Sketches of Spain [Legacy Edition] | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Miles Davis

Sketches of Spain [Legacy Edition]

Columbia/Legacy

May 29, 2009 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


NOTE: Most musicologists agree that 1959 was to jazz what 1967 was to rock 'n' roll (and, subsequently, music-milestone marketing). For whatever reason, cosmic or otherwise, its heaviest hitters were all swinging in peak form. Here's a brief list: Thelonious Monk: The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall; Ornette Coleman: The Shape of Jazz to Come; John Coltrane: Giant Steps; Miles Davis: Kind of Blue; Duke Ellington: Jazz Party; Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um; The Dave Brubeck Quartet: Time Out; and Ray Charles: The Genius of Ray Charles. Columbia Records was lucky enough to have waxed a few of those watersheds and is now presenting them in 50th anniversary editions as part of its "1959 - Jazz's Greatest Year" reissue campaign. Under the Radar examines three of those titles.

Jaws dropped and brows were smacked when Miles Davis unveiled Kind of Blue in the summer of '59. It was jazz's "of course!"—the game-changer that taught the genre a cool new language. Its construction crew reads today like an impossible who's who: Davis, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb. It pointed jazz down a whole new path, but what fans didn't realize was that their fearless leader was about to embark on an international detour, if only for two sides of vinyl.

Released in 1960, Sketches of Spain marked Davis' third collaboration with arranger Gil Evans. Their musical relationship was a mutually advantageous one: Davis got to explore different, even classical textures, and Evans got to hang with Davis, whose participation assured an audience for what might have otherwise been a painfully square adventure. Davis had cooked in Spanish before, most recently on Blue's "Flamenco Sketches," so this wasn't an impulsive veer for the sake of contrarianism. In fact, it was he who brought the heart of Spain, "Concierto de Aranjuez," to Evans' attention. Thus inspired, they entered Columbia's 30th Street Studios in November of 1959 and went straight to work on a record with an exotic theme centered on the Joaquin Rodrigo composition.

It is naturally "Concierto" that opens the album, a cinematic evocation stirring in its summoned brass, with Davis' flugelhorn treading mournfully through the dust. The effect is nearly orchestral, although there's nary a string to be heard save Janet Putnam's harp, which pines at times with a guitar's romantic longing. "Saeta" bookends Miles' melancholy rumination with an almost martial pomp fueled by Jimmy Cobb on drums, which steps aside for the bandleader out of somber respect. It's followed by "Solea," Spain's other epic-length wandering that finds Miles at his trademark kopasetic, even caressing a bum note until it cools itself to greatness. As on previous reissues, this one concludes with "Song of Our Country," which was also recorded during the Spain sessions but left on ice until 1980. It's a curious beast that ends rather abruptly and anticlimactically on Davis mid-toot—trumpet interruptus.

The expanded edition's second disc further explores the Latin theme, including two previous Davis excursions into the form. "Maids of Cadiz" first appeared on 1957's Miles Ahead (another Evans collaboration), and is very much in the spirit of Spain. Someday My Prince Will Come's (1961) "Teo," a tribute to producer Teo Macero," is a quintet performance spiced lightly with Spanish, with a nice Coltrane solo thrown in. Most of the space, however, is devoted to the development of "Concierto," from a Davis-free rehearsal take to a 1961 outing at Carnegie Hall.

All of this is fine and well but suffers from the usual bulked-up-reissue Achilles Heel: Diehards already possess every crumb of available bonus material (hasn't the vault been plumbed to its Pine Sol shine?), and if you're just beginning to sniff around the Davis catalogue, there are better ways in than Sketches of Spain. It's not for tourists. Start with Kind of Blue, then see if you're ready to take that exotic trip. (www.miles-davis.com

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