In 1959 Miles Davis spent two days in the studio with a band recording the album “Kind of Blue”, now considered one of the cornerstone records in jazz, and 20th century music in general.
In the liner notes pianist Bill Evans wrote:
“There is a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment. Erasures or changes are impossible. These artists must practice a particular discipline, that of allowing the idea to express itself in communication with their hands in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere.
The resulting pictures lack the complex composition and textures of ordinary painting, but it is said that those who see well find something captured that escapes explanation.
This conviction that direct deed is the most meaningful reflections, I believe, has prompted the evolution of the extremely severe and unique disciplines of the jazz or improvising musician.
Group improvisation is a further challenge. Aside from the weighty technical problem of collective coherent thinking, there is the very human, even social need for sympathy from all members to bend for the common result. This most difficult problem, I think, is beautifully met and solved on this recording.
As the painter needs his framework of parchment, the improvising musical group needs its framework in time,. Miles Davis presents here frameworks which are exquisite in their simplicity and yet contain all that is necessary to stimulate performance with sure reference to the primary conception.
Miles conceived these settings only hours before the recording dates and arrived with sketches which indicated to the group what was to be played. Therefore, you will hear something close to pure spontaneity in these performances. The group had never played these pieces prior to the recordings and I think without exception the first complete performance of each was a “take.”
In the documentary about the recording of “Kind of Blue” Herbie Hancock says this:
“He would put people who play one style with people who play another style, a different style, or maybe a contrasting style. Most people wouldn’t dare do because that’s not going to work. But Miles would put these things together because he would trust in the honesty of each of the musicians trying to figure out a way to make it work.”
Jackie McLean: “His music kind of represented who he had in the band”
Or as Carlos Santana asks himself in the same documentary:
“How do you go into the studio with minimum stuff, and come out with eternity?”
There is an interesting question here, and very relevant to my research. For the wider audience the name Miles Davis is probably well-known. But Jimmy Cobb (drums), Bill Evans (piano) and Paul Chambers (bass) are likely much less familiar. But for Miles Davis they were irreplaceable ‘ingredients’.
Cannonball Adderley is heard saying: “The band was a workshop. Miles really kind of talked to everybody what to not do. Not so much what to do. He never told anybody what to play.”
Maybe I can draw a comparison here with how Ridley Scott directed Harrison Ford in Blade Runner. Actress Sean Young said: “Maybe Ridley was giving me more attention than he was giving Harrison because he was making the assumption that he didn’t need that. Harrison was never happy on that show.”
Actor Dave Holden adds (about Ridley Scott): “I find him really easy. And very encouraging. To do what you feel, go ahead. And then if he liked it he’d just smile”.
The connecting factor in these scenarios seems to be that there needs to be enough shared foundation, to be able to let go. Maybe set some very strict rules, and then stop talking at all.
In the case of Blade Runner, this would be the script. As long as Harrison Ford spoke the lines, his interpretation could be his own and apparently he received frustratingly little feedback from his director. In the case of Kind of Blue, Miles Davis ‘invented’ a modal approach to jazz: instead of changing chords he would stick to a single scale. A limited number of notes that could be used.
The groundwork for this approach was laid when Miles David had to record the soundtrack for “‘L’Ascenseur pour L’Échafaud” with a band that he did not know very well, and has no time for rehearsal with the French band. So he prepared the ‘rules’ on the night before in his hotel.
“One characteristic of Kind of Blue is (…) the simplicity of the compositions. An economy of means. Less is more. It was so finetuned without being rigid.”
Kind of blue: documentary:
Dangerous Days: Making of Blade Runner. Dir. Charles de Lauzirika. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2007.