Artist: Miles Davis
Title: So What
Description: track, Kind of Blue
Release date: 1959
First heard: circa 1994
Is this cool? Is that cool? All these people: are they cool?
I’m not qualified to take apart instrumental music, which jazz often is, but this analytical deficit has never stopped me losing myself in its syncopated currents. Jazz means different things to different hipsters: heroin, polo-necks, Gauloises, waistcoats, Prohibition, washboards, jugs, Chicago, New Orleans, Hitchin, nodding students, Afro-Cuban, bebop, hard bop, post-bop, fusion, brushes, inflatable cheeks, “sitting in”, Louis Armstrong’s hanky. To me, it means purity. It’s music that speaks for itself.
The blessing and the curse with Miles Davis is cool. As with many innovators who bottled the breeze, he gets cooler in posthumous legend. Even people whose coffee tables aren’t artfully arranged underneath a vinyl copy of Kind of Blue know that his very name spells cool. He was cool because he appeared not to have to try too hard to remain one step ahead of history, when in fact it took a lot of work, which is in itself cool. (The functioning heroin addict must find income – his arrests and court appearances only made that trickier, and as well as transcribing scores for money, he also pimped as often as he scrimped. Is that cool?) He remained fashionable as new wave after new wave crashed against his arty shore. His genius became a commodity. But neither commodification nor self-medication could erase or diminish his innate cultural chill, which was in the music.
Miles Dewey Davis III from Alton, Illinois, lived longer than he should have: to the not-inconsiderable age of 65 in ’91, when he was felled by a stroke, pneumonia and something respiratory (an especially cruel route for a man who blew). He was cool in his first bebop flush in the late 40s, in the pomp of his mid-50s comeback, with his sextet and collaborators in the early 60s, duly stirring up his Bitches Brew fusion in 1970, then again in rehabilitation in the 80s, style-magazine ready.
Let’s get into it, man. Let’s ignore the terminology – modal; voicing; tertial; major third interval; interjecting the head; a perfect fourth; a bar-line shift – these are just some of the things that go over my head. Let’s instead describe what I hear.
Warming up: notes gently teased out of the piano by Bill Evans (the only other co-writer credited on Kind of Blue), then a questioning riff played with the double bass of Paul Chambers in echo. The bass and the piano will be our guides throughout the next historic nine minutes and 22 seconds, allowing Miles to get into his space and if not blow the doors off, certainly create plumes of interesting smoke, which I imagine animated like a Pink Panther title sequence.
Much is spoken of jazz music’s improvisation, but rather than truly free-form, the most memorable pieces stick to a basic through-line and circle adroitly around it, making little clearings in which to solo. In the case of So What – note the missing question mark? – it’s the bass and the brass, with the piano sometimes dropping underneath to mimic the bass and trumpet notes. By default, the bass sounds like it’s walking around Columbia’s 30th Street studio in New York. Davis’s trumpet doodles over his own sketches, ricocheting off hither and exploring thither, the star attraction, without a doubt, but generous, too. The lightest beat is maintained on snare and ride cymbal by Jimmy Cobb – no room for showing off at the stool.
It’s the whole that matters. I’m a drummer; I’ll always follow the rhythm, but when the horns of John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley parp in sets of two towards the denouement, it’s like they’re calling you over, after which Chambers, Cobb and Evans finish up, almost imperceptibly faded in the final few seconds by producers Ted Macero and Irving Townsend.
There’s a myth that the entire LP was recorded in one take. It wasn’t – although I’ve read that Side Two’s Flamenco Sketches was – but it was put to bed in two sessions in March and April 1959. And it’s certainly free of overdubs.
As is the greedy modern way, Kind of Blue now comes complete with alternate takes, false starts and studio offcuts, but who needs them? Davis, his band and producers have already bottled magic and created an album that is the sound of the 20th Century pivoting on its axis.
Are they cool? Yes they are cool.