Sixty years later \\ Sarathy Korwar on Miles Davis’ ‘Kind Of Blue’

21st August 2019
In a four part series, writer and broadcaster Ben Noble reflects on what makes four albums still so current sixty years on. Here it’s Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue’, with the help of Sarathy Korwar. 

The quintessence of cool, the ultimate in elegance, Miles Davis‘ ‘Kind of Blue’ sits at the heart of countless love affairs with Jazz music. Featuring on just about every ‘Best Of’ list in history, its smoky, meandering aesthetic flew in the face of the crowded and frantic sounds that dominated at the time. But it was also a technically bold album, one that would turn out to be revolutionary, a giant leap in the formal expression of Jazz music that caused a sea-change in the way that Jazz was played – and that continues to inspire the innovators of modern music today.

In New York in the late 1950s, bebop Jazz reigned supreme. Danceable, big-band swing had given way to smaller groups who put virtuosic soloing centre-stage. Their lightning-fast tempos and hectic melodies, while technically brilliant, were flying over some listeners’ heads, leading to a perceived intellectualisation of Jazz. Others felt the genre was slowly declining into ‘easy listening’. The scene was ready for a shake-up.

Enter Miles Davis with ‘Kind of Blue’; the culmination of Davis’ interest in George Russell’s theory of modal music – it literally unlocked a new dimension in Jazz. Without getting too technical, improvisation before this had been based on harmonies within a song’s chord progression. Modal Jazz prioritises melody over harmony, with the soloist sticking to one (or a few) scales. The wandering dissonance of songs like ‘So What’ or ‘Flamenco Sketches’ impart a timeless modernity to the album – as modal improvisation became the favoured form not only of the avant-garde, but of Jazz music now.

‘Kind of Blue’ is “hugely important to understand how much of a pioneer Miles was”, says Sarathy Korwar, whose 2018 album ‘My East is Your West’ resolved Western spiritual Jazz with classical Indian raga. “His use of modal techniques made me feel far more comfortable approaching my own compositions from a similar stand-point.” For Korwar, an understanding of modal Jazz “helped me trust my intuition and dig deeper into finding a way to make Indian classical raga-based music work in relation to Jazz.” The album’s impact endures to this day partly because it immediately caused ripples in New York: “Looking back, it’s really interesting to see how all the players on the record like Coltrane, Cannonball and Evans, embraced the modality on the album and took it forward in their own careers.”

Crucially, Davis managed to keep Jazz purists on-side. ‘Freddie Freeloader’s 12-bar blues structure was downright orthodox, appealing to blues and swing fans, even while Coltrane’s seething solo presaged the free Jazz movement. Meanwhile ‘All Blues’ floating carousel riff drew directly on classical composers like Maurice Ravel, while the soloists explored completely new territory with modal experimentation. This tension between old and new forms continues to inform contemporary composers like Korwar, making it “an album that’s crucial for any contemporary improviser to see how the musicians interact with the form and each other”.

With so much happening in ‘Kind of Blue’, it’s remarkable how minimal it sounds. Davis’ other innovation was to strip out what he perceived as the clutter of the bebop era, allowing his stellar band to stretch out. The results sound disarmingly effortless. From the hazy first seconds of ‘So What’ and its coalescence around the smooth but restrained riff, to the starkly beautiful arrangement of ‘Blue in Green’, these compositions are spontaneously sensitive, exploratory, and full of space. It’s an approach that Korwar learned from: “Capturing the spontaneity of the room was so important to Davis. I loved and have adopted his method of often giving musicians minimal instructions, or just planting the seed of an idea and then letting the players express themselves.”

Kind of Blue’ still looms large in the global Jazz scene. The original exploration of modal techniques, it came to define the genre for the next decade. But its influence didn’t stop there – Davis’ techniques and approach to recording remain cornerstones of Jazz composition to this day. His spirit of innovation continues to make Jazz the centre of musical evolution.

Words: Ben Noble

Listen to our podcast interview with Sarathy Korwar

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