Mar 12

Miles Davis: “So What”


The album cover that defines "cool."

If you’re among those who think they don’t like jazz, I’m willing to bet you’ve never heard Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. More than just one of the best jazz albums of all time, I would go so far as to say that it’s one of the best albums of all time, of any genre. And it’s completely unfathomable to me that someone could hear it and not be moved by it in some positive way. And I’m by no means a jazzhead — I’m pretty familiar with the names of the classic jazz musicians and to varying degrees their different styles, albums, and songs, but I don’t really feel comfortable enough overall to speak the jazz language with someone who really knows what they’re talking about. But I know what I like. And I love Kind of Blue.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that, when I was a kid, my parents — primarily my dad — listened to quite a bit of jazz. My father had a large Miles Davis collection, and Kind of Blue got a lot of play. I even have a bit of jazz in my family history: my great-uncle Nathan Gershman played cello in the Chico Hamilton Quintet (that’s him in the dark, smoky room scene in the great Newport Jazz Festival documentary, Jazz on a Summer’s Day), and my grandfather Paul Gershman, a member of the New York Philharmonic (among other orchestras) who did a lot of session work, played violin on many many recordings, a large number of them by well-known jazz musicians. (He was also one of the so-called “Flux Fiddlers” who played on John Lennon’s “Imagine” — but that’s a story for a different post.) That doesn’t really give me any jazz cred — it just goes toward the point that I grew up in a family that took jazz pretty seriously. But you certainly don’t need that kind of childhood to appreciate Kind of Blue.

Kind of Blue came out in 1959 and is universally considered a milestone in jazz, famous for its revolutionary invention of modal jazz — which gets into music theory, a subject that, even as a musician, makes my head hurt. Suffice it to say that modal jazz revolves around scales rather than chords. Whatever you call it, the album is a masterpiece. The incredible musicians performing on it — aside from Davis, there’s John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley on sax, Bill Evans on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums — read each other perfectly throughout the sessions, which were primarily improvised. “So What” may be the album’s most famous track, if for no other reason that it’s the lead track, kicking the album off with a major “wow” factor. Evans and Chambers lead with a somber piano/bass intro that then picks up Cobb to become the song’s main musical motif, followed shortly thereafter by the horns. And then Miles comes sailing in a minute and a half in with a solo like a gust of wind, and from there out he trades off with Adderley and then Coltrane. It’s one of the best tracks ever for listening to late at night, with the lights dimmed — no matter what, you’ll feel like one of the coolest cats in town. Seriously, if you only own one jazz album ever, you must make it this one. Even if you don’t know anything else about jazz. As Miles himself might say to that excuse: So what?

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