Review by Mike Hobart

Financial Times
August 17 2009 07:02

The Blue Moment: Miles Davis's Kind of Blue and the Remaking of
Modern Music
By Richard Williams

Faber 14.99, 309 pages

FT Bookshop price 11.99

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Miles Davis's Kind of Blue,
the biggest-selling jazz album ever. It was both a jazz-fan favourite
and the one jazz album that even those who claim not to like jazz
often own.

But, as Richard Williams' erudite book The Blue Moment shows, Kind
of Blue is much more than a great jazz record. Perfectly capturing
the moment of its creation, the recording by the American trumpeter
influenced the innovators of radical rock, minimalist composition
and urban funk and, through them, most of today's contemporary music.

Williams, The Guardian's chief sports writer, worked at UK music
magazine Melody Maker in its late-1960s heyday. His approach balances
technical explanation, historical detail and critical assessment
- the chapters on jazz lineage could stand alone as an incisive,
concise history of modern jazz leading up to the Davis recording.

The blue-themed book - each of the 16 chapters has the word blue in
the title - opens with an elegantly tailored description of the music:
"It is the most singular of sounds, yet among the most ubiquitous. It
is the sound of isolation that has sold itself to millions."

For Williams the recording encapsulated key aesthetic themes of
the 1950s. He traces Kind of Blue's influence on late 20th century
music and establishes layers of connections: in a matter of pages he
covers global counterculture through a visit to a radical bookshop
in Birmingham, technological changes and the shifting relationship
between jazz soloists and their rhythm section.

And that's even before he places Davis's conceptual clarity and
explorations of time on a continuum running from 17-syllable haiku
poetry through the ragas of Indian classical music to the Bauhaus
movement's "simplification of outline and surface concealing a complex
response to the modern world". The latter exactly describes the
economy of line of Davis's playing. It reflects, too, a connection to
the Paris intellectual elite through his affair with singer Juliette
Greco, who he met in Paris in 1949.

Williams connects these seemingly disparate phenomena with purpose,
finesse and journalistic flair. Western art, jazz included, was turning
to non-European forms for inspiration, investigating non-linear
concepts of time and delving ever deeper into the subjective. A
fascinating mid-book interlude on the colour blue reinforces the
importance of historical context.

The album was recorded in two regular sessions in a former Armenian
church in Manhattan. Davis sketched his ideas to the other musicians
at each session; five tunes were recorded and there was one alternate
take. Nobody set out to make an iconic statement. The first album
sleeve bore incorrect track-listings; side one of the recording was
issued at the wrong speed and at the wrong pitch - a quarter-tone sharp
(corrected for a 1993 re-release).

As Williams notes, both Ashley Kahn and Eric Nisenson have exhaustively
covered the origins of Kind of Blue. Williams adds a broad cultural
sweep, but it is his final chapters that are really new. These trace
networks of connections and experience that link Kind of Blue to
musical innovation far beyond the jazz orbit.

Minimalist composers La Monte Young and Terry Riley, funk innovator
James Brown and his saxophonist sideman PeeWee Ellis, Soft Machine's
Robert Wyatt and the Nordic jazz associated with ECM were directly
influenced. With Velvet Underground, Mike Oldfield and Brian Eno
the influence was more oblique but, as Williams argues, just as

Kind of Blue is one of the foundation stones of late 20th-century
culture. Though clearly a fan, Williams does not exaggerate when
he describes Kind of Blue as "a rare example of human perfection
... speaking more clearly as the years go by".

Mike Hobart is the FT's jazz critic
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009