Jazz biographer Nisenson (Blue, 1997) traces the history of a pivotal jazz recording.
Kind of Blue, the biggest-selling jazz album ever (and the only jazz recording ever to go double-platinum) featured Miles Davis and John Coltrane. In its focus on modal tunes, drawing on the under-appreciated theories of composer George Russell, the recording opened up new possibilities of freedom for jazz in the post-bebop era. Musicians were no longer strapped into the potential straitjacket of a song’s chord progressions. And, since it was released in 1959, Kind of Blue not only came on the cusp of a revolution in jazz, it reflected and anticipated the rising tide of the civil-rights movement in the black community. Unfortunately, Nisenson dances around this story, offering little concrete analysis of the music on the album or of the musical development of its participants. Instead we get canned sociology and the sort of subjective emotional statements that disfigure too much music criticism. The chapters on Davis, Coltrane, and pianist Bill Evans add little to the growing mountain of literature on each of these three. The chapters on Russell and Cannonball Adderly are rather more useful, however, as neither of these men has received his due between hardcovers. And the chapter on the actual recording of the music is certainly interesting in that chatty, gossipy way that contemporary celebrity journalism can be at times. Sloppy editing lets more than a few howlers through (“No one is quite certain who in the band introduced him to the drug, but it was almost certainly Philly Joe Jones”) and adds to the aggravation.
Disappointing and exasperating: a magazine article with acres of hot air blown into it.