Week Nine: Kind of Blue

Now I really am dancing about architecture. At heart, I am a child of the three minute pop song. Jazz was not something I grew up with. I am aware that this is generally considered to be one of the all-time great jazz albums. And I think I can hear the sound of great musicians improvising together. But am I absolutely certain that if someone were to swap Kind of Blue for some easy-listening loungecore jazz album and tell me that it was one of the all time great jazz records, I wouldn’t be fooled? Am I hearing great trumpet playing because that is what it is, or is it because I know that is what it is generally considered to be? A few years ago, I found myself watching a covers band playing at the campsite at the British Grand Prix on the night before race day. My brother remarked that “here’s a bunch of chancers getting over-excited about playing to a big audience” And I said “Most of them, maybe, but I think the guitar player, the fat guy who looks old enough to be everyone else’s dad, he’s a pro..” And ten minutes later, he announced “Here’s a song I wrote, back in the dark ages” before launching into Whitesnake’s Here I Go Again. But jazz? I have no such confidence in my ability to distinguish between genius and mere competence. Do I really have a clue about what I am listening to?

Wikipedia informs me that what makes this album so significant is that it is an early example of modal jazz: wherein the harmonic framework is build around scales rather than chords. But if I’m honest, I have no idea what that means. Aren’t all scales, and chords, in a key? Don’t you just play the chords and scales in the relevant key? What is a harmonic framework? Can I live in it? If I am honest, I am simply well and truly out of my depth here. Maybe if I were to really immerse myself in music theory, I would understand, but I am no more than a three-chord strummer of the worst kind.

So instead of trying to get my head around it, I think I’m much better off instead relaxing into it. Years ago, I used to share a flat with someone who was very much into jazz (another flatmate at that time would derisively remark ‘oh, he’s playing his elevator music again’) and I got the impression that there was definitely something interesting going on, but I couldn’t quite get my head around it. I was listening to Radiohead a lot and I was aware that Jonny Greenwood was a big fan of Miles Davis’ Bitches’ Brew, but all the same, it was too far removed from the indie-rock that made up most of my record collection at that time for me to really get into it. In the same vein, the labs in which I sat up late writing my final year dissertation were above a jazz bar (a victim, I think, of the great South Bridge fire) and I would occasionally wander in there with friends, but the music was never really more than ambient background to me.

Nearly twenty years on, the music is much more up my street. It’s night time music. Music for writing to in the small hours. Or is it? I don’t know how much of my reaction reflects the music itself or simply the fact that it has been used by film directors and television documentary makes for decades to conjure up a particular mood; to achieve a certain effect. If I didn’t associate jazz music with smoky 1950s bars, with a kind of Beatnik, Kerouac-esque American decadence, and specifically, with these places after dark, would the music conjure an entirely different mood.

Well, I think it is. Not least because, to my ears, it gets progressively more nocturnal as it goes on. The opener, So What, has a late afternoon feel, but by the time we get to the closing track, Flamenco Sketches, the clock has gone well past midnight. For all that it doesn’t sound in any way similar, that it’s of an entirely different genre and achieves that nocturnal feel by very different means, it put me in mind somewhat of DJ Shadow’s cut-and-paste masterpiece, Endtroducing. Albeit a much more musically complex, tricksy Endtroducing. But in both cases, there is something hypnotic about the repetition of simple phrases, even if the improvisation around those is much more elaborate here.

And here’s the thing: I’ve stuck to the RAM Album Club rule of listening to each record at least three times, although in the interests of self-preservation, I’ve not been following Alex Massie’s rule of listening to each record in what he describes as “each of life’s three states: sober, drunk and hungover” . But sometimes I haven’t managed more than that (Alex Parks, come on down…) However, with the exception of Ryan Adams’ new album, I didn’t really listen to anything else this week. I didn’t even find myself checking out what had appeared on my Spotify Weekly Discover playlist. And that’s got to count for something.

Highlights: Does it really make sense to pull out individual tracks? This is a record best listened to in its entirety. But if you insist, then probably All Blues and Flamenco Sketches.

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