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Jazz Tone Poems
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.