Miles Davis: Kind of Blue
Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 2085
Miles Davis, trumpet and leader
Julian Adderley, alto saxophone
John Coltrane, tenor saxophone
Wynton Kelly, piano**
Bill Evans, piano
Paul Chambers, bass
James Cobb, drums
Wynton Kelly only on Freddie Freeloader;
Bill Evans on all other tracks.
Miles Davis Kind of Blue on Numbered Limited Edition Hybrid SACD from Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab. This Hybrid SACD is the Definitive Digital Version: Mastered From the Original Master Tapes.
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Review by Mark Werlin - September 16, 2015
KINDS OF DISRUPTION
In the tech world, the word 'disruptive' is frequently applied to emerging products and platforms that (their proponents claim) cause disruptions in conventional business practices and paradigms.
In the art world, disruptions occur as artists, individually or in affiliation, rebel against the formal constraints of their medium. Some disruptions prefigured radical change; the 1863 Salon des Refusés attacked the conventions of academic salon painting and sped the development of Impressionism; the 1913 New York Armory show heralded post-Impressionism and Abstraction. Other disruptions, such as the engraved art and poetry of William Blake, are so outlying that generations may pass before their influence is perceptible.
The effect of the album Kind of Blue on the musicians who created it and on the wider jazz scene at the turn of the 1960s is due in part to its disruptive force. Miles Davis' intention was to disrupt his bandmate's—and his own—musical habits, inclinations and preconceptions. Mobile Fidelity's outstanding new SACD demonstrates that the passage of a half-century has not stripped the music of its genuinely disruptive impact.
DISRUPTING THE BAND
In his book "The Making of Kind of Blue: Miles Davis and His Masterpiece", Eric Nisenson argues that Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane and Bill Evans were at a musical and professional crossroads at the time of the recording sessions, and that all of them were shaken out of their previous performance habits and conceptual frameworks by the experience of making the record. It's a hypothesis that benefits from 20/20 hindsight, though Nisenson cites enough evidence to make a compelling case, including quotes from the musicians and analysis of the records they made before and after Kind of Blue.
Julian "Cannonball" Adderley was a highly accomplished musician from the generation of academically trained players. He had burst onto the NY scene at a Café Bohemia appearance in 1955, risen to the top of the Down Beat polls, but hadn't acquired a large enough audience to maintain his own band on a full-time basis. Though Adderley may have been the best technical alto player on the scene when he joined the Miles Davis group in 1958, there were critics who downgraded his playing on the ground that his solos lacked depth and good taste. The "Something Else" session (Cannonball Adderley: Somethin' Else) for Blue Note marked a shift in Adderley's approach that can be credited to his exposure to Miles' spare, post-bebop musical conception.
When Miles asked John Coltrane to rejoin the group, 'Trane had already led a breakthrough album (John Coltrane: Blue Train) and played a remarkable engagement with Thelonious Monk, a collaboration that was only partly documented on Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane. At the time of the March and April 1959 Kind of Blue recording sessions, Coltrane was writing compositions based on long chord progressions, and playing dense, harmonically complex solos; practices that reached an apotheosis one month afterward in the May 1959 Giant Steps sessions. But over the next two years, by his own admission as a response to the minimalism of the Kind of Blue sketches, he began experimenting with modal forms ("Impressions") and drone structures ("India") in his quintet engagements and recordings with Eric Dolphy.
Bill Evans' tenure in the Miles Davis Sextet from May-November 1958 was shadowed by circumstances arising from America's long history of racial segregation. Though Miles had recorded with white musicians such as Gerry Mulligan and Al Haig, and collaborated extensively with arranger Gil Evans, his working groups from 1955 until April 1958, when he fired pianist Red Garland, were composed entirely of African-American musicians. Outside of New York City, the nightclubs where the band performed were located in black neighborhoods. The presence of Bill Evans, a white musician who replaced the popular Garland, drew a chill response from black audiences in Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit. Evans' introverted onstage manner and his reluctance—perhaps inability—to play up-tempo bebop with the agility audiences had come to expect from Bud Powell, Hampton Hawes and Oscar Petersen, set the entire band on edge.
Miles had knowingly put Evans in a difficult position, made worse by his verbal jibes at the pianist's expense, often criticizing and never crediting his playing. By the end of Evans' time in the band, he was an emotional wreck and a heroin user. In spite of these setbacks, his professional status improved: Kind of Blue stimulated sales of his Riverside LPs and increased his club bookings. The subdued lyricism that suffused Kind of Blue became the hallmark sound of the Bill Evans Trio.
Miles Davis had struggled with bebop style, a technically demanding vocabulary of rhythmically and harmonically complex phrases, during the years he played alongside Charlie Parker. Almost from the outset, Miles had fought to develop a unique trumpet sound and a concept that would distinguish him from the bop trumpet pioneers Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro, Howard McGhee. The 1949-1950 Capitol Records sides compiled as "Birth of the Cool" document Miles' increasingly recognizable horn sound and his technically simplified, melodic soloing concept.
During that time, the theories of composer-arranger George Russell made a profound impression on Miles. Russell's book, "The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization", was itself a work of disruption, a manifesto calling for a new approach to improvising and composing jazz centered on the Lydian scale. Although Russell's fringe theory found a niche in jazz education, it is generally conceded that he failed to make a successful, unambiguous argument for the superiority of the Lydian scale (also called the Lydian mode) over the diatonic. But the impact of his ideas can be traced in a line from Russell's early collaboration with Dizzy Gillespie, "Cubano Be/Cubano Bop"; to altoist Lee Konitz's recording of the Russell composition "Ezz-thetic"; to Third Stream experiments with Gunther Schuller; arriving at the modal structure of several pieces on Kind of Blue.
By the early 1960s, many artists were incorporating modal-structured works into their repertoire. It was a viable alternative, both to hard bop and free jazz. Composer-players who recorded for Blue Note Records experimented with modal compositions. If the Lydian concept failed to achieve its revolutionary goal, it succeeded in raising questions and adding new sounds to the jazz genre, due in part to its exposure on Kind of Blue.
DISRUPTING THE SESSION
The March 2 recording session at Columbia Records' 30th Street Studio began with a disruption indicative of Miles' attitude towards his sidemen. Wynton Kelly, the pianist in the working group, arrived to find his predecessor Bill Evans at the piano going over the composition sketches with Coltrane and Adderley. Kelly was furious—probably what Miles intended. Davis told Kelly they were going to start the session with a specialty number that would feature him: "Freddie Freeloader". Kelly gave a knockout performance, which also served as a cutting-contest gesture towards Bill Evans. (Much of Wynton Kelly's best work with the Miles Davis group can be heard in recordings made at the band's 1960 concerts in Zurich, Switzerland and Stockholm, Sweden, which feature some of the Kind of Blue material.)
The fundamental disruption lay in Miles' refusal to share the music with the band members in advance of the session. He wanted all of them (excepting Evans) to come to the studio with no preconceptions about what they would play. He especially wanted to hear how Coltrane would approach the blues-structured pieces ("Freddie Freeloader" and "All Blues"), and the sketches consisting of "modal" scales played first in the tonic and then raised a whole step ("So What" and "Flamenco Sketches"). If he hoped that Coltrane would stop obsessing over the chord changes, he must have been disappointed; Coltrane still produced his usual torrential outpouring of notes, as if the absent chords were present.
Miles Davis' playing on Kind of Blue displays the emotive lyricism he had been cultivating and refining since his 1954 comeback. He sings through the trumpet. Although the compositional sketches on Kind of Blue, unlike the ballads "My Funny Valentine" and "It Never Entered My Mind", have no underlying lyric texts, that vocal quality to the trumpet has more of an abstract character because his lines are not anchored to familiar words. The solo on "So What" is deceptively simple—and utterly memorable.
Columbia Records did a disservice to Bill Evans by not assuring that the piano he played on the March 2 session was in tune. Either a different piano was used for the April session or someone worked on the instrument, because in Evans' exemplary block chord solo on "All Blues" the piano now sounds reasonably in tune. "All Blues" is for me, the most completely realized piece on the album. A variant blues in slow 6/8 time, it begins with a quiet sixteenth-note ostinato figure on the piano, followed by a harmonized melody played by the three horns. The piano breaks from the opening figure at the beginning of Miles' solo; Evans answers Miles' rhythmic emphases and spaces in a highly sympathetic dialogue. Adderley plays with restraint, dexterity and more than a touch of lyricism. By contrast, Coltrane's solo builds from a slow, solemn blues statement into rapid-note passages that emphasize the 'cry'.
Listening to Kind of Blue in context of the albums that preceded and succeeded it reveals the extent of Bill Evans' influence; on "All Blues", his controlled dynamics, inventive chord substitutions and acute connection to Miles' rhythmic sense pull the diverse components of the band into a coherent whole. And although Miles claimed composer credit for the exquisite ballad "Blue in Green", after his death, the Davis estate acknowledged what was an open secret among musicians—that authorship of the piece belonged to Bill Evans.
DISRUPTING THE MASTER TAPE
When Sony Music producer Bob Belden and engineer Mark Wilder first realized that the original two-channel master tape of Kind of Blue was badly deteriorated, they made the decision to create a new analog stereo master directly from the original three-channel studio session tapes. The current Mobile Fidelity SACD is mastered from that two-channel tape. The Sony single-layer SACD (Miles Davis: Kind of Blue) comprises a multichannel program transferred directly to DSD from the three-channel session tapes together with a stereo program transferred from the new analog tape.
According to a comment posted on sa-cd.net, the 1995 Classic Records LP was mastered directly from the three-channel session tapes in a live mix to stereo, with speed correction applied to the playback machine to compensate for the tape speed error made during the recording session. The Wilder analog stereo tape is also speed-corrected. These various interventions disrupted the provenance, but extended the lifespan of the recording. The creation of a new analog stereo tape preserved the original session sound because plate reverb had been printed direct onto the center track of the three-channel studio session tapes.
The Sony CS 64935 SACD and the Mobile Fidelity SACD are both excellent-sounding renditions of Kind of Blue. By whatever proprietary means they employed, starting with the same two-channel analog tape, Sony's Mark Wilder and MoFi's Shawn Britton and Rob LoVerde arrived at distinctively different but equally good results. The MoFi disc is on the warm side of the warm-analytical audiophile spectrum, but it reveals just as much detail as the Sony disc, in a more euphonic presentation. For example: on "Blue in Green", Jimmy Cobb's brush work on the snare drum has a tangible presence, and the attack on Paul Chambers' bass strings can be heard clearly even through the plate reverb. It's a demonstration-quality SACD that accurately represents the recreated stereo analog tape. The single-layer Sony disc has the advantages of the three-channel MCH program and the alternate take of "Flamenco Sketches", but the MoFi disc is the one I'll reach for when I want to hear the music.
Kind of Blue has been in my record shelf since my earliest exposure to jazz; I can play the entire album in my "inner hi-fi". Having listened to the MoFi SACD in direct comparison to the Sony SACD and Classic Records LP, I can unreservedly recommend the MoFi SACD to all collectors and jazz lovers. It is a very well-made product, packaged—as are all of their current SACDs—in a mini-LP gatefold with a protective anti-static inner sleeve for the disc.
Stereo analogue master tape. Remix by Mark Wilder from the original 1959 three-track session tapes, in the analogue domain, to two-channel tape.
Copyright © 2015 Mark Werlin and HRAudio.net