What’s the Greatest Jazz Record? Here’s a Clue: Miles Davis.

3 SHADES OF BLUE: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, and the Lost Empire of Cool, by James Kaplan

Miles Davis was one of the biggest stars in jazz as well as one of the most innovative and influential musicians. John Coltrane was both a saxophone virtuoso and a fearless explorer whose lifelong musical and spiritual quest attracted a passionate following — and later, as that quest went beyond the boundaries of jazz as many people understood the word, heated criticism. Bill Evans redefined the concept of the piano trio and rewrote the rules of jazz harmony. And on one memorable occasion in 1959, all three participated in the creation of what many consider the greatest jazz record ever made, Davis’s “Kind of Blue.”

Countless words have been devoted to Davis, Coltrane and Evans, including biographies, an autobiography (Davis’s) and at least three books focused on that one record: Ashley Kahn’s “Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece,” Eric Nisenson’s “The Making of ‘Kind of Blue’: Miles Davis and His Masterpiece” and Richard Williams’s “The Blue Moment: Miles Davis’s ‘Kind of Blue’ and the Remaking of Modern Music.” Do we also need a book that recounts the life stories of all three?

Well, we may not need it, but we have it. And if “3 Shades of Blue: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, and the Lost Empire of Cool” is neither an essential addition to the jazz literature nor quite the sweeping statement its subtitle promises, it’s certainly a compelling read.

James Kaplan is not a jazz expert — he refers at one point to how “nonprofessional ears” hear a certain recording, presumably meaning his — but he knows how to tell a story, and in “3 Shades of Blue” he has a good one to tell. Or, rather, three good ones.

He never makes it clear why, “Kind of Blue” aside, he considers these three musicians uniquely emblematic of their era in jazz history; why them and not Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman? But he leaves no doubt that they loomed large, and he deftly draws a line from Davis, who began as a musically untested disciple of the pioneering saxophonist Charlie Parker in the late 1940s, to both Coltrane, who was a largely unknown quantity when Davis hired him in the mid-1950s, and Evans, a similarly under-the-radar white pianist whose presence in Davis’s sextet a few years later raised eyebrows for racial as well as musical reasons. (If he never quite makes a connection between Coltrane and Evans beyond their brief time together with Davis, there’s a good reason: There really isn’t one.)

This book does not contain much that the serious jazz fan won’t already know. Kaplan does offer enough new material, culled from interviews he has done over the years with, among other people, Miles Davis himself, to hold the interest of even the most jaded I’ve-heard-it-all-before jazzbo, but his book seems primarily aimed at the jazz novice.

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