Miles Davis was instinctively aware that one need not play perfectly to achieve perfection.
Miles Davis is responsible for so much incredible music that at times it’s overwhelming to grapple with his legacy. To be certain, no one who knows anything can disagree that he dropped at least a half-dozen indispensable masterpieces. Yet even that high-level assessment will not suffice: it is no exaggeration to claim (as he was never reluctant to do) that Miles Davis changed music several times. Following his active participation in the bebop apotheosis with Charlie Parker, et al., he released his first enduring classic, Birth of the Cool. Two decades later he ushered in the electronic revolution with the one-two punch of In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Miles Davis was not at the vanguard so much as he was the vanguard. Arguably, he never fired on all cylinders—before or after—quite the way he did in 1959 and into 1960. That he released what is commonly considered the most important (and best) jazz album of all time, Kind of Blue, signified an obvious artistic apex. That he followed this up with the only slightly less momentous and enduring Sketches of Spain is ample evidence that the man with the horn was very much in rarefied air.
Miles had already worked extensively with Gil Evans, dating back to the Birth of the Cool sessions, and later on the full-blown collaborations Miles Ahead and Porgy and Bess. While it is fair to suggest that either man might have taken the raw material of what became Sketches of Spain and created an interesting, possibly excellent album, it could never have turned out so well without both men’s involvement. To imagine how this album may have sounded had Miles chosen to employ a more traditional jazz approach, consider “Flamenco Sketches”, the sublime tone poem from Kind of Blue. Davis’s interest in Spanish music preceded the recording of “Flamenco Sketches”; indeed, his earlier work with Evans resulted in “Blues for Pablo” (from Miles Ahead). So while this pairing was inspired, it was not unpredictable.
Of the many accolades lavished on Sketches of Spain over the years, perhaps the two most prevalent are how well it has aged, and how disarmingly honest it remains. The secret to creating music that stands the test of time is to create timeless music. Simple in theory; near-impossible in practice. What exactly is meant by calling this album honest? Plainly put, Miles seemed incapable of playing false or forced notes, in part because his technique was not impeccable. Critics have long discussed (and debated) how Miles was neither the flashiest nor most proficient trumpeter of his time(s). On the other hand, accepting or embracing this circumstance enabled Davis to play, literally, to his strengths. As a result, he cultivated an approach that relied upon silence as much as sound: Miles took the philosophy of less is more to unprecedented levels. In a sense, he transcended technique, evolving into a directness that achieved an uncommon sensitivity: his solos were ceaselessly expressive, lyrical and filled with concentrated feeling. This facility was perhaps never on more obvious display than it is throughout Sketches of Spain.
It is easy to appreciate how, without Evans, this could have been a minimalist, deeply emotional record. Astonishingly, even with an orchestra, it still manages to be a minimalist, deeply emotional record. Evans certainly augments the sound in all the obvious ways, but he also embellishes the feeling. To understand the extent to which Evans was willing—and able—to tailor his already compatible approach to suit Miles’s style, it was the trumpeter himself who proclaimed, “He can read my mind and I can read his.”
The first track, and centerpiece, is “Concierto De Aranjuez (Adagio)”, composed by Joaquin Rodgrigo in 1939. The original version, which Miles heard and became transfixed by in early ’59, featured guitar—Miles would subsequently simulate (and emulate) those notes with his trumpet. Once he shared the piece with Gil Evans, the two immediately agreed that this should be the focal point of their next album. Evans set about the painstaking task of writing and arranging the work (focusing on the Adagio movement of Rodrigo’s original), and the results, while initially slow to coalesce, are extraordinary. For starters, the robust and lush sound that Evans manages to entice from only 21 players speaks volumes about his considerable prowess as a conductor. The finished product was, and remains, quite unlike anything else created in the jazz idiom. It is not exactly classical, or jazz, or traditional Spanish (or Flamenco) music, nor is it intended to be. Using the source material as a point of departure, the two men manage to pay homage while tapping into something quietly profound. The music fittingly epitomizes many of the paradoxes inherent in Davis’s aesthetic: it is ostensibly simple, but it elicits complicated feelings; it seems tranquil, but packs a disarming intensity. The songs are relatively easy to follow and remember, but repeated listens invariably expose new, intriguing aspects previously undiscovered.
“Will O’ the Wisp” (an excerpt from Spanish composer Manuel de Falla’s ballet El Amor Brujo, composed in 1915), is deceptively upbeat. Deceptive because, despite the warmth, there is an inexorable melancholy underneath, courtesy of the sulking bassoon. Miles’s muted trumpet is used to particularly powerful effect for the coda, making this short song a masterful example of dynamics, fully abetted by Evans’s crafty instincts. “The Pan Piper” incorporates oboe and a chorus of flutes, along with more muted trumpet from Miles, before settling into fully orchestrated interplay. Once again, Evans manages to surround Davis’s horn with a robust but restrained embellishment. “Saeta”, another Andalusian period piece, is traditionally sung (a capella) during Easter to commemorate the Virgin Mary. No religious overtones are necessary in order to appreciate the haunting effect of this languid march. The drums and fanfare approach, wail, then recede into the distance. The listener is front and center for the exceptionally emotional solo, Miles at his most coruscating.
“Solea” is the other extended (12 minute) composition, which closes out the original album. While Miles shines throughout, guiding the action with his cries and exhortations, this is a tour de force from Evans. He utilizes the entire orchestra to spectacular effect, calmly but confidently ratcheting up the intensity to its climax. Of all the songs, this one comes closest to swinging, albeit in a subdued, introspective way. While the piece glides along, Miles never stepping aside from the procession, the brass and woodwinds flutter in and out of the foreground, at one moment brazen, the next ethereal. Right around the nine minute mark, Davis offers one of his better instances of invoking maximum feeling with a minimum of notes (and melodrama)—he simply belts out a series of emanations, creating space with his intentional pauses, heightening the already puissant atmosphere.
The last selection on the first disc is “Song of Our Country” (also recorded during the Sketches of Spain sessions), a not-fully-realized companion piece for the original album. It features the same orchestra and more solid expressiveness from Miles, but leans more formal than Flamenco. It is a delightful “bonus track”, and if it cannot improve upon, it certainly does not mar the perfection that precedes it. A quick word about the production values: the sound quality is superlative. You can hear the intake of breath before the notes are blown on certain solos. You can hear and feel the bass, as well as the brushstrokes almost inaudible on previous versions.
The second disc, with more than 70 minutes worth of miscellaneous outtakes and rarities, is the real draw for folks considering laying down money for this Legacy Edition. There is enough previously unreleased material to entice fans who already own the original (not to mention the initial mid-‘90s remaster, which improved the first pressing’s sound and offered three bonus tracks). An interesting decision has been made to include two pieces, one that preceded Sketches of Spain, and one recorded later. The first, “The Maids of Cadiz”, is from Miles Ahead, the initial Davis/Evans project. It represents not only the first Spanish-flavored experiment from these men’s adventures, but anticipates the themes they would fully embrace a few years later. The second, which closes the set, is “Teo” (a tribute to producer Teo Macero from 1961’s Someday My Prince Will Come), a tune that can be appreciated as an extension of this material sans orchestra. It is, literally, a traditionally swinging jazz workout, featuring John Coltrane (an added bonus then and now) and, taken along with “The Maids of Cadiz”, nicely bookends the developmental chronology of this music.
In addition to the various alternate takes and the tracks-in-progress, there is an interesting live version of “Concierto De Aranjuez” from 1961 that first saw the light of day on vinyl in 1987). As is so often the case, this extra music might be considered revelatory or overkill, depending upon one’s appetite. Certainly, this type of release is readymade for the more dedicated fans and/or completists, but even a new listener will find much to appreciate. As usual, it is enlightening to hear famous compositions slowly take shape in the studio. “Concierto De Aranjeuz” is a noteworthy example here (hence the 5 versions), because of all the musicians and elements involved: the initial test runs nail most of the notes and the vibe, but it takes a while for both to crystallize. This, of course, is a tribute to Evans and Davis for persisting until they were finally satisfied. That the early, often rough drafts help put the ultimately polished product in perspective is a given. With material this complex and challenging, it provides invaluable insight.
Miles Davis is justly venerated for many things. Perhaps most significant, and unique, was his instinctive awareness that one need not play perfectly to occasionally achieve something very near perfection. Sketches of Spain is a case study, and stands as a high point in Davis’s career, as well as one of the crucial works of the 20th century.