Kind of Blue at 50

Music lovers of all kinds should get a jump on the golden anniversary of Miles' masterpiece.

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Miles Davis made many great records like Nefertiti, Walkin' and A Tribute to Jack Johnson. He also made landmark records like Sketches of Spain, Birth of the Cool and Bitches Brew. But Kind of Blue remains in a class by itself.

The recording's unique and elegantly subdued sound, probing improvisations and extraordinary musicianship make it more than an essential disc for jazz fans. Kind of Blue is a recording that all music lovers should own.

Kind of Blue was recorded in two sessions in early 1959 and released in August of that year. Though the 50th anniversary of the seminal recording is not until next August, Sony/BMG's Legacy Division is jumping the gun with a golden anniversary box set devoted to the recording.

It's possible that the label just wanted to get a leg up on the 50th anniversary competition. Two other cornerstone jazz recordings, Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come and John Coltrane's Giant Steps, also celebrate their 50th next year. Or perhaps Sony's impressive Miles Davis reissue project, which has resulted in several of the most essential jazz box sets in recent years, is just getting ahead of schedule on this one because the 50th of Sketches of Spain is looming. Either way, the Kind of Blue 50th anniversary set is a notable and welcome compilation.

Kind of Blue has not fared well during the jazz reissue boom of the past 15 years. Part of the problem is that most of the music was produced in a single take; only "Flamenco Sketches" needed a second go. That means that there was little left on the cutting room floor for music obsessives searching for clues to the creation of the masterpiece.

Such an absence only enhances the mystique of this classic. During the mid- and late '50s, Davis led one of the finest small groups in the history of recorded music, with Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley on alto saxophone, Paul Chambers on bass, either Jimmy Cobb or "Philly" Joe Jones on drums, and a piano seat shared variously by Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly and Red Garland. These ensembles made crisp, rhythmically concise music full of stellar interplay and riveting solos that can be heard on discs like Walkin', Relaxin', Cookin' and Steamin'.

Yet, Kind of Blue is a step up from the wonderful sounds of those ensembles. Listening to the beautifully discreet bass lines of "So What," the recording's first track, is like reclining into a soft chair that immediately cushions every curve and contour in your torso. And the other four tracks, "Freddie Freeloader," "Blue in Green," "All Blues" and "Flamenco Sketches," maintain that delicate, delicious vibe.

At the start of the jazz reissue boom, discs were spiced with previously unreleased tracks; now they typically include a special DVD. The Kind of Blue box includes one with a well-intentioned, if redundant, documentary on the making of the music, but it also includes 25 minutes of TV footage of the Davis band from the era and stellar photographs taken during the recording sessions. There is also a second disc of music, featuring various other recordings of the band. Most of these were released elsewhere, but one nugget is new, a live track featuring the Miles group (minus Adderley) performing "So What" from April 1960 in Holland.

The track is instructive as Davis makes no attempt to re-create the intimate style of the Kind of Blue rendition. Instead it's performed at a brisk tempo, and the solos, especially Coltrane's, brim with urgency. Davis continued to push the tempo of "So What" and "All Blues" so that by the time these tunes became staples with his extraordinary mid-'60s group with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, they bore little resemblance to the original renditions. Perhaps Miles knew that Kind of Blue was a pinnacle that couldn't be duplicated.

In the years that followed the release of Kind of Blue, contentious divisions arose in the jazz community—first over the free jazz of Coleman and Coltrane, then in the late '60s and '70s over Miles' fusions of jazz with rock and funk. So Kind of Blue represents one of the last times that jazz could be said to speak with a single voice, and my, what a voice. In its elegant restraint, Kind of Blue stands as enduring proof that you don't have to speak loudly to say powerful things.