Suibokugo

“The rain carried on falling, keeping customers away. The rain fell softly, then heavily, then softly. Static hisses on telephone lines. Jimmy Cobb’s percussion on ‘Blue in Green.’” The record shop clerk in David Mitchell’s “Ghostwritten” thinks a lot about music. It makes a place in his head, refuge from a bustling Tokyo.

 

Mr. Fujimoto is a regular. During one springtime lunchtime visit, he gazes outside and notices the last cherry blossom. “On the tree, it turns ever more perfect. And when it’s perfect, it falls. And then of course once it hits the ground it gets all mushed up. So it’s only absolutely perfect when it’s falling through the air, this way and that, for the briefest time….I think that only we Japanese can really understand that, don’t you?”
 
Autumn leaves are different. A lot of them hold on too long.
 
If that record store were real it would probably stock the new 50th anniversary edition of “Kind of Blue.” Along with “Blue in Green” (with Jimmy Cobb’s static hisses), the Miles Davis classic features just four other tunes, at least the original release did. A 1997 reissue threw in one alternate take, and the new deluxe package includes 21 performances plus a blue vinyl copy of the album, a 60-page book and fold out poster. The 60th anniversary package will probably come with a Miles Davis shower curtain.
 
Columbia Records is holding on too long.
 
But think about what happened at their 30th Street studio in New York City in the spring of 1959. In the original liner notes, Bill Evans compared it to the Japanese art of suibokugo. “The artist is forced to be spontaneous,” Bill wrote. “He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line.”
 
I first heard “Kind of Blue” in the studio of a Japanese painter named Kikuo Saito. I was going to school in New York and was lucky to get a work-study job stapling huge sections of canvas to the floor, mixing paint and playing DJ as Kikuo paced around the edge with a squeegee or hovered here and there with a brush.
 
 
One side of the long hallway off the studio was floor-to-ceiling LP’s, mostly 1950’s jazz, along with some Dylan and Aretha. I picked stuff at random, but had read about the famous Miles Davis record and so went to that one over and over. After three semesters I still couldn’t figure out what was so great about it, but it must have seeped in. At some point, it started to make sense – or maybe I just gave up trying to make sense of it. Now it’s hard to imagine life without it, and I’m not alone. “Kind of Blue” is said to be the best selling album in jazz history. Impromptu sessions, first takes, suibokugo sketches, the sound of falling cherry blossoms…perfect for the briefest time.

 

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