I discovered by accident the other day that the classic Miles Davis composition All Blues has found its way onto the GCSE Music syllabus. I think that’s wonderful. In fact here’s a recording of the track, produced and distributed as “set work” for that purpose:
I never took any qualifications in music at School – although I did get music lessons, I didn’t find them at all inspiring and it took me years to develop a taste for anything other than Jazz, which I knew about mainly from home, because my father was a (part-time) Jazz drummer. There wasn’t much mention of Jazz at School from teachers, and none of my friends were into it, so it became a very private passion, although I’m glad to say it never faded.
Anyway, what little I know about music I picked up by studying on my own, and trying to figure out what was going on by listening to records. All Blues is a really interesting composition to unpick in this way, as it tells you a lot about how Jazz was evolving in the late 1950s (it was released in 1959). Musicians like Miles Davis were experimenting with ways of breaking away from the standard approach to Jazz improvisation based on chord progressions, and one of the routes that developed was modal Jazz. All Blues is particularly interesting because it teeters on the edge between the old approach and the new; it’s clearly based on the traditional 12-bar blues progression but diverges from it in several respects.
A standard blues progression in G might go like this (although there are many variations):
It’s based on just three chords: the tonic (in this case G): the sub-dominant IV (C) and the dominant V (D); the V-IV-I progression in the last four bars is usually called the turnaround.
The progression for All Blues is this:
|G7| G7| G7| G7|
|Gm7| Gm7| G7| G7|
|D7| E♭7 D7| F G|F G6|
While the addition of a major 7th note to the basic triad G isn’t unusual, the two G minor 7th chords are more interesting, because they involve adding a blue note (a flattened third) to the basic chord . But it’s in the last four bars that the harmonies move dramatically away from the standard turnaround. Chromatic chords are included and the usual resolution back to G is subtly changed by the addition of a 6th note (E) to the basic G chord (GBD) at the end; that trick became a bit of a trademark for Jazz of this period.
However, it’s the two F chords that represent the strongest connection with modal harmony. The scale of G major involves F-sharp, so the F is a flattened note (a flattened VIIth). In fact, all the Fs in the piece are natural rather than sharp. For this reason you could argue that this is a piece not played in the key of G major but in the corresponding Mixolydian mode (the white notes on the piano from G to G).
So it’s a blues that’s not quite a blues, but is (appropriately enough) Kind of Blue. There’s so much going on harmonically that the fact that it’s played in 6/8 rhythm (rather than the more usual 4/4 for the Blues) seems almost irrelevant.
Those are just the bare bones, but the improvisations of Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane et al. breath life into them and create a living Jazz masterpiece. Although it seems like a complicated tune, apparently what happened at the recording session was that Miles Davis talked the band through the piece, they played it once to get a feel for it, and then recorded the entire track that was released on the album, in one go.
I must have listened to All Blues a thousand times, and I’ve never tired of it. The thing is, though, I could say the same thing about all the other tracks on the album Kind of Blue, about which Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote
Kind of Blue isn’t merely an artistic highlight for Miles Davis, it’s an album that towers above its peers, a record generally considered as the definitive jazz album, a universally acknowledged standard of excellence. Why does Kind of Blue posses 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 may 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.