on January 26, 2004
Miles Davis - Sketches of Spain
Among instrumentalists, the collaborations of Miles Davis and Gil Evans are often controversial. Though people universally acknowledge that Evans was a genius as an arranger, it's not easy for those who want a full out hard-bop blowing session to adjust to the cool colors and laid back aesthetic of these works. For many; the most difficult of the Davis/Evans collaborations is this third one in the series. While Miles Ahead and Porgy and Bess both have obvious roots in big band writing, Sketches of Spain delves into material that was generally not in the mainstream at the time. That it does so with subtlety and style is something that can often be overlooked by those who wish that Miles would blow more.
Sketches of Spain has its genesis in the slow movement of the Rodrigo Concierto di Arguanez, one of the most beloved pieces of classical music out of Spain. Both Miles and Gil Evans were taken with the piece when they were introduced to it and it forms the centerpiece of the album, and the number that seems to register the greatest number of complaints. Purists in the classical world dislike it's fast and loose treatment of the original work, and in fact, Rodrigo was on record as detesting the final product. And jazz musicians felt the work to be pretentious, with not enough room for Miles to solo, and not enough out and out swing. There was also a feeling that the work was just blatantly copied from it's origins and that any brilliance in the work was due to Rodrigo, not to Evans.
A careful hearing, especially a side-by-side comparison with the original Concierto, can dispel much of the criticism of this work. Evans does not merely imitate the piece; he imaginatively rethinks it for wind ensemble. Instead of the spare English Horn and strings with which Rodrigo opens the work, Evans creates a shimmering bed of castanets and harp, over which he layers low flutes and French horns an muted brass, moving in a dense carpet of parallel fourths. While the main points of the original form are followed, with Miles taking mostly the guitar parts, there are many sections that illustrate the genius of Evans, the arranger. Particularly impressive is Evans rethinking of the guitar cadenzas. For the first cadenza Evans contrasts Miles in his dark low register, with beautifully balanced chords in the flutes and low brass, characterized by unusual voicings that include tense dissonances at the top of the chord. Also stunning is the original section that Evans uses to replace the second cadenza. The bass begins an understated vamp. Miles solos over it with his typical cool understatement and the orchestra builds to the climax of the work.
The other cuts on the album are even more understated, but also highly original. Two particularly stand out. Saeta is inspired by a traditional Holy Week procession in which an effigy is paraded through a town, interrupted by a long mournful solo by Davis. The orchestration in this part is stunning. Evans layers martial percussion, a faint bassoon solo and a brass band against Miles' beautiful trumpet. The effect is a jazz tone poem, in the best tradition of the Ellington Orchestra.
The other standout on the album is Solea. This work is a long, beautiful Miles solo over a constantly changing orchestral vamp. Evans shows considerable ingenuity in constantly varying the rather static two-chord vamp, and Miles is given just one scale to improvise on. Though this album came out after Kind of Blue, it was recorded several months earlier, and you can see the influence that Evans had on Miles' revolutionary small group album.
The re-mastering of this album is terrific. The clarity by which you can hear the delicate sounds such as the castanets and the harp is truly lovely. It compares favorably to the old LP version. My one gripe with this reissue, which I have with most of the Columbia reissue series, is that the filler material is basically not worthy to be released. On this one, the filler includes a Brazilian character piece, which belongs in the filler to the Quiet Nights album instead, and two alternative versions of parts of the Concierto. Though last pieces have some documentary value, they are both vastly inferior to the final product and are ultimately annoying to listen to. I would prefer to have the album as it was finally released and save this sort of material for boxed set compilations, even if that means I only get 40 minutes worth of music.
In conclusion, this is a classic album, worthy to join the other Evans/Davis collaborations. It even pushes the art of jazz arranging farther than the other records. And the influence of this work on the history of jazz arranging and composition can't be overestimated. Don Sebesky, Bill Holman and numerous other large group arrangers continually show their debt to the genius of Evans. But, for those who want to hear Miles blow; stick with the quintet and sextet albums from this period. Sketches of Spain does feature Miles, but the real star of the album is the arranging.
on November 7, 2003
When I was in college struggling to build a CD collection that would convince visitors to my room that I was cool, I got two Miles Davis albums that I thought made the best impression: Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain. Since then, I am thankfully much less concerned with what people think of me, I've listened to Kind of Blue hundreds of times, and Sketches of Spain...I'm not sure...maybe twenty times, and haven't had the urge to pick it off the shelf for the past two years. Why do I never feel like listening to it, even though the music was enjoyable?
I think I figured out the reason when I stumbled across the actual Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez on a CD of classical guitar pieces. It really is a beautiful piece. What surprised me was how similar it was to the version on Sketches of Spain. Miles's version was essentially the same piece arranged for jazz band: nothing particularly exciting was done to the music, and any changes in the harmony that took place with the transposition of instruments were, if anything, to the detriment of the music. There's a reason this piece was, after all, written for guitar.
The rest of the album-with the exception of Solea-gives me the same impression. It's a fan letter to Spain; it recreates their music without creating anything new or vital. I remember reading in the liner notes that the recording of this album was plagued with difficulties, because Miles kept showing up late to sessions without being adequately prepared. Now, I don't know how he acted during the sessions that created Kind of Blue, In a Silent Way, or Miles Smiles-but I have a feeling it wasn't like that. Those records bristle with enthusiasm and energy: everyone in them was fully committed to what was being done.
But I can sort of tell, when I listen to this, why Miles wasn't totally into Sketches of Spain. There's barely any room to breathe inside these arrangements-the improvisatory feel of the jazz that Miles was best at is gone. His freedom is basically limited to a few sections of primary melody, and that within an idiom of music that he isn't totally comfortable with. When you listen to this album, little phrases and melodies don't stick in your head the way they do with Kind of Blue; instead, what you come away with is a vaguely pleasant feeling.
What this is, then, is nice background music. And you can play great music for atmosphere, but if it's actually great, eventually it'll get your attention again and again and distract you from whatever it is you were doing. This one just plays until it's over and then goes back on the shelf, the same as those lame world music albums people get to "relax." Well, it's better than those. But still: only get this if you have the great Miles albums. I mentioned a few.
on July 16, 2003
This album is very good, no doubt, but I only give it 4 stars when compared to many of his other albums.
Believe it or not, the 20 bit digital re-mastering stands out most for me. The sound quality is amazing. This cd sounds as if it was recorded yesterday.
However, as far as content goes, I think this cd is a bit over rated. First of all, this really isn't jazz (at least my definition of jazz anyway). Miles is brilliant, Gil Evans is brilliant, the band is brilliant, but this just isn't the type of jazz I like to listen to. Some people have classified this as "Jazzed-Up Spanish Classical," and I guess that works for me, because I really can't think of a better way to describe it.
I just prefer the quintent recordings between 1965-1968: 'Miles Smiles,' 'Sorcerer,' 'Nefertiti,' and 'ESP.' I also like 'Kind of Blue' (of course), 'Porgy & Bess' and many others way better than this. All of these albums are far more listenable, and contain the kind of jazz and the kind of Miles Davis music that I prefer.
Also, on this cd, there are 2 versions of 'Concierto De Aranjuez.' One track is the original cut. The other is an alternate take. Both are basically the same and play for about 16 minutes, but unfortunately, I really don't care that much for this track. So basically that amounts to 32 minutes worth of music that I could do without. Miles is great, but again, this just isn't the type of jazz or the Miles Davis kind-of-music that I like to listen to.
Look somewhere else if you want to buy your first Miles Davis CD. Start with any of the cd's I mentioned above for a much better sample of his work.
However, with all that said, I still would consider this a "must have" CD for any true Miles Davis fan, and I do listen to this CD a lot even though my review is somewhat negative. Afterall, I did give this a 4 star rating, and that isn't that bad...
on August 8, 2003
Will this LP ever sound dated? I seriously doubt it since Miles Davis didn't set out to create some trendy, disposable piece of product. The story goes that Miles heard the classical version of "SAETA" at a friend's house and was so enamored that he approached composer/conductor Gil Evans to write some similar pieces to complement it. Utilizing a full orchestra, drummer/percussionist Elvin Jones and bassist Paul Chambers and Davis himself on both trumpet and muted fluglegorn, what came out of those sessions was absolutely flawless and, dare I say it, magical. Davis' solos on this release are some of his most precise and intricate. While Evans' orchestrations are consistently tasteful and evocative but never overwhelming. Evans seems particularly inspired by Flamenco music and the slow build-up of pieces like "THE PAN PIPER" and "SOLEA" is a wonder to behold. His influence can be heard in the works of modern masters like Howard Shore. I would even go so far as to call "Sketches...." emotional. Simply listen and you will be utterly moved to your core by the beauty of this music. Miles Davis was a genius who altered every perception of music and musical thinking and his pairing with the Brilliant Gil Evans was a match made in heaven. A Classic.
on May 1, 2003
There are already more than 70 reviews posted for this famous production, so I'll be brief: it's the kind of album one has to listen to attentively and repeatedly to learn to love. This is not the Miles of "Kind of Blue." The joys here are indeed quiet, because melancholy and somber beauty dominates just about every track. The white arranger/conductor/composer Gil Evans, older than the black, gifted, moody Davis, had already collaborated with the trumpeter on two earlier records, but this was to be the most challenging of all. Up to 20 musicians joined in, yet Evans has restrained almost all of them to brilliant, fleeting moments in the limelight or to hushed but superbly rendered accents. Only one woman was on the project, the harpist, but the orchestra was a good mixture of black and white men. Evans and Davis created a memorable Spanish feel to all the moments. Yes, I think it is jazz, but as a listener, it feels like a long, sad symphony. I did not give it a fifth star simply because I personally missed having at least one uptempo tune to give the listener a short break from loneliness. I think the concept deserves six or seven stars, and the execution musically at least five. Certainly this is not the ideal item to start a Miles Davis collection, but it can't be left out of any collection of more than about 10 CD's of his. One has to be in the mood for it, and submerge one's ears in it, to get the genius of it. Definitely Miles dominates everything with his trumpet, which at times is a bit shrill for me (I'm a sax man, mainly) but he plays with such depth of emotion that even the non-fan will grant his talent. No wonder it is a landmark, albeit a controversial one. For sure, it is a jazz record that classical music fans might appreciate more than anyone else.
on October 22, 2002
Miles' rendition of the Concierto de Aranjuez is one of the most, if not the most gourgeous song(s) I have ever heard. Obviously, it was Miles playing, but it is a new style. Some people, including the composer, J Rodrigo, do not like it, but it is a wonderful fusion of a neo-classical concerto with a more modern jazz feel. In fact, if only to hear this, the album would be worth it. The more defined Will O' The Wisp and Pan Piper create a nice contrast. Saeta is strikingly different. The marchlike style is in sharp contrast to most Miles, in fact. However, it is still very beautiful and the trumpet mechanics are second to none. The Soleta is a very beautiful, soleful piece that melds nicely with the Concierto. Song of Our Country is an interesting work. The rehersal take of the Concierto is strikingly beautiful. Some people consider this a strange, out-there album that is not Miles Davis. I feel that it just shows how unique Miles really was, and his legacy cannot be discussed without talking about Sketches of Spain. Many people love it, or just think it's plain weird. I encourage buying this album because of all the wonderful contrasts.
on October 21, 2002
This legendary album is a milestone in jazz, a disc where everthing seems to fit into the right place: great ensemble playing, a superb selection of music, and, most of all, the absolutely astounding soloing of Miles Davis. The most famous piece is the first, a version of the adagio from Joaquin Rodrigo's famous classical guitar concerto 'concierto de aranjuez', expanded by Davis' collaborator Gil Evans, one of the most important creative partnerships in jazz. It is a classic, a superb jazz treatment of a classical work, in both the original performance and the alternative version that is a bonus track on this issue, which to me, is even better-there is more depth of emotion (if such a thing is possible) than on the original, a rawness and passion. There is another classical work, 'Will o' the wisp' by Manuel de Falla, a shorter and less intense experience than the Rodrigo, with a different flavour-mysterious and with a sinister undertone. Listen out for the slinky, dark rhythms, and multicoloured orchestral pallette. Thirdly, we have a Spanish folk melody, 'The Pan Piper', that Evans heard a pig castrator play on a penny whistle! The unmistakable trumpet of Miles hovers over a static, glittering, orchestra. After that, an incredible emotional; display: 'Saeta'. This is a traditional Spanish proccession, in which a woman on a balcony tells of the story of Christ's death and ressurrection. Brass fanfares introduce Miles' solo, in which he plays the part of the woman with astounding concentration and display of raw emotion. Then, 'Solea' (coming from the word for loneliness) by Gil Evans. After a slow introduction, the rhythm picks up and we begin a march in which Davis, as the linter notes put it 'fervently links the cries of flamenco and blues'. Another bonus track, 'Song of our country', is in more of a South American than a Spanish vein.
What this disc captures so precisely, so movingly, so clearly, is the sadness that lies at the heart of what we think of as Spain, a sense of melancholy, of grief. The tone of Miles' trumpet, so brilliantly displayed in 'Porgy and Bess', reaches another stage here- he is given the space to make his own unique sound. If you buy no other jazz album, then this is the one to get.
on June 22, 2002
The first time I heard Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquín Rodrigo for Spanish guitar and symphonic orchestra it was performed by virtuoso Narciso Yepes. It was the most incredible music I had heard, decades ago. The world agreed because since Yepes first recorded Rodrigo's concerto four decades ago literally hundreds of different artists recorded this ethereal music. Enter Miles Davis.
Davis adapted the guitar solo to trumpet and created yet another kind of ethereal music. For his original guitar composition, Rodrigo balanced the gentle tones of the solo instrument with orchetral brass .... which often plays dissonant chords, but with soft understatement. What Davis produced is not simply transposing guitar to trumpet and the symphonic orchestral parts to a large brass section. Rather, Davis created a new sound by fusing American jazz styles with Spanish undertones. Rather than softening the brass so as not to drown out the acoustic guitar, the volume was raised in Davis' rendition and now the powerful solo trumpet carries on a dialog with an occasionally competing, and at other times counterpointal, brass section.
I imagine that when Rodrigo wrote Concierto de Aranjuez, he couldn't have imagined how far removed from his native Spain this music would travel ... reinterpreted by the American jazz world. But there it is. Had Narciso Yepes never played the concerto and the world only heard Miles Davis' rendition then the world would still have been quite happy. But now there are both kinds of music, and the lucky listener can decide to move between the two worlds of Davis and Yepes. What a triumph for modern music!
on June 18, 2002
Miles Davis has been my favourite jazz artist ever since I first purchased Kind of Blue. I now own two of his less famous albums ("Bag's Groove and "Collector's Items"), the "Complete Birth of the Cool", the "Complete Miles Davis/John Coltrane Columbia Recordings", "The Complete Live At the Plugged Nickel 1965" and "The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions."
Looking for another box set to add to my collection, I had a listen to some of the tracks for both the Second Quintet's box set and the Miles/Gil Evans one. At first the idea of listening to the roots of fusion and the ultra free-sounding hard bop of the second quintet (I had liked what they did at the Plugged Nickel), I was pretty much set to purchase their box set instead of the more orchestral Gil Evans work. However, after listening to that AMAZING opening by Davis on "Concierto de Aranjuez", I had to have this album.
Not really jazz in the usual sense of the word, this album shows Miles doing what he became famous for; 'Fusing' ideas from outside jazz to create unique and wonderous works. This is one such album and is worth the listen. About on par with 'In A Silent Way', but still nothing compared to 'Kind of Blue'. Then again, no jazz album has ever been able to better that masterpiece!
on June 3, 2002
After reading some of the other reviews posted here i felt compelled to contribute to the dialogue. I believe that those from the jazz and classical 'camps' who complain that sketches of spain isn't 'really' jazz or is not faithful to the traditional orchestral approach most so-called classical recordings have taken to the adagio section of rodrigo's concerto de aranguez (the centerpiece of this album) are missing the point. This recording is one of the most important performances of the 20th century and is clearly the best in the series of collaborations between miles and gil evans. Gil evans has remarked that his arrangements were designed to provide a backdrop for miles' lyrical and passionate playing. This is indeed the case here-lush and exotic, yet not overpowering orchestrations cushion some of miles' best playing of any of his periods (cool, bebop, modal, fusion, etc.). Miles is to contemporary music what picasso was to contemporary art. This album represents uncompromising artistic expression at its highest. Sketches of spain is an absolutely essential recording, despite some less than enlightened claims to the contrary posted here. Reardless of your preference in musical expression, this recording belongs in your collection!