Miles Davis, Kind of Blue, and modal jazz

In 1959, Miles Davis changed jazz music forever and set a course that would later greatly influence musicians from all genres, most notably rock and roll. It all happened when Kind of Blue was released.

51UVX5HKIiL._SY300_Up until Kind of Blue, popular music was (and still primarily is) based on chord progressions within a major or minor scale. Miles Davis began to base his music on modes rather than chords.

What are modes? Good question. Stewart Hendrickson of St. Olaf College explains:

I’ve often heard said about a traditional song or tune, “it must be modal.” What does that mean? Strictly speaking, a mode is just an ordered series of notes defined by the intervals between. In that sense there is no difference between scales and modes; a mode is simply a particular musical scale.

See, we’re used to music being based on scales and their notes within. For example, if a song is set in the key of C major, the notes that our Western ears would be most comfortable hearing are C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. However, Miles shook it up for us Westerners. No longer would a song simply be written in a certain key. Instead, each soloist would be given prescribed modes in which they were to play. Hendrickson writes about the seven common modes in Western music: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Myxolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. Besides the fact that the names of the modes come from Greek words, that, my friends, is where my understanding stops for now. Research modes, figure it out, and get back to me.

Now, back to Kind of Blue. “Flamenco Sketches” is commonly referred to as one of the prime examples of modal jazz. However, the song’s composition is still confounding people.

Samuel Barrett of the freaking University of Cambridge writes about a recent study done by Ashley Kahn. In the study, a session photo of a chart from Cannonball Adderley (unbelievable saxophonist and definite future bandbyweek artist) was blown up and studied to look for what modes he was told to play in. Kahn’s study only added to the confusion over how exactly Kind of Blue was composed. Barrett writes:

Previous attempts to describe the musical design of ‘Flamenco Sketches’ have examined either scalar or chordal organisation. Among writers who have turned to scales, loosely termed modes, the five scales used on ‘Flamenco Sketches’ have been the subject of some disagreement. Ashley Kahn, in his recent study of the making of Kind of Blue brought both clarity and confusion to the matter by enlarging a session photograph showing Cannonball Adderley’s chart for ‘Flamenco Sketches’. Along-side the photograph, Kahn listed not the scales on the chart, but the scales that Davis used in his solos since, of the soloists, only Davis plays what might be termed pure ‘modal’ scales.

As you can see, the precise composition of Kind of Blue is still being debated, and I think this is totally fitting for the album. When it was released, it was completely new. To this day, it is not only a confusing and quintessential modal jazz album, it is a necessity in any music lover’s collection. Fittingly, it is still the most widely sold jazz album of all time.

Check out this video to hear more of the awesomeness of modal jazz, Kind of Blue, and Miles Davis in general.


Further Reading:

Kind of Blue and the economy of modal jazz by Samuel Barrett

Musical Traditions: Of Scales and Modes by Stewart Hendrickson

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