these sophisticated, musically adept sources.
Essentially jazz solos were constructed by improvising new themes over the basic chord changes mapped out by the professional songwriters; blowing the changes. This is not as easy as it might sound since the soloist is required essentially to change key (that is, choose notes from the scale in a different register) when certain chord transitions occur. What beboppers like Charlie Parker discovered was that you could increase the energy and drive of music made in this way if some of the chords mapped out by writers like Gershwin were substituted by certain more dissonant, augmented and flattened chords. Playing over the changes became progressively more challenging, more like a high wire act in which the prize of staying high on the wire was to make great stimulating jazz but the danger of falling off led to music that simply fell apart. Miles knew all about this since as an eighteen year old he was playing trumpet on many of Parker’s incredible performances. Key changes come thick and fast. Incredibly, Parker is credited with the sixth sense of predicting the changes and alluding to them ahead of time in the music, the equivalent, perhaps, of a boxer knowing which defensive block to make before his opponent has thrown a punch. These were radical, new ways of recreating the essential protest of the blues; producing transcendence, redemption, resolution, from seemingly unalterable, unchangeable, hard reality. But the magic of the blues was now realised in an ever more sophisticated arena.
For “Kind of Blue” Miles asked the question: why play the changes? Why base jazz on variations of musical structures meant for an essentially white, conservative audience in the theatres of New York?
The theory of using modal forms as a basis for jazz is credited to George Russell‘s Lydian Chromatic Concept, which was published in the early fifties and which Miles studied. It is a radical concept, yet one with a long tradition. Western music had become rigidly bound to a formal structure based on the major and minor harmonic scales, essentially based on just two of the modes (the Ionian and Aeolian scales with chromatic variation). The earlier scales that had been known in the ancient world and which had survived in folk music, gospel, blues and the music of many indigenous peoples around the world had been forgotten. The Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian and Locrian scales are the “forgotten” modes. They can be constructed in a very similar way to the standard (Ionian) scale and use the same intervals (pattern of spaces between notes) but each starts on a different degree (pitch) compared with the Ionian scale. Though traceable to Ancient Greece (from where the modes get their names), many believe that those in use today were developed in the 9th century in Gregorian chant. However, Pythagoras in the 5th century BC is the actual source.
Miles Davis first used a modal form of composition with the track “Milestones” (which was released on the eponymous album). He was particularly clear on the origins of this music, as he relates in his autobiogrpahy: “I started to write in the modal form and on “Milestones”… I really used that form. Modal music is seven notes off each scale, each note. It’s a scale off each note, you know a minor note. The composer-arranger George Russell used to say that in modal music C is where F should be. He says that the whole piano starts in F. What I learned about the modal form is that when you play in this way, go in this direction, you can go on forever. You don’t have to worry about changes and shit like that. You can do more with the musical line. The challenge here, when you work in the modal way, is to see how inventive you can become melodically. It’s not like when you base stuff on chords, and you know that at the end of thirty-two bars that the chords have run out and there’s nothing to do but repeat what you’ve done with variations. I was moving away from that and into more melodic ways of doing things. And in the modal way I saw all kinds of possibilities.”
This sounds complicated but the consequences of introducing an awareness of modes are great for jazz and much modern music. The musician’s palette of melodic colours is considerably wider. The harmonic language is enriched, since modes bring new harmonic structures into the aural mix. The number of chords, however, is cut down, so that the music resembles those non-Western genres that develop thematic material not through chord progression but via rhythm and melody over a fairly stable harmony. So in this new context, the musician is no longer “playing the changes” in a relatively restricted musical terrain; they are free to take as much space as they like to develop their musical ideas. And this is what is developed with such artistry with “Kind of Blue”.
Importantly, Miles Davis understood that this implied a different way of working with music, a different take on jazz composition. As Bill Evans wrote on the original “Kind of Blue” liner notes: “Miles conceived these settings only hours before the recording dates and arrived with sketches which indicated to the group what was to be played. Therefore, you will hear something close to pure spontaneity in these performances. The group had never played these pieces prior to these recordings and I think that without exception the first complete performance of each was a (the) take.” It is this spontaneity that makes “Kind of Blue” so remarkable, that means that it is so fresh nearly fifty years after its recording. And what Miles had realized with such vision and clarity is that it was the modal form that freed up the jazzman and made such spontaneity not only possible but essential.
Miles Davis had got to know George Russell via Gil Evans. In seeking a new pianist to join the band ahead of “Kind Of Blue”, Miles Davis had sought Russell’s advice in recommending someone who knew ‘the modal thing”. That recommendation was Bill Evans who had been studying composition with George Russell.
In making this music, Miles digs back into the heart of the blues. He had been impressed by the music accompanying the Ballet Africaine from Guinea who he had seen perform in New York, especially music played on finger piano. He realised the connection between African music of this kind and modal music. Again from his autobiography: “Kind Of Blue” came out of the modal thing I started with “Milestones”. This time I added some other kind of sound I remembered from being back in Arkansas, when we were walking home from church and playing these bad gospels. So that kind of feeling came back to me and I started remembering what the music sounded like and felt like….. That feeling had got in my creative blood, my imagination, and I had forgotten it was there. I wrote this blues that tried to get back to that feeling…So I wrote about five bars of that and I recorded it and added a kind of running sound into the mix, because that was the only way I could get the sound of the finger piano. I didn’t write out the music for “Kind Of Blue”, but brought in sketches for what everybody was supposed to play because I wanted a lot of spontaneity in the playing, just like I thought was in the interplay betwen those dancers and those drummers and that finger piano player with the Ballet Africaine”.
The third great quality of “Kind of Blue” is its sense of openness and space. Using modal forms makes this possible. But it required a further particular influence to draw this out. That influence is Ahmed Jamal whose music had just this quality. Miles was openly admiring of Jamal’s approach and encouraged members of his band to go to listen to Jamal whenever they could. Compared with his piano playing contemporaries, Jamal was minimalist, preferring economy and suggestion to outward show of virtuosity. With “Kind of Blue”, Miles at last found the means to bring these concepts of openness and minimalism into his music fully for the first time. Miles heard this in Bill Evans’ playing. Their musical relationship at the time of the recording also brought further, unexpected influences into play. “We were into Ravel (especially his “Concerto for the Left Hand and Orchestra”) and Rachmaninoff (“Concerto No. 4″), all of that was up in there somewhere”.
“Kind of Blue” set the scene for a wholesale opening up of what is possible in Jazz. In the coming years John Coltrane would take the modal experiment much further and there were fine modally based compositions from Lee Morgan, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Cedar Walton, amongst many others. But on its own terms, and simply as an album to listen to for its own sake, “Kind of Blue” remains a superb experience.