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Between Takes: The 'Kind Of Blue' Sessions

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Between Takes: The 'Kind Of Blue' Sessions

Between Takes: The 'Kind Of Blue' Sessions

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

If you own just one jazz album, chances are it's "Kind of Blue," by Miles Davis.

(Soundbite of song "So What")

MONTAGNE: Fifty years after its release, "Kind of Blue" is the best-selling classic jazz album of all time. It features some of the most famous names in American music - John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans and of course, Miles Davis. A new box set has been released that commemorates this 50th anniversary of "Kind of Blue." Included in that set is an essay by music journalist Ashley Kahn. And Ashley chats with us on occasion about music, and he's joining us this morning. Hello.

Prof. ASHLEY KAHN (Author, "Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece"; American Music Historian; Journalist; New York University): It's great to be here, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, you say that one of the reasons the album was so successful is that it wasn't formulaic, that Miles Davis pushed his musicians outside their comfort zone.

Prof. KAHN: Absolutely. I mean, he was definitely of the mind that the music had become a little paint-by-numbers, and he wanted to force the soloists to really reach inside themselves to come up with a much more individual expression. One of the best examples of this is, you know, Miles's own solo at the very beginning of "So What."

(Soundbite of song "So What")

MONTAGNE: Now, you've argued that the solos on this album have become as famous and influential as the songs which contain them.

Prof. KAHN: It really is true. I mean, the improvisations themselves live on in the music world, and a lot of people outside of the jazz circle are known to quote these great improvisations. Another great example is the beginning of Cannonball Adderley's solo on "All Blues."

(Soundbite of song "All Blues")

Prof. KAHN: The thing about Miles in the studio was that he was so direct and so economical in the way that he kind of guided his sidemen to do what they did best. And that really is what these legends who were playing behind him in his band at the time took from their experience with Miles. We have a snippet of what Miles sounded like. Here he is working on "Freddie Freeloader" with Wynton Kelly on piano.

Unidentified Studio Technician: CO 62290 - No title, take 1.

Mr. MILES DAVIS: (Trumpeter; Bandleader; Composer): Hey, Wyn, after Cannonball you play again, and then we'll come in and end it.

(Soundbite of song "Freddie Freeloader")

Mr. DAVIS: It's too fast.

Unidentified Studio Technician: Here we go. Ready? Number 2.

(Soundbite of song "Freddie Freeloader")

MONTAGNE: There again, Miles Davis in a recording session talking to Wynton Kelly. And what did the musicians on the album have to say about working with Miles?

Prof. KAHN: Well, there's an interview from 1972 that Cannonball Adderley did with a deejay, Jack Winter in Denver, where he talks about what it was like working with Miles in the studio.

Mr. JULIAN EDWIN "CANNONBALL" ADDERLEY (Saxophonist): The band was a workshop. Miles really kind of talked to everybody and told everybody what to not do. Not so much what to do.

Mr. JACK WINTER (Deejay): Mm-hmm.

Mr. ADDERLEY: And I heard him and done it. Up to that point, I've never played so well.

(Soundbite of saxophone)

MONTAGNE: I would think working with Miles Davis would be a little bit scary, if you will, certainly challenging. But the album itself sounds relaxed.

Prof. KAHN: It certainly was in the studio. And Miles could be stern if you weren't delivering the stuff that he wanted to hear. But if he heard what he wanted - I mean, he was known for going up to musicians and kissing them on the ear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song "Freddie Freeloader")

MONTAGNE: Now, Miles Davis got some of his ideas for "Kind of Blue" from classical music. How did he weave that into this album?

Prof. KAHN: It has to do with basically trying to find new harmonic territory to solo over and the idea of static harmony, staying with one scale or one mode. Hence the term modal jazz, which is used to describe the music on "Kind of Blue." One of the best examples of modal jazz to this day is "Flamenco Sketches."

(Soundbite of song "Flamenco Sketches")

MONTAGNE: That is really something. ..TEXT: Prof. KAHN: That's John Coltrane.

MONTAGNE: Miles Davis was famous for not doing the same thing over again, constantly changing styles. What did he say about "Kind of Blue" as his own career evolved?

Prof. KAHN: For about 10 years, he kept certain tunes from "Kind of Blue" in his songbook, you know, performing them live. But by the end of the '60s, he was definitely moving on. Here's Miles Davis talking with NPR's Ben Sidran in 1986 regarding "Kind of Blue."

Mr. DAVIS: Those songs to me don't exist. They were done in that era, the right hour, the right day and it happened, it's over. You know, people ask me, why don't you play this? Go buy the record. It's selfish, I know, but I'd just want to be dead if I couldn't create.

(Soundbite of song "All Blues")

MONTAGNE: Ashley Kahn, thank you very much. We're talking, of course, about the album "Kind of Blue," which came out 50 years ago. Ashley Kahn is the author of the book "Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece." He also contributed to the album's 50th anniversary box set. And it's been a pleasure having you.

Prof. KAHN: It's been fun. Thanks, Renee.

(Soundbite of song "All Blues")

MONTAGNE: For an essay on the making of "Kind of Blue," go to npr.org. And this is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

(Soundbite of song "All Blues")

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