November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Jonathan Evans: Art & About

RHAPSODIES IN BLUE:

Miles Davis & Pablo Picasso


“Kind of Blue” is a studio album by American jazz musician Miles Davis, released August 17, 1959 on Columbia Records in the United States.  Recording sessions for the album took place at Columbia’s 30th Street Studio in New York City on March 2 and April 22, 1959. The sessions featured Davis’s ensemble sextet, which consisted of pianists bill Evans and Wynton Kelly, drummer Jimmy Cobb, bassist Paul Chambers, and saxophonists John Coltrane and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley.

“Kind of Blue” is based entirely on modality in contrast to Davis’s earlier work with the hard bop style of jazz. The entire album was composed as a series of modal sketches, in which each performer was given a set of scales that defined the parameters of their improvisation and style. This style was in contrast to more typical means of composing, such as providing musicians with a complete score or, as was more common for improvisational jazz, providing the musicians with a chord progression or series of harmonies.

Davis elaborated on this form of composition in contrast to the simple chord progression predominant in bebop, once stating

“No chords gives you a lot more freedom and space to hear things. When you go this way, you can go on forever. You don’t have to worry about changes and you can do more with the melody line. It becomes a challenge to see how melodically innovative you can be. When you’re based on chords, you know at the end of 32 bars that the chords have run out and there’s nothing to do but repeat what you’ve just done—with variations. I think a movement in jazz is beginning away from the conventional string of chords… there will be fewer chords but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them.”  This modal form of composition represented, as Davis called it, “a return to melody.”

There are only five tracks on this album, “So What”, played at a very moderate pace on this album, but always played much faster on later live recordings, while “Freddie Freeloader” is a standard twelve bar blues. “Blue in Green”, written by the great lyrical pianist, Bill Evans, consists of a ten-measure cycle following a short introduction and “All Blues” is another twelve bar blues form in 6/8 time. The longer “Flamenco Sketches” consists of five scales, which are each played as long as the soloist wishes, until he has completed the series.  All the melodies are gorgeous and each track has become a standard in the jazz repertoire.

The album’s influence has reached beyond jazz, as musicians of such genres as rock and classical have been influenced by it, while critics have acknowledged it as one of the most influential albums of all time. Many improvisatory rock musicians of the 1960s referred to “Kind of Blue” for inspiration.  Guitarist Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band  said his soloing on songs such as “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” comes from Miles and John Coltrane, and particularly “Kind of Blue”. Pink Floyd keyboardist Richard Wright has said that the chord progressions on the album influenced the structure of the introductory chords to the song “Breathe” on their landmark opus “The Dark Side of the Moon”. Producer Quincy Jones, one of Davis’ longtime friends, wrote: “That will always be my music, man. I play “Kind of Blue” every day — it’s my orange juice. It still sounds like it was made yesterday”

Why does “Kind of Blue” possess such a mystique?  Perhaps because this music never flaunts its genius. It’s the pinnacle of modal jazz — tonality and solos build from the overall key, not chord changes, giving the music a subtly shifting quality. It’s very cool music!  It might be a stretch to say that if you don’t like “Kind of Blue”, you don’t like jazz — but it’s hard to imagine it as anything other than a cornerstone of any jazz collection.  Since I first heard this album as a youngster in the early sixties, I’ve never been without it, have run through at least six copies of it — and still play it regularly.  If you have an Ipod and love good music — don’t leave home without “Kind of Blue”.

Sticking with the “Blue” theme, I’d like to talk a little about painting from an earlier period – Pablo Picasso’s “Blue” period.   Actually, come to think of it, Miles and Pablo had quite a bit in common in their different spheres of art.  Both were responsible for developing their art through several distinct stages, changing the face of art and music in the process.  Miles went through improvisory be-bop, introduced modal modern jazz before moving into electronic jazz-rock and ending, in his decline, with a form of pop-jazz.

Spanish-born, Pablo Picasso (25th October 1881-8th April 1973) is probably the best known name in the art of the last century and started out as a realist before moving into periods labeled respectively, his ‘Blue”, “Rose”, his “African” period, “Cubist” for which he is best known, then “Surrealist”,  “Classical” and later, ceramics.  Each of his periods revolutionized art in the twentieth century, although there was a sense that as he got older, he became self-indulgent and began to cruise on his legacy.  It happened to Miles and it happens to the best of us.

His “Blue” period lasted from 1901 to 1904 and consisted of rather somber paintings rendered in essentially monochromatic shades of blue and blue-green, only occasionally warmed by other colors.  This was an interim stage in Picasso’s work, a link between his earlier realism and the structured Cubism which was to change the face of art a few years later. These slightly “Mannerist” figures, a little elongated and distorted and inspired by Spanish culture but painted in Paris, are now some of his most popular works, although he had difficulty selling them at the time.  Many paintings of gaunt mothers with children date from this period. In his austere use of color and sometimes doleful subject matter — prostitutes, beggars and drunks are frequent subjects —Picasso was influenced by a trip through Spain and by the suicide of his friend Carlos Casagemas.  In fact, he later claimed that he started painting in blue when he learned of the death of his friend — Casagemas took his own life in public at L’Hippodrome Café in Paris, shooting himself in the head — but realistically the sequence of  events doesn’t quite add up and Picasso was not present at his friend’s death.

It seems to me that Picasso went through a period of personal depression at this time.  Perhaps his friend’s death triggered the issue of mortality, which affected him for the first time — or perhaps the intense introspection involved in the gestation of his new ideas and techniques brought on the gloom of the work of this period.  Personally, I believe that the Spanish psyche, catholic and steeped in religious guilt, contributed to the heavy darkness of his subject matter and the tones used to realize them at this time. Starting in the fall of 1901, Picasso painted several posthumous portraits of Casagemas, culminating in the gloomy allegorical painting “La Vie” (1903), now in the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The same mood pervades the well-known etching “The Frugal Repast” (1904), which depicts a blind man and a sighted woman, both emaciated, seated at a nearly bare table.  Blindness is a recurrent theme in Picasso’s works of this period, also represented in “The Blindman’s Meal” (1903) and in the portrait of “Celestina” (1903). Other frequent subjects include female nudes and mothers with children. Possibly his most well known work from this period is the very beautiful  “Old guitarist”, a bearded figure folded around his guitar and painted in deep blues. Other major works include “Portrait of Soler” (1903) and “Las Dos Hermanas” (1904).

Picasso was soon to move on to what is called his “Rose” period, which lasted for a couple of years and was characterized by a much cheerier style, lighter with pink and orange colors, featuring circus people, acrobats and harlequins.  In 1904, Picasso had met and started a relationship with Fernande Olivier, a model for sculptors and painters, and this, combined with an increased exposure to French painting, seems to have done the trick, pulling him out of depression and the “Blue” period work associated with it.

It’s amazing what a bit of good loving can do for the soul!  He never returned to this period in his work and moved onto new pastures and the brilliant Cubism and pure Abstraction of later paintings.  But the stark, hopeless characters of his “Blue” period are now some of his most popular and highly acclaimed masterpieces, defining an era in his life that he was probably happy to put behind him.

The Blues ain’t nothing but a good man feelin’ bad….


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1 Jonathan Evans' Enthusiasms | ragazine.cc « Oil Painting Boutique Blog { 10.26.10 at 10:16 pm }

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