Praise for famed jazz album somewhat overblown
BOOK OF THE DAY: KEVIN STEVENSreviews The Blue MomentBy Richard Williams Faber Faber 309pp, £14.99
THIS YEAR marks the 50th anniversary of the recording and release of Miles Davis’s masterpiece, Kind of Blue.
There is no arguing with its success, artistic or commercial: more than four million copies sold, unheard of for a jazz album, and a 12th-place ranking on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums; a profound influence that has been acknowledged by musicians, critics and educators for half a century; and classic status confirmed when it was one of the first 50 recordings chosen for preservation in the US Library of Congress’s national recording registry, initiated in 2002.
Yet for some jazz lovers, the attention given to Kind of Bluecan rankle. Not that it does not deserve the accolades: accessible, innovative, atmospheric, the work has rare appeal across musical divides and a deep well of invention that continues to surprise after scores of listenings.
But there are many jazz recordings of equal power and influence – from Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevensto Duke Ellington’s Blanton- Webster-era masterpieces to Charlie Parker’s Savoy sessions – that rarely get a look-in from the general public. For the sake of the music, the press given Kind of Bluewould be better spread across the canon.
But the articles, box sets and documentaries keep appearing, not to mention the books – two alone in 2001, and now this latest study from the Guardian’s Richard Williams, whose stated intention is to examine Kind of Bluein context and “to follow trails in order to find connections, identify direct influences, tease out correspondences and locate interesting pre-echoes and intriguing coincidences”.
Yet by his own admission, many of these connections are tenuous, and The Blue Momentends up more vague overview than concrete scholarship.
Williams’s analysis of the album’s five tunes is insightful, and he does a solid job of assessing the critical roles played on the project by pianist Bill Evans and tenor saxophonist John Coltrane – though there is little we haven’t heard before.
He is also good on music history, but the occasional errors are irritating (trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, for example, is called Bill) and the general tone of idolatry might have been tempered by a consideration of longstanding criticisms, including the slickness of Columbia Records’s recording techniques and the inclusion on the date of alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, whose bright tone and effusive solos are sometimes at odds with the album’s introspective mood.
The book’s biggest shortcoming is its central argument. Williams asks Kind of Blueto carry more cultural weight than it is reasonable to ask any work of art to bear. Yes, the recording has been hugely influential but, the deeper we get into the book, the more we are asked to believe that this single work somehow gives definition to an impossibly wide range of late 20th-century musical expression.
The suggested link between the opening tune, So What, and James Brown’s Cold Sweatis credible; to argue that the album’s influence extends to the Velvet Underground, Soft Machine, Brian Eno and U2 is a step too far.
At this point in jazz history, those who own Kind of Bluedo not need to read this book.
And those who don’t would be better off buying the album – along with the many neglected masterpieces of jazz.
Kevin Stevens is a novelist and contributor to the Journal of Musicand Dublin Review of Books