Saturday, January 26, 2008
Kind of Blue: A Once in a Lifetime Experience
I'm listening to Kind of Blue for the first time in months, possibly even years. A decade ago, the idea that I could go longer than a couple of days without putting it on would have been unthinkable but now I almost never give it a spin and even when I do it's more out of a sense of curiosity with how it holds up rather than a genuine need to enjoy the soothing sounds. That's the trouble with being lured into jazz: you soon discover there's far more to sample than what piqued your interest in the first place. Go to a dinner party and try dining on nothing but the admittedly yummy crab cakes. Read and re-read Borges' extraordinary "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", leaving aside everything else in his oeuvre. Marry your High School sweetheart. Tempted? No, me neither.
So with jazz now having completely overtaken pop and rock in my esteem, how does it sound today? Remarkably, it sounds just as it did in the summer of 1997 when I first picked it up. Every note in exactly the same spot. This may not seem overly extraordinary considering Miles Davis and John Coltrane and their cronies haven’t exactly been back in the studio to improve the results any but very few albums seem so hermetically sealed. It's interesting that there are works out there that seem to alter - since we're discussing music perhaps the better term might be 'remix' - themselves with every listen, that manage to grow as we grow. I've noticed this quality in listening to Jackie McLean, Lester Young and the Modern Jazz Quartet – even in a few of Davis’ other works – but not in Kind of Blue. This isn’t to make the claim that it’s dated, however; whereas some albums are such period pieces that you wonder if they even sounded old when they were new, this seems caught in a curious stasis. The sound here is as much a part of 2008 just as it was a part of 1997, as it was doubtless a part of 1959, as it somehow feels like it could've been a part of 1944. So, it isn’t dated but neither is it timeless – what can we possibly say about it if two of the most popular clichés in the musical lexicon don’t apply?
Well, since it brings back that first listen, perhaps I should wax about a moment that particularly stands out. Sitting through the bulk of it, I was initially impressed but the experience was still shy of being revelatory. Then the alternate take of “Flamenco Sketches” came on and I shuddered: Davis’ opening note was so piercing it was as though he was rubbing his fingers down a blackboard or taking a knife to your best piece of china. I sat uncomfortably and geared myself up for a similarly high-pitched squeal that was doubtless right on its way. But it never came and I soon began to laugh as I realised Davis was having a joke at my expense. Nowadays, I no longer wince at this grating note, nor do I chuckle at its omitted companion but memories of that moment return forthwith. In fact, memories constitute so much about listening to it now that the album seems overwhelmed by them.
And yet Kind of Blue is frequently lauded for bringing something new to the table with every subsequent listen. Davis’ biographer Ian Carr has claimed that “the more it is listened to, the more it reveals new delights and fresh depths”. This seems to be the ultimate compliment one can dish upon an album: its ability to keep the audience interested over frequent plays. But that’s an awful lot to expect of a long player regardless of how exceptional it may be. In any case, this does not appear to be this particular album’s function. As a boy I found jazz to be irritating, music played by show offs (even to the jazz-hater there’s good reason to compare it to basketball) but Kind of Blue changed everything. With the possible exception of Louis Armstrong’s magnificent Hot Fives and Sevens, there’s probably not another major work that could spark the uninitiated into a lifelong love affair with jazz. But, once the affair is under way, it’s difficult to muster the interest to go back for more.
None of this is to deride the album: it’s a triumph in its own way, just not in the way that many people choose to see it. I've lately come to theorize that there are some albums that can't top that first listen, that never manage to better the initial feeling of awe, that manage to conspire to turn every subsequent listen into a great, big letdown. Van Morrison's Astral Weeks and Radiohead's OK Computer are two of the prime examples in pop music but Kind of Blue is in a league of its own in this regard. That first listen to OK Computer (significantly, also during the summer of 1997) was every bit as enthralling (the spontaneous triple guitar explosion at 3:14 of “Paranoid Android” stirred me just like that wayward note on “Flamenco Sketches” had) but the subsequent come down was such that it began to undermine that initial reaction. Today, it seems more like a fluke than anything else. With Kind of Blue it’s as though I’m listening to it for the first time. Only now my ears know exactly what to expect - never a boon to an improvised medium. It may be a while before I put it on again.