Music Theory: Why "All Blues" Works

February 11, 2019

The above title is not a mistake; this is not a jazz review. Our jazz reviews typically include some biographical information and do not dig deep into music theory. This post intends to do otherwise. 


First, let's listen to the recording itself or at least the first few choruses to familiarize ourselves with it. The point of this review is not to explain the whole recording, but instead explain why it was such a successful recording on such a successful album, Kind of Blue.* 

 *According to WikipediaKind of Blue is "regarded by many critics as jazz's greatest record"


But what is it that makes this particular track on the Kind of Blue album, "All Blues", outstanding enough for it to be included here? At least on the surface, it's not extremely complicated. It's not designed to show the best technique - yet, interestingly, its purposeful efforts to not boast actually resulted in it being considered as one of the best recordings in jazz history. 


All Blues was arguably among the best of the work with Miles Davis and John Coltrane. It marked out the highlights of each musician's abilities, because Davis, Adderley, and Coltrane focused on each phrase and used each one to build a unified musical piece, rather than the common, but individual, efforts often found in jazz. 


Really, the key to the success of "All Blues", along with the rest of Kind of Blue, was that, unlike many recordings that came before and after it, it was carefully and perfectly arranged. The introduction is played precisely, not loosely. The potential downside of this kind of playing is the loss of anything that is spontaneous; however, the fact that every musician knows what he is doing, makes up for this. It's clear that the musicians are completely willing to play this way, and it's clear that every musician is doing as he chooses - fitting into the arrangement. By doing this, the arrangement does not destroy the quality of the jazz.


By staying quiet and not playing complex harmonies, the small-group sound is preserved, despite the arrangements. However, through all this, the core of the group - piano, bass, and drums - keeps a straightforward pattern which sounds as professional as could be. The soloists are then able to use this to their advantage; they don't have to do much to create an authentic sound in the group. By not overplaying, the group sounds like real jazz, not some imitation of the real thing.


It's also a piece of music with just the right tempo, and rhythm, to give its own impression. In fact, if any tune written by a member of Miles' quintet could have been called "Impressions", this tune seems like the best choice.


Another important thing about this album and this song in particular is that, clearly, the musicians saw delivery as greatly important. This is like what is found in many genres in music, but unfortunately, often not in jazz. Jazz musicians tend to want to do what they want "at the moment", but over the thousands of years during which we have had music, good musicians have learned the importance of good delivery. Let us learn from their experience.


One clever thing about the tune itself, however, is the tension and release caused by the last part of the chord sequence, where it goes to an Eb7 chord before going to the D7 and then returning to G (G is the key used in the Real Book lead sheet). This is not an "ordinary" blues that many musicians play, and that's where Miles Davis was often different, in a good way, from many other jazz musicians: he was not lazy with his compositions or in other things he did. He didn't allocate sections of tunes for improvisation so he wouldn't have so much writing to do.

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