After exploring modes on Milestones the previous year, Miles recorded this all-time jazz classic which makes exclusive use of modes. After leaving Bird, Miles had been part of the hard bop movement, which simplified the chord progressions and complex harmonies of the original bebop. Kind of Blue marked a huge leap in the direction of a simpler, yet open-ended structure highlighting the melodies.
The players had not seen or played the pieces before the recording. Pianist Bill Evans describes in the album liner notes the brief guidelines they were given.
“Kind of Blue isn’t merely an artistic highlight for Miles Davis, it’s an album that towers above its peers, a record generally considered as the definitive jazz album.
To be reductive, it’s the Citizen Kane of jazz — an accepted work of greatness that’s innovative and entertaining. (…) Why does Kind of Blue posses such a mystique? Perhaps it’s that this music never flaunts its genius. It lures listeners in with the slow, luxurious bassline and gentle piano chords of So What. From that moment on, the record never really changes pace — each tune has a similar relaxed feel, as the music flows easily. Yet Kind of Blue is more than easy listening. It’s the pinnacle of modal jazz — tonality and solos build from chords, not the overall key, giving the music a subtly shifting quality.
All of this doesn’t quite explain why seasoned jazz fans return to this record even after they’ve memorized every nuance. (…) As Evans said in the original liner notes for the record, the band did not play through any of these pieces prior to recording. Davis laid out the themes and chords before the tape rolled, and then the band improvised. (…) Few albums of any genre manage to work on so many different levels, but Kind of Blue does.”