Ahh, the effortless poetry of Grammy categories … anyway, as all you happenin’ hepcats and hepkitties know the winner that year was Miles Davis Sketches of Spain. I started buying Miles LPs in 1993 and, entirely at random, this was the third one I bought, on the same day as The Birth of the Cool. I liked it instantly.
Sketches of Spain, along with the earlier Miles Ahead is about as classical as Miles and Gil Evans got. However, in a similar manner to the way in which classical composers like Liszt injected rhythm and life into their pieces by incorporating folk songs and themes, our dynamic duo turned to Spain, via an obsession with an LP of Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez*, for extra flavor. The real streak of genius lay in adapting and transcribing the piece from guitar to flugelhorn and trumpet, the vision necessary to do this was only trumped by Gil Evans’ actual ability to do it. I’m no musician, but just think for a second about the sheer difference between the instruments** and you’ll begin to appreciate the scale of this feat. Rodrigo, apparently did not approve – what a square!
Oh and the music? well, ‘Concierto De Aranjuez’ manages the neat trick of sounding exactly like the LP cover, all heat haze, rich earth and, umm, bull; okay so I may not have thought that one through properly! Okay, scrap the bull, in any other than a purely symbolic sense of pride and passion. It sounds like Spain to me and Davis’ horn cuts through the haze with laser precision, managing to be both rousing and melancholy almost simultaneously. There is, I find, something really timeless about this music, both in terms of it not being dated in any way, 54 years after the fact and in the sense that I am able to get lost inside it, losing all track of time.
The short ‘Will O’ The Wisp’, nabbed from a ballet score is, ironically the jazziest sounding piece on offer here; although in this company that’s very much a relative concept. The music does strut and slide for the whole of its 3:48 length.
The second side all merges into a single piece for me, the Spanish folk tune ‘The Pan Piper’ is striking for being no more Spanish sounding than the two Gil Evans penned numbers ‘Saeta’ and ‘Solea’; in fact arguably its less Spanish-sounding than ‘Saeta’ with it’s processional brass mustering, just before Miles’ impeccably elegiac solo. The bustling, bristling ‘Solea’ is a very symphonic piece, only the rhythmic drive beneath the hood betrays the fact that this is a jazz recording, incidentally I think this track features some of the very best playing Miles put down on vinyl.
I think Sketches of Spain is a really great album, melodic graceful and sparky. Miles Davis really shows us another facet to his playing here, the ability to shelve his improvisational brilliance for the accuracy and the good of the tune – which may not sound like much, but there was many a name player out there who could never have cut this record. I like what he says about the melody in ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’, quoted in Nat Hentoff’s excellent sleevenotes^, along the lines of ‘the softer you play that melody, the stronger it becomes’, that attitude and understanding is really what underpins the essential achievement that is, Sketches of Spain. That of course and Gil Evans’ unbeatable arranging skills, he’s a man who never gets enough praise I think, partly because everyone charges off towards Bitches Brew-era Miles and this era tends to get thought of as ‘safe Miles’ – fools! Again, quoting the sleevenotes, Miles said of Gil Evans that ‘he made that orchestra sound like one big guitar’.
No wonder it won Best Jazz Composition of More than Five Minutes Duration, 1960.
As a post script: Davis said in his 1989 autobiography that after working on Sketches of Spain he had to take a long break because he just had nothing, no feelings left inside him – he’d left them all on the LP. He also claimed only to ever have sat down and really listened to the finished album once. His loss.
*also linked to Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin in the 1970’s – the former as ‘The Orange Juice Song’ recorded during the Come Taste The Band sessions and the latter as part of a Jon Paul Jones interlude during ‘No Quarter’ on their 1977 tour. Facts, you gotta love ’em.
**one small and blowy, the other long and plucky.
^SLEEVENOTES!! Oh God I love sleevenotes.