“Cool” is cool in the sense that it’s absurd to ever think of it at as being uncool. Cool is cool because it sports a compelling panache and lives on a commensurate boundary between the fleeting and the timeless; the universal and the particular.
Perhaps more so than any other contemporary musical genre, Jazz is born, raised and bred in the profound caverns of coolness. That there’s a specific subgenre of Jazz known as Cool Jazz barely scratches the surface of Jazz’s inextricable connection with cool.
In a way that its grandchildren Rock and Hip-Hop have never quite been able to equal, the many incarnations of Jazz exude the controlled kinesis, understated elegance and enduring influence that typifies concentrated cool. When coolness and sound decided to spawn a love child, Jazz was born.
Overtures aside, some of you might be aware that Don Cheadle has recently put out a biopic on one of Jazz’s most towering figures, Miles Davis. Cheadle’s film, like one of Davis’ albums, is aptly titled Miles Ahead.
I’d love to write a review of this film. The thing is, I haven’t seen it yet, so I can’t do that.
But I can review and compare two of Davis’ most consequential records, Kind of Blue and Birth of the Cool, and stage a discussion about why (avec or sans biopic) this music remains supremely relevant more than a half-century after its release.
Let’s launch this sonic odyssey with what is probably the most widely acclaimed Jazz record out there, Kind of Blue.
Before the record rolls out at 0:00 of “So What,” it’s worthwhile to note just what kind of band Davis was working with in the studio for this record.
Three musicians who can readily be considered Jazz legends in their own right – Bill Evans, John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley – performed on piano, tenor saxophone and alto saxophone, respectively, for this album.
Kind of Blue is a record with only five tracks. That’s no reason to dismiss it on grounds of brevity, however—you’d probably really regret it. Like The Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat, this is an album with a svelte track list that, through the years, has established a highly formidable legacy among musicians and listeners alike.
The studio sessions for Kind of Blue took place in the spring of 1959. At the time, the hard bop style pioneered by Horace Silver and Art Blakey stood at the forefront of Jazz. But Davis’ sessions produced something altogether new and distinct.
This album was built on improvisation. Rather than establish song structures based on a given key, Davis gave his band chord progressions and improvised lead melodies on top of them, often with more than one lead melody at a time.
The result is a glorious apex of modal Jazz, lauded then and now. From the minimalism of “So What” to the fluid tranquility of “Blue in Green” to the zest of “Freddie Freeloader,” Kind of Blue remains one of the greatest Jazz albums ever recorded.
The innovation, dynamism and flippant attitude toward convention exhibited by Davis and his band made for a record that excites to this day. And in the context of this article, I’ll qualify it as a supremely cool record, insofar as this is perhaps the closest we’ll ever get to having the abstract notion of blueness materialized as music.
Feel free to continue reading my raves about it, but why deprive yourself of the experience? Listen to this record, damnit.
Moving on, I’ll turn my eyes and ears toward Birth of the Cool.
Although not released until 1957, the recording sessions for this album took place in 1949 and 1950.
Before hard bop, there was Bebop, and Charlie Parker had been blazing trails in this musical territory for some time. Davis had brandished his trumpet in Parker’s band for a few years by 1950, jamming in Jazz clubs around Manhattan.
Parker played a Jazz style that could aptly be described as frenetic. Listen to his rendition of “A Night in Tunisia” with Davis on trumpet for an idea of what I mean. Bebop produced some of Jazz’s most intimate flirtations with chaos, and in 1950, it was the pinnacle of Jazz innovation.
On Birth of the Cool, you don’t really get that.
For these sessions, Davis and his band eschewed chaos in favor of something more subdued and measured. The album owes its name to the fact that it virtually originated the Cool Jazz style that would flourish in the late ‘50s and beyond.
Does that mean it’s a lethargic album? Au contraire.
There’s enough syncopation and improvisation on this record to keep your ears guessing as to what comes next, even when you’re acquainted with the song structure in question. The rhythms are perhaps a bit evocative of the Swing that was in vogue before Bebop burst onto the scene. Measured though this record may be, it’s simply a thrilling listen.
“Venus de Milo,” “Boplicity,” “Rouge” and the album’s only vocal track, “Darn that Dream,” make my ears supremely happy. Though perhaps overshadowed by Kind of Blue in terms of reputation, Birth of the Cool is an album that can go toe to toe with the very best of Davis’ repertoire, and certainly measures up to other landmark Jazz recordings like John Coltrane’s Blue Train.
I think I’ve raved enough here. In any case, my musings will be completely lost on you, the reader, unless you also take a leap of faith and become a listener. Birth of the Cool can hook you with its exuberance, and Kind of Blue can mellow you out in the best possible way.
Listen to these records simply because you owe it to yourself. It’s impossible to go wrong with either album.
However, that being said, I’ll give my preference to Birth of the Cool.
Cool is cool because it could never be otherwise—because it’s thrilling, stylish and somehow manages to be both timeless as the Venus de Milo and ephemeral like a puff of smoke.
Birth of the Cool is all that and then some, and I’d like to give props to Davis beyond the grave for delivering this superbly outstanding record.
If I’ve made a Jazz aficionado out of you with this article, wonderful. If not, that’s cool, too.
But if nothing else, listening to these records—I dare say—can make you classy. It can make you … cool.
Featured Photo Credit: Featured photo courtesy of Flickr user amika san.
Horus Alas is senior philosophy major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.