They make a near perfect match, from their virtually simultaneous publication this fall to their tripping-over-each-other titles. In one corner, "The Making of Kind of Blue: Miles Davis and His Masterpiece" by Eric Nisenson (St. Martin's Press; 236 pages; $22.95); across the ring, "Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece" by Ashley Kahn (Da Capo; 223 pages; $23). The winner? Well, it's playing in the background right now, the smoky, seductive and timeless music Davis and his legendary sidemen chiefly John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley and Bill Evans committed to tape in a studio on the East Side of Manhattan 41 years ago. "Kind of Blue" is more than simply one of the best-selling jazz albums ever; it is also nothing less than the soundtrack to the lives of several generations of loners and romantics. There are people quoted in these books who remember the first time they heard the two-note signature riff of its first cut, "So What," as vividly as they recall the day John F. Kennedy was shot.
"In the church of jazz," writes Kahn, whose book is much the better of the pair, "'Kind of Blue' is one of the holy relics." If so, it's a relic with no saint in its provenance. Davis was an angry, hostile man whose distance from his audience grew in proportion to his increasing renown. But in the first half of his career, at least, he managed to sublimate his various rages and resentments via some of the most beautiful creations in American musical history.
Saxophonist Adderley once said that Davis "is not a good trumpet player but a great soloist," a seemingly gnomic statement that nails Davis precisely. Unable to execute the speedy, flowing lines of bebop, he instead found a voice whose terse eloquence resided not only in his exquisite, lapidary phrases but in the silent spaces between them as well. On "Blue in Green," the album's third cut, there are passages of such poised stillness that they constitute a sort of aural photograph, a moment perfectly preserved.
Both books aim to provide the context for that moment. From Kahn we learn how little even famous sidemen might make from a leader's gig: for the second of the two "Kind of Blue" sessions, at which "Flamenco Sketches" and "All Blues" were recorded, Coltrane, Adderley and Evans received $64.67 each. From Nisenson we learn what Nisenson has written in other books (he quotes himself so frequently that he begins to sound like a tape loop), and that he and Miles were bosom buddies. If you're interested in Nisenson, read Nisenson; if you're interested in how the record was made, read Kahn; and if you're interested in what makes a piece of quiet, understated music survive four decades of rock, rap and ruckus, listen to the album again and again and again.