There’s a version of this list in which Miles Davis’ On the Corner is the best album ever, and probably another one in which Jack Johnson is in the top 10. Kind of Blue can’t really compete with those spiky, boiling funk masterpieces. And yet, it’s very blandness makes it, for this list, the more daring and more interesting album.
Kind of Blue is regularly cited as the greatest jazz album of all time, and not infrequently as just the greatest album, period. It is almost universally acclaimed. But its critical standing, and especially its popular appeal, is also, at this point, something of a standing joke. If you’ve heard only one jazz album, it’s probably Kind of Blue, which plays as inoffensive but classy background music in restaurants, coffee shops, and any venue that wants to seem sophisticated and edgy without irritating its patrons.
We often associate experimental music with loud squonks and dissonance, a la Ornette Coleman’s free jazz. But Kind of Blue goes in the other direction. In abandoning chord changes for a modal approach, Davis sands the music down. Rather than individual musicians blasting out swaggering, unexpected solos over dance band chord changes, on Kind of Blue mellow statements slide into the mellow background as pale pastels tastefully don’t clash. Emotions are diffident (“kind of blue”) and half disavowed.
The opening track, “So What?” sets the blueprint. Bassist Paul Chambers lays out a catchy melodic hook, and then the soloists wander off. Davis’ trumpet is spacious and fragile, like a meandering duck, occasionally threatening to take flight, and then settling back down on the pond. John Coltrane’s inimitable tenor sax blows out questing runs that are so graceful they almost don’t seem to be questing at all. Cannonball Adderly’s laid back alto follows along, but unlike the other soloists, isn’t quite ready to give up on swing. And, finally, Bill Evans’ leisurely piano lays down fragments of easy melody like Count Basie enervated by whole bucketfuls of cannabis.
The album stays in that groove throughout, except when it gets even less urgent, as on the paralyzingly slow “Blue in Green.” Davis turns in a solo that leaves so much resting space between phrases you occasionally wonder if he left the studio for a nap between notes. “Freddie Freeloader” is a bit more uptempo, but even the impressively jaunty hook is reeled in by the flat harmony of the horns. It sounds as if the players are trying to preclude the possibility that someone might get on the floor and start to boogie.”Honk, hoooonk, honk, hooonk,”— don’t get up yet, don’t get up yet. Take your time.
When Kind of Blue wears on you, it’s tempting to blame it for Kenny G and the hell of smooth jazz to come. This was tough and vital and swaggering music, once. Then Miles Davis came along and turned it into interior decoration.
But no matter how irritated you are, you have to admit there’s also something undeniably courageous and weird and uncompromising about deciding to be an experimental genius by making amazing wallpaper. Transforming the visceral chug of the blues on “All Blues” into a mildly mournful splash of neutral colors and uncertain philosophizing is more aggressively iconoclastic even than Davis’ later experiments with rock. If you really want to piss people off, don’t show them sex and violence. Tell them they’re going to see sex and violence and then give them an hour of elevator music.
It is, of course, beautiful elevator music—maybe the most beautiful elevator music ever recorded. Kind of Blue is so ingratiating it’s off-putting, and so off- putting it’s ingratiating—an album that blends avant garde and popular so casually that you can’t see any seams. Even more than an off-key, shambling train wreck like The Shaggs’ History of the World, Kind of Blue slides goodness and badness together into a single palette, kind of boring and kind of genius.