It’s no secret that Kind of Blue is the best selling Jazz album in the history of ever. Surprisingly however, it’s not a recording without its share of flaws. So, what exactly about this album creates such an overwhelming buzz that would convince millions of buyers to overlook the occasionally ill-recorded instruments and overall unbalanced soundstage? This is exactly the question I plan to answer today. But first, I’d like to pinpoint some of those recording “glitches” that you’ll find on the album.
When I bought my first pressing of Kind of Blue, I quite literally though that something was amiss with my turntable. I kept hearing distortion in my right speaker during certain saxophone elements. I tried adjusting my anti-skating, but only made it worse. finally, after some deck readjustments to get it back to the correct settings, I started listening to the album again. At the intro into Davis’ very first track, “So What?”, the distortion was quite noticeable. But this time, I decided to keep listening.
I was eventually able to nail the distortion down to Julian “Cannonball” Adderley’s alto saxophone and realized that the distortion was actually a recording issues and not at all a playback problem. When recording musicians in close proximity of one another, the sensitivity of each mic is reduced and positioned more closely to each instrument in order to prevent bleed-over. However, it increases the chance of mic overload, which is what creates this type of distortion. This did put my mind to ease knowing that my deck was still in working order, and my ears gradually began to accept the nuisance nuance.
Getting past this sizzle-like distortion issue, I started noticing musician errors. Unintentional, off key solo blurbs from Miles himself, along with some less noticeable, yet present sour notes from bassist Paul Chambers. According to Ashley Khan, author of “The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece”, Chambers was admonished, then assisted more than once by Davis in the studio for not being able to keep up with the complexities of the songs. But a few of these issues made it into the album’s final cut.
The final annoyance I’d like to point out, while slight, is the unbalanced soundstage. Three-track tape was used for the recording, which provided engineers with more than just your basic stereo, left-right audio creation. For most three-track recordings, two tracks are used as the stereo backing tracks, while the vocals (or lead instruments in instrumental music) are positioned front and center on the third. But on “Kind of Blue”, most of the instrumental leads are presented up close in the left channel, while the backing instruments (drums, bass, and alto sax) are heard off in a distance in the right channel. The piano takes center stage, but seems much less dominant than one would expect for a center track. This leads to the meat and potatoes of the album favoring heavily toward the left speaker.
What I find truly amazing is that while these types of issues have tainted other albums in the past, they didn’t seem to have much impact at all on this particular recording. Why? Because as the title of Khan’s book states, “Kind of Blue” is no doubt a masterpiece and the positively enigmatic elements of the album far outweigh these previously stated complications.
In the spring of 1959, Mile Davis led his sextet of musicians to the 30th Street Studio, a former Greek Orthodox cathedral known for its magnificent natural acoustics, for a two part recording session of 5 songs that would turn the world of Jazz on its ear. With John Coltrane having recently been added back to Davis’ roster, the group set off to make history, whether they know it or not.
The tone of 50’s Jazz basically was fragmented into three segments. You had Louis Armstrong’s traditional style, Benny Goodman’s swing movement, and the breakneck Bebop chops from artists like Charlie Parker and his sidekick Dizzy Gillespie. But all of these styles were limited by the current understanding of Jazz structure, with was based on chord prediction. It was Davis’ friend George Russell who devised a different approach to the music that was scale based instead of chord based. It allowed the soloing musicians to use any of the notes in the scale, rather than being limited to a few. It was a small change that made a huge impact on the overall sound.
This new theory, combined with the sheer talent and creativity of the musicians, and the recording power that was CBS’ 30th Street Studio, gave birth to a recording that entices even those who claim to not particularly like Jazz. Sensual, mysterious, and even slightly sad at times, everything from the expression of the horns to the tapping of the ride has a tendency to speak volumes to whomever is listening. With the minor exceptions stated earlier, the recording quality is spot on, with acoustics that live up to every bit of “The Church’s” reputation.
While not an overnight success, Kind of Blue proved to have staying power. It’s a fantastic album for anyone interested in testing the proverbial waters of the genre. Easy to listen to, yet it’s an album that leaves an impact. Approaching its 60’s birthday, Kind of Blue remains one of the most iconic albums of all time, for very good reason. Have a listen for yourself and share your thoughts below.