The Miles Davis masterpiece Kind of Blue is the best selling jazz album of all time, and spun jazz into a whole new direction when it was released in 1959. Fans loved the tone, pace, and sensuality of the album, while musicians were astounded by its creative method.
You see, Miles Davis did for jazz what Albert Einstein did for physics: he established new laws. Traditionally, jazz musicians would improvise over a chord sequence–the musician would choose his notes based on the underlying chord being played while anticipating the one that followed. It was a very forward-flowing method, and the very definition of jazz structure.
Until August 17th, 1959.
All of the songs on “Kind of Blue” are improvised based on various “modes” (aka “keys”.), NOT chord sequences! Each musician is free to improvise within the key, rather than over a sequence of chords. That’s not to say it was a free-for-all. Melody and form were constantly being gauged in-the-moment based on themes explored by the other soloists. This “modal jazz” that Davis pioneered required an immense amount of musical knowledge and improvisational dexterity, not to mention good taste.
The wonder of the album is that it became overwhelmingly popular with people who knew NOTHING about jazz theory or musical forms. It simply sounds sublime.
Below is a live performance of the first track on Kind of Blue called “So What.” (The digital image at the top of this post was created by an artist listening to “So What” and trying to describe it visually. Here are the rest of the tracks on the album in visual form.)