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“It is the most singular of sounds, yet among the most ubiquitous. It is the sound of isolation that has sold itself to millions.” Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue is the best-selling piece of music in jazz history and, for many listeners, among the most haunting works of the twentieth century. It is also, notoriously, the only jazz album many people own. Recorded in 1959 (in ni “It is the most singular of sounds, yet among the most ubiquitous. It is the sound of isolation that has sold itself to millions.” Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue is the best-selling piece of music in jazz history and, for many listeners, among the most haunting works of the twentieth century. It is also, notoriously, the only jazz album many people own. Recorded in 1959 (in nine miraculous hours), there has been nothing like it since. Richard Williams’s “richly informative” (The Guardian) history considers the album within its wider cultural context, showing how the record influenced such diverse artists as Steve Reich and the Velvet Underground. In the tradition of Alex Ross and Greil Marcus, the “effortlessly versatile” Williams (The Times) “connects these seemingly disparate phenomena with purpose, finesse and journalistic flair” (Financial Times), making masterly connections to painting, literature, philosophy, and poetry while identifying the qualities that make the album so uniquely appealing and surprisingly universal.


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“It is the most singular of sounds, yet among the most ubiquitous. It is the sound of isolation that has sold itself to millions.” Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue is the best-selling piece of music in jazz history and, for many listeners, among the most haunting works of the twentieth century. It is also, notoriously, the only jazz album many people own. Recorded in 1959 (in ni “It is the most singular of sounds, yet among the most ubiquitous. It is the sound of isolation that has sold itself to millions.” Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue is the best-selling piece of music in jazz history and, for many listeners, among the most haunting works of the twentieth century. It is also, notoriously, the only jazz album many people own. Recorded in 1959 (in nine miraculous hours), there has been nothing like it since. Richard Williams’s “richly informative” (The Guardian) history considers the album within its wider cultural context, showing how the record influenced such diverse artists as Steve Reich and the Velvet Underground. In the tradition of Alex Ross and Greil Marcus, the “effortlessly versatile” Williams (The Times) “connects these seemingly disparate phenomena with purpose, finesse and journalistic flair” (Financial Times), making masterly connections to painting, literature, philosophy, and poetry while identifying the qualities that make the album so uniquely appealing and surprisingly universal.

30 review for The Blue Moment: Miles Davis's Kind of Blue and the Remaking of Modern Music

  1. 5 out of 5

    Dawn Lennon

    To be fair to Richard Williams, this fascinating book was simply over my head. I know about Miles Davis, admire his music, his enormous talent, and the album Kind of Blue. I just didn't know enough about the essense of jazz music, how it's made, who the great influencers are and how they intersect with each other, music innovations, and the technicalities of making music. If you know these things, then I suspect you'll be engrossed in this book. That said, as much as I had to plod my way through To be fair to Richard Williams, this fascinating book was simply over my head. I know about Miles Davis, admire his music, his enormous talent, and the album Kind of Blue. I just didn't know enough about the essense of jazz music, how it's made, who the great influencers are and how they intersect with each other, music innovations, and the technicalities of making music. If you know these things, then I suspect you'll be engrossed in this book. That said, as much as I had to plod my way through all that I didn't really understand, I learned a great deal from an historical, conceptual level. I was amazed to learn of the breadth of Davis's influence and interactions, especially as new musical genres came into being. The effect of Davis's innovations on, say, The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed, was eye opening. This book takes you from Miles Davis's early days through his ground-breaking music with all his affiliations, most notably with John Coltrane. The range of musicians referenced in this book is huge. There is an amazing richness to this book, but you need to have some serious chops when it comes to understanding the intricaties of jazz and actually sound in general. I was very glad I read this book but it was a challenge.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Liam

    This book was fascinating, but also somewhat maddening. The author has an interesting take on the incredibly broad and deep influence that 'Kind Of Blue' (and indeed the work of Miles Davis generally) has had on musicians and their art since it was released in 1959. I don't entirely agree with either his theories or his conclusions, but it was still a thought-provoking book and well worth reading... [more to follow] This book was fascinating, but also somewhat maddening. The author has an interesting take on the incredibly broad and deep influence that 'Kind Of Blue' (and indeed the work of Miles Davis generally) has had on musicians and their art since it was released in 1959. I don't entirely agree with either his theories or his conclusions, but it was still a thought-provoking book and well worth reading... [more to follow]

  3. 4 out of 5

    Alastair Heffernan

    Richard Williams' book strives to bring order and harmony to a host of seemingly disparate music through the narrative thread of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue album. Unlike the titular trumpeter's masterpiece, however, the book ultimately dissolves into dissonance and disorder. Fundamentally, Williams' notion is a solid one: past 'biographies' of Kind of Blue, Miles Davis' legendary 1959 cool jazz album have gone into great depth about the build up to the album and the recording sessions themselves. Richard Williams' book strives to bring order and harmony to a host of seemingly disparate music through the narrative thread of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue album. Unlike the titular trumpeter's masterpiece, however, the book ultimately dissolves into dissonance and disorder. Fundamentally, Williams' notion is a solid one: past 'biographies' of Kind of Blue, Miles Davis' legendary 1959 cool jazz album have gone into great depth about the build up to the album and the recording sessions themselves. Williams charts a different course by eschewing this focus on pre-1959 music and only devoting half the book to this, with the remainder left to discuss the musical seeds sown by Davis and how these grew into other musical forms of the later twentieth century. The beginning of the book showed promise and throughout much of the first half the author's easy-to-read, journalistic style was engaging enough. Particularly enjoyable was chapter 5 when we dive into the atmosphere of the late 40s and early 50s; Williams treat of his subjects fairly concisely and sharply, peppering the text with direct quotations lending the action quite a grounded and genuine feel. There are pleasing moments of humour: in one anecdote, we hear about John Coltrane's "solos of sometimes inordinate length" such that "when Davis complained, the perpetrator plaintively observed that he just didn't know how to stop. 'Try taking the horn out of your mouth,' Davis retorted". The humour is not all in reported speech either: when describing how the Twist of 1963 evolved to involve less and less physical effort, Williams notes that the "apogee of this development came when boys and girls returned from family holidays in France proclaiming the existence of a dance called le Slow, which, whether they had it right or not, allegedly involved nothing more than the almost imperceptible flexing of the right knee". Such moments, interspersed among the more journalistic segments of the book that revel in the detail of Miles' immediate contemporaries and musical partners is the book at its best. Unfortunately, even in this better first half (up to the production of Kind of Blue) there were problems. There is a chapter devoted to the meaning of the word or idea blue; we hear some interesting comments about the artist Yves Klein, for example, but not much of relevance to the wider book and the impression is of an author who is trying for perspicacious, cross-contextual references but which ultimately fall a little flat. In a similar vein there is a tendency to become a little pompous. At the end of one early chapter the author remarks: "Above all, as we look forward to Kind of Blue, there is the sense that nothing matters except truth and beauty." Another irritating quirk is lengthy lists, particularly of musicians who fulfil such and such a criteria or worked with so and so. There is also (to my taste at least) slightly too much technical musical detail though that likely betrays my own ignorance more than being a problem as such. At the midway point, despite these relatively minor misgivings, I was toying with a three to four star score. I at least found the story of Kind of Blue interesting. It is in the second half of the book that the author's predilections get the better of him, however. From roughly the midway point on you could probably count the number of meaningful references to Miles Davis or his album on two hands. The book entirely pivots to being a tedious link through a host of musicians and styles. Starting from artists immediately linked to Kind of Blue (such as Bill Evans) we work further and further away till by the end of the book we have discussed the Velvet Underground, Brian Eno and a whole host of obscure experimental music I cannot even comprehend. The author's passion for this music is almost engaging, but I couldn't get away from the seeming fact that the picture of Miles Davis on the cover was a facade, the book a Trojan horse to inculcate me in the ways of peculiar 70s and 80s music by such avant garde figures as La Monte Young and Terry Riley. The simple point is that, whatever the interest of these figures, the attempt to link them in anything but the lightest of ways to Miles Davis is unconvincing. Which is not to say there is no link, but I was certainly not convinced the line the author wanted to draw from the trumpeting icon to these later figures was anything other than faint and tenuous. Perhaps one of the most egregious such linkages is to Phillip Glass. Despite the author stating that Phillip Glass (and John Adams) own music "shows the fewest traces of the changes that came via Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Bill Evans" the author nevertheless went on to state that "it [those musicians' influence] is there, somewhere". This betrays the authors desperate desire to draw connections even when his own musical insight tells him these are vanishingly slight and, unfortunately for this interesting project, I ended up feeling that way about most of the artists discussed in the second half of the book. The exception is in the chapter immediately after that on the recording of Kind of Blue. This acted as a crash course in the later life of the artists on the album, notably Coltrane and Evans. I learned new things about the former - such as around the production of Giant Steps, one of my favourite albums and songs. And the latter, who I've never paid much attention, has now been added to my Spotify favourite's list as a wonderful piano trio to set a certain mood (particularly his Portrait in Jazz and Sunday at The Village Vanguard). As in the first half, when the book stuck closest to its proclaimed subject matter it offers insight and an enjoyable read. Unfortunately, more than half the book falls into the category of musings on questionably relevant artists whom Mr Williams seems more at pains to establish he knows than demonstrating they share recognisable musical DNA with Mr Davis.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Frank O'connor

    This is a book about the art of making music. It takes the 'Kind of Blue' creative sessions as a focus and expands out around them. Williams understands the rhizomatic nature of art and is happy to include an extended disquisition on the history of the color blue for this reason. Sometimes his exposition is little more than a list but Williams can really write about the subjective appeal of music and the nature of original creativity. The thread drawn from 'Kind of Blue' through minimalism, the This is a book about the art of making music. It takes the 'Kind of Blue' creative sessions as a focus and expands out around them. Williams understands the rhizomatic nature of art and is happy to include an extended disquisition on the history of the color blue for this reason. Sometimes his exposition is little more than a list but Williams can really write about the subjective appeal of music and the nature of original creativity. The thread drawn from 'Kind of Blue' through minimalism, the Velvet Underground and Brian Eno is fascinatingly under-explained, leaving the reader to fill in any blanks, which is as it should be.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Michael Muscat

    Richard Williams's beautifully written The Blue Moment pulls off something rather surprising: it traces, in an almost mystical way, some of the direct and subtly indirect influences and reverberations of Miles Davis's seminal 1959 modal jazz recording, Kind of Blue, as they wind their way through philosophical and aesthetic movements of the last fifty years, leaving an indelible (if somewhat elusive) mark on world music and human consciousness. Williams's crisp, learned prose and occasionally el Richard Williams's beautifully written The Blue Moment pulls off something rather surprising: it traces, in an almost mystical way, some of the direct and subtly indirect influences and reverberations of Miles Davis's seminal 1959 modal jazz recording, Kind of Blue, as they wind their way through philosophical and aesthetic movements of the last fifty years, leaving an indelible (if somewhat elusive) mark on world music and human consciousness. Williams's crisp, learned prose and occasionally elliptical rhetorical style takes readers on a profound musical journey that occasionally loses touch with its source material, but I must admit the sections on The Velvet Underground and the "northern latitudes" of Manfred Eicher's label ECM made permanent and profound impressions on me. In a series of chapters playing on the word "blue" and its many permutations, Williams seems to write with very real musical insight, attuned to subtleties of phrasing and cadences lost on nonspecialists like me, as he artfully and persuasively makes the case that Kind of Blue casts a long, slow, and deliberate shadow over some of the most significant musical experimentation of the late twentieth century. This is a wonderful little book and a truly fitting paean to one of the great records of the tragically brief cool jazz moment ... and, of course, of music in general. Highly recommended to the jazz enthusiast and patient lover of language.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Charliecat

    I enjoyed this; however I have to admit that although my admiration for Miles Davis's Kind Of Blue is right up there, to truly appreciate this book needs at least some rudimentary knowledge of musical theory. I do have some, but probably not enough. Williams traces the development of the album and does well to capture the time (1959), what was, presumably, in Miles's mind and the precious few hours during which the recording was made. As to tracing the album's influence and afterlife, then I don' I enjoyed this; however I have to admit that although my admiration for Miles Davis's Kind Of Blue is right up there, to truly appreciate this book needs at least some rudimentary knowledge of musical theory. I do have some, but probably not enough. Williams traces the development of the album and does well to capture the time (1959), what was, presumably, in Miles's mind and the precious few hours during which the recording was made. As to tracing the album's influence and afterlife, then I don't feel knowledgeable enough to say whether his thesis holds up. He name- checks everyone from James Brown, Richard Thompson, John Cale (and hence The Velvet Underground), Soft Machine, Roxy Music, Talking Heads, Keith Jarrett, David Bowie, Steve Reich.....etc. etc. Were they all impossible without Kind Of Blue? Maybe, but it feels a bit of a stretch. But it's made me appreciate the album more and given me some other musical avenues to explore. And that's a success in my book.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Alain Patrick

    A fascinating journey brings the origins of Miles Davis’ ‘Kind Of Blue’ and all its influences in the subsequent decades, from Terry Riley to La Monte Young, Steve Reich, Keith Jarrett, Philip Glass, Velvet Underground, among countless others. A must.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Renato Verissimo

    Um livro espetacular que conta detalhes do universo musical de concepção do Kind of Blue e suas implicações na música instrumental, no jazz e em grupos de música popular. Uma verdadeira enciclopédia do que foi e o que causou o álbum.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Kyle

    It’s an interesting read. It feels like the author had a half book about Miles Davis and half book about the influence of Terry Riley and decided to make it into one and brand it under the more recognized of the two.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Christopher Hull

    Best album ever, and a very original approach to writing about it.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Martin

    first half was great, second half was a bit of a stretch

  12. 5 out of 5

    Alistair Candlin

    Interesting, but the links are tenuous I enjoyed reading this - some interesting stuff about the years immediately before and after the recording. The writer then tries to map out some links on how the record influenced later music. This is all still interesting stuff but I gave it 3 stars simply because his central thesis is tenuous - although it’s clear how kind of blue influenced Trane and other jazz musicians the influence on the American minimalists, Brian Eno, etc. is unconvincing.

  13. 4 out of 5

    David Rullo

    Like some of the other reviewers I had a tough time with this book. It really is a book of two halves. The first is fairly good, an exploration of the Miles Davis album Kind of Blue. It's not fabulous, but it touches all the bases. It probably goes a little further into keys and modes, etc than other books I've read but certainly not deeper than jazz articles, etc I've read in the past. The second half of this book is pretty useless to the subject. The author stretches bonds to make connections Like some of the other reviewers I had a tough time with this book. It really is a book of two halves. The first is fairly good, an exploration of the Miles Davis album Kind of Blue. It's not fabulous, but it touches all the bases. It probably goes a little further into keys and modes, etc than other books I've read but certainly not deeper than jazz articles, etc I've read in the past. The second half of this book is pretty useless to the subject. The author stretches bonds to make connections to the album. Let's face it, if you're a musician and have even the smallest connection to jazz you'll be aware of Kind of Blue and can discuss how it influenced you. Much of this half of the book was already covered (much better and without the subterfuge of a Kind of Blue connection) in books like The Ambient Century. No doubt Richard Williams knows music. Clearly he set out with the agenda of being able to trace every form of "slower" or "ambient" or "experimental" album back to Kind of Blue. Even Miles Davis, with his incredible ego, would probably scratch his head at some of the connections Williams has made. I'd probably avoid this unless you've read everything else available on Davis and have a long plane trip ahead.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Eric

    I got bored with the music I always listen to and decided it was time to learn something about jazz. Knowing nothing, I googled "best jazz album" and discovered that Miles Davis's "Kind of Blue" is nearly universally acclaimed the most important jazz record of all time. Then I browsed by local library shelves and found "The Blue Moment" which seemed like as good a place as any to start my education. I read most of this book on the train and listened to many of the songs discussed (yay Spotify!) w I got bored with the music I always listen to and decided it was time to learn something about jazz. Knowing nothing, I googled "best jazz album" and discovered that Miles Davis's "Kind of Blue" is nearly universally acclaimed the most important jazz record of all time. Then I browsed by local library shelves and found "The Blue Moment" which seemed like as good a place as any to start my education. I read most of this book on the train and listened to many of the songs discussed (yay Spotify!) while reading. The book was great for someone like me, connecting Davis's music to stuff I know more about -- the Velvet Underground, Andy Warhol, James Brown, Brian Eno...even New Order gets a mention! After reading and listening, I actually feel like I know enough to start exploring the jazz canon.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Haydn Barlow

    Not so much the story of the album; more of its genesis and legacy. Convincing lines are drawn from the experimentation of Davis, Coltrane and Evans to the explosion of innovation in the 1960s and into the modern era. Williams argues that without Kind of Blue, James Brown, The Velvet Underground and Brian Eno would not have pushed boundaries in the particular directions they did. Davis's modal explorations in the late 1950s gave them the ideas and confidence necessary to unshackle popular music. Not so much the story of the album; more of its genesis and legacy. Convincing lines are drawn from the experimentation of Davis, Coltrane and Evans to the explosion of innovation in the 1960s and into the modern era. Williams argues that without Kind of Blue, James Brown, The Velvet Underground and Brian Eno would not have pushed boundaries in the particular directions they did. Davis's modal explorations in the late 1950s gave them the ideas and confidence necessary to unshackle popular music. You will enjoy this book so much more if you have easy access to a streaming service while reading. Explore some of the tangents Williams takes you on and hear the distant offspring of the most consequential album of the twentieth century.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Milo King

    The first half of this book is an entertaining and informative narrative of the years preceding and following the making of perhaps the worlds most listened to and influential jazz recording, Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. The second half purports to show how this music influenced decades of modern composers from Reilly, Reich, Glass to the stranger, non-linear, music of the avante garde, to art rock bands such as Soft Machine, Talking Heads, and Velvet Underground. For a more in-depth look at the ac The first half of this book is an entertaining and informative narrative of the years preceding and following the making of perhaps the worlds most listened to and influential jazz recording, Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. The second half purports to show how this music influenced decades of modern composers from Reilly, Reich, Glass to the stranger, non-linear, music of the avante garde, to art rock bands such as Soft Machine, Talking Heads, and Velvet Underground. For a more in-depth look at the actual making of Kind of Blue, I recommend Ashley Kahn's Kind Of Blue: The Making Of The Miles Davis Masterpiece.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Ade

    Exemplary scene-setting leading to a riveting account of the actual recording of the album in the pivotal ninth chapter. Thereafter, as others note, it wanders off into a consideration of what happened to the players next (although Davis's own later career is surprisingly absent from this) and how it influenced others. Mileage varies here; some of it was equally fascinating, other parts - notably an extended discussion of the minimalist movement - caused my attention to drift, much like the musi Exemplary scene-setting leading to a riveting account of the actual recording of the album in the pivotal ninth chapter. Thereafter, as others note, it wanders off into a consideration of what happened to the players next (although Davis's own later career is surprisingly absent from this) and how it influenced others. Mileage varies here; some of it was equally fascinating, other parts - notably an extended discussion of the minimalist movement - caused my attention to drift, much like the music itself. Still a worthwhile read overall though. (Sorrynotsorry for the mileage pun.)

  18. 5 out of 5

    Jeff Howells

    Definitely a book of two halves. The first part covers the history of Miles Davis and his band in the run up to and recording of 'Kind of Blue'. This is interesting and informative. The 2nd half takes a, not very successful, look at how KOB has influenced the music that followed, taking in such bands as The Velvet Underground, the Soft Machine & Brian Eno (amongst a host of modern Jazzers). The trouble is with this section is that it referred to a lot of music theory which I didn't understand. S Definitely a book of two halves. The first part covers the history of Miles Davis and his band in the run up to and recording of 'Kind of Blue'. This is interesting and informative. The 2nd half takes a, not very successful, look at how KOB has influenced the music that followed, taking in such bands as The Velvet Underground, the Soft Machine & Brian Eno (amongst a host of modern Jazzers). The trouble is with this section is that it referred to a lot of music theory which I didn't understand. So by all means read the first part, good luck on the second.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Henry

    Similar to other reviewers I liked half of it. Really disagreed with chapter on Velvets, yes the Velvets were great but their muddy, everything AND the kichen sink style runs counter to the clean modes of KInd of Blue. I loved the chapter on James Brown and Cold Sweat. I would have liked a chapter on Miles electric He Loved Him Madly, In A Silent Way - that were also experiments in ambient and modernism. And a chapter on Talk Talk "Spirit of Eden" closest thing I've ever heard to that sound Similar to other reviewers I liked half of it. Really disagreed with chapter on Velvets, yes the Velvets were great but their muddy, everything AND the kichen sink style runs counter to the clean modes of KInd of Blue. I loved the chapter on James Brown and Cold Sweat. I would have liked a chapter on Miles electric He Loved Him Madly, In A Silent Way - that were also experiments in ambient and modernism. And a chapter on Talk Talk "Spirit of Eden" closest thing I've ever heard to that sound

  20. 4 out of 5

    Harrison

    i hate jazz more than ever

  21. 4 out of 5

    Brent

    Profoundly inspiring. I had to read it with a pen and paper to note all the musicians and composers I became excited to explore.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Kay Cordtz

    You have to be really into Miles to make reading this worthwhile but it's very informative, esp for the not-so-schooled. A good balance of gossip and musical nuance. You have to be really into Miles to make reading this worthwhile but it's very informative, esp for the not-so-schooled. A good balance of gossip and musical nuance.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Amanda

    i tried to get into this, but just couldn't. back to the library. i tried to get into this, but just couldn't. back to the library.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Lisa Watt

    This was an excellent journey into the world of the art of Jazz. A reflection of the great journey into oneself. Great read for people who are moved to tears by beautiful sound.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Nick Moy

    Audacious in his insight. Most, but not all of his extensions carry the ring of truth. Brilliantly written.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Jazz Fan

    A masterpiece looking into what is probably the most popular music in the history of jazz. Poetic, entertaining and well written. #jazz

  27. 4 out of 5

    Rob Skinner

  28. 4 out of 5

    Larry

  29. 4 out of 5

    Jan

  30. 4 out of 5

    Achillefs

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