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JAZZ

Kind of New

Miles Davis' 'Kind of Blue' album has been a bestseller for almost 40 years, so what's the fuss about the 'definitive' version? Well, they threw out the first pitch.

March 30, 1997|Don Heckman | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

In 1959, at least one jazz critic greeted the release of "Kind of Blue" by the Miles Davis Sextet with the words "morose" and "sluggish and low in energy output." Wouldn't he be surprised to learn that, by some estimations, it has become the largest-selling mainstream jazz album of all time.

"It just continues to sell and sell and sell," says Kevin Gore, vice president of jazz promotion and marketing at Columbia Records.

"One edition alone, the Jazz Masterpiece version, No. 40579, was recently certified platinum," Gore says, meaning that the album has sold 1 million copies. Cumulative sales, including more than 400,000 LPs, have exceeded 1.5 million units--which, given the original production cost in 1959, estimated at less than $10,000, makes this one of the best returns on investment Columbia has ever realized.

But recognizing its escalating value, Columbia on Tuesday released what it describes as the "definitive" version on its Legacy imprint, in hopes of attracting new listeners to a product that has become a virtual Holy Grail of jazz releases.

Reissued and restored recordings such as "Kind of Blue" have always been a significant part of the jazz record market. Jazz is far more like classical music than pop in that performances never really go out of style and that many new converts to jazz are attracted to works from its colorful history as much as they are to its current performers and activities.

For record companies, this is a significant boon. And especially in the case of major labels such as Verve, Columbia, RCA and Blue Note, their contemporary schedules are heavily funded by income from the revenue-producing reissues. With original costs recouped long ago, and with few expenses beyond packaging and minimal royalties, jazz reissues--if not exactly cash cows--help make it possible for labels to sign and record new talent.

They also make it possible to investigate new technologies, as Blue Note is doing with an interactive CD version of a similarly seminal album, John Coltrane's "Blue Train." (See accompanying story, Page 85.)

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With or without interactivity, few reissues have performed in a league with "Kind of Blue." In an effort not only to reach new audiences but also to motivate previous owners to buy the current version, Columbia is using the package to repair a number of mistakes that have persisted through past versions, including the misspelling of Julian "Cannonball" Adderley's name (as Adderly) on the cover of previous releases. There are now six tracks (the album includes two takes of "Flamenco Sketches" in addition to "So What," "Freddie Freeloader," "Blue in Green" and "All Blues"), and remixing has increased the prominence of Paul Chambers' bass and Jimmy Cobb's drums.

More important, musically, is the correction of inaccurate pitch reproduction present in three of the tunes throughout the album's history. Project director Seth Rothstein, reissue producer Michael Cuscuna and the Columbia engineers discovered that the original three-track tape machine employed for the recording had been running slightly slow. When the tape it created was remixed and played at correct speed, the music that emerged was slightly sharp, made so by the increased speed of the playback unit. A vintage three-track Presto all-tube machine similar to that used in the original sessions was located, and the album was remixed at correct speed, bringing the tracks in question back to accurate pitch.

"Our primary concern" from the beginning, Rothstein says, "was not to enhance the music, not to change it, but to make it be as definitive a version of what was done in that recording session as we possibly could."

Not everyone agrees with the term "definitive," however. Veteran producer Teo Macero, who worked in the studio with Davis for three decades and was deeply involved in Davis albums ranging from "Sketches of Spain" to "Bitches Brew" and "Water Babies," prepared an earlier restoration of "Kind of Blue." And he is not pleased with the current reissue nor, for that matter, with the Miles Davis-Gil Evans boxed set that preceded it.

"Definitive to who?" Macero asks. "Were the guys who are doing this project in the studio with Miles? I was."

Macero agrees with the desire to release the tunes on "Kind of Blue" at their proper pitch levels, but he strongly opposes efforts to remix the music's elements.

"Look," he says, "the records that we put out were what he [Miles] wanted. It wasn't just because of what happened in the studio but because of what was done afterwards, with the mixing and equalizing and putting stuff together. And I don't think Miles came into the studio after a session to mix or do the final assembly on an album more than three or four times in all the years we worked together. What's on those original releases is what Miles wanted to hear."

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