We begin with a track from, arguably, the greatest jazz record of all time. Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue introduces a sound that is in direct contrast to much of the hard, aggressive bop that was popular at the time. Indeed, some of the “hard bop” school’s most well known practitioners are on this Davis date, but here the focus is on an entirely different aesthetic. Davis had begun to stray away from the bop practices, that he had helped to innovate on sessions with Charlie Parker in the mid 1940s, most notably on a series of sessions for the Prestige label. These sessions, Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, and Steamin’ with the Miles Davis speed dating Quintet show a Davis that is progressively turning more inward in his approach, and creating solos that have a more subdued and relaxed feel than many of his hard bop contemporaries. The collaborations with Gil Evans, beginning in 1957, likewise highlight a Davis sound that is start, poignant, vulnerable and decidedly romantic, in sessions such as Miles Ahead with Columbia ( after his contract with Prestige had ended). In Kind of Blue, Davis, for the first time, began to experiment with an approach that emphasized a modal based improvisation, instead of the functional bop harmonies that were ubiquitous in the jazz world at the time. These modal harmonies, in which often a single chord would support the melody for several bars, were a perfect fit with Miles’ concept of understated, and almost minimalist improvisations.
This is evident in our opening track, “So What,” right from the start. A freely played piano/bass intro, by Chambers and Evans, featuring modal based harmonies, leads into a Paul Chambers riff that is answered by Davis, Coltrane, and Adderley, and Evans with a simple 2 note rhythmic figure. The tune harmonically is based on only 2 modes, or chords, for the entire track! Brilliant soloing by another pioneer in search of his own musical identity (and finding it), John Coltrane, and an alto saxophonist mostly identified with the hard bop movement, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, two master saxophonists with equally creative approaches to Davis’ material. Yet it is Davis’ solo, that sets the tone, not only for this opening track of Kind of Blue, but indeed for the entire album. A mature, supremely confident, intentionally reserved and beautifully paced solo that offers a wildly different approach to not only the trumpet, but on any instrument. One that favors economy over excess, offering a musical parallel to the phrase “less is more”.