“The Blue Moment” by Richard Williams

BLueMomentA Review by Steve Ethridge —

I’m fairly sure that most here at UCF are aware that the university has a radio station, WUCF, which is closely aligned with National Public Radio, but also has its own disc jockeys and who primarily play what is known as “straightahead jazz.” Straight-ahead jazz, for those unfamiliar with the categorization, is characterized by selections originally recorded by jazz  progenitors such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Dave Brubeck, to name a few. Those who feature music of this sort could be perceived to be on a mission of purity and preservation regarding the nation’s recognized musical art form, and by and large, WUCF fulfills this implicit calling. Richard Williams, author of The Blue Moment, seems to undertake in writing what stations like ours and others affiliated with public broadcasting seek to maintain through broadcasting: attention to the heritage and influence of artists, musical and otherwise.

Williams’ focus in The Blue Moment is the production of trumpeter Miles Davis’s highly touted album Kind of Blue, recorded in 1959 during the height of the Cool Jazz movement, the post-bebop period in which fiery jazz phrasings were replaced by modal orchestrations and mood-inducing solo meanderings. Less concerned with player virtuosity, though nonetheless replete with it, Cool Jazz, according to the author, seeks to transport the listener spiritually and aesthetically with its contemplative properties, yet is unwilling to be ostentatious. Williams remarks of Davis’s “cool” approach, “unlike bebop, this wasn’t confrontational music. Not only did it not care if you didn’t like it, it affected not even to notice.”

An interesting feature of the book is Williams’s attention to the word “blue.” Each chapter title contains the word: “Blue Moods,” “Blue Dawn,” “Into the Blue,” and so forth. Chapter Three: “The Sound of Blue,” traces blue as a color, a hue, an idea, and an essence. Viewed historically, blue is shown by Williams to be significant in ancient civilizations, prized by kings and merchants, studied by scientists such as Newton, and theorized over by luminaries such as Goethe, Thomas Young and artists such as Matisse and Cezanne. Not to be ignored, of course, is blue as a musical phenomenon—The Blues. Williams says of “the blues” of 1959, “the blues had become an emotion, or a span of emotions, generally reckoned to range from mild ennui to suicidal despair.” He then adds regarding Miles Davis, “Davis’s blues were located at the more sophisticated end of the musical and emotional spectrum, where ennui wore a nice raincoat and suicide demanded an elegant setting.”

The Blue Moment chronicles situations and events of the period leading up to the creation of Miles Davis’s masterpiece, noting throughout the many influences at work, but the book seems to be more about a sensibility than a single album. Special recognition is given to jazz gurus such as Gil Evans and George Russell, as well as the team at Columbia records, but it is the musicians themselves—Davis, John Coltrane, “Cannonball” Adderley, Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb— and their unique qualities that Williams features most prominently. Chapter 8, which shares the title of the book, “The Blue Moment,” describes the 1959 production of each tune on the album, along with commentary and historical sidebars from Williams. But what makes this book stand out is the way in which readers are also shown unusual aspects of Kind of Blue and its far-reaching influences as argued in the eight subsequent chapters. While many who are not musicians might not be onboard with some of the musical terminology often utilized in The Blue Moment (a necessary component in writing about music), Richard William’s attention to detail and provocative insights about the world of jazz should keep readers of all sorts fascinated.

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