I remember how surprised I was when I first listened to the Miles Davis version of the Gershwin Opera Porgy and Bess. I don't know what I had been expecting, but I don't think it had been such a straight orchestral performance of the music. The Miles I had known at the time was the Miles of the late sixties and seventies – the music that had been the inspiration for groups like Weather Report. So this was a Miles Davis I had never heard before. However it's the type of music that brought him his initial renown, so when the opportunity arose to travel back to that time again via the newly released Legacy Recordings of Sketches Of Spain I jumped at it.
The Legacy edition of Sketches Of Spain is a two disc affair, with disc one containing the sides that were originally released back in 1960 plus "Song Of Our Country" that was recorded during those sessions but not released until 1980. Disc two contains out takes from the recording sessions plus the only live performance ever given of "Concierto de Aranjuez" (Adagio) by Miles and orchestra, and "Teo" a piece from the album Someday My Prince Will Come which Davis wrote in honour of Sketches' producer Teo Macero. Included on disc one is a PDF file which includes photos from the recording sessions, production notes taken during the sessions by Macero, and newspaper articles written about the album. While all the music has been released at one time or another previously, this represents the first time it has been gathered together in one collection.
For those wishing to read a thorough dissecting of the music on both discs, and an in depth analysis of the recording sessions, the extensive liner notes written by Gunther Schuller, composer, performer, and educator, are sure to please. A former French horn player, Schuller played on both Birth Of The Cool and the aforementioned Porgy and Bess, and he's also a jazz historian. While I'm not usually a fan of the deconstruction of a recording session after the fact type of notes, Schuller's are an exception. They offer both a professional and personal perspective that make them far more comprehensive than what you'd usually find in a package of this type.
As the title suggests the music on Sketches Of Spain was highly influenced by Spanish compositions. In fact "Concierto de Aanjuez" (Adagio) was written by the Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo and the second track, "Will O' The Wisp", is an excerpt from Manuel de Falla's ballet El Amor Brujo (Love By Sorcery). As the first and second tracks of the recording respectively, they set the mood for the rest of album and obviously influenced composer and arranger Gil Evans' own compositions which made up the last three (four if you include "Song Of The Country") tracks on the album.
Another big surprise for me concerning this album, Davis hadn't written any of the music for it. After years of hearing of this album, I had been under the impression that it was a Miles Davis record in the sense that he had written the music as well as performed on it. In reality, this is as much Gil Evans' recording as it is Davis', for anything he didn't write he arranged. True he created the arrangements with Davis in mind, transposing the guitar leads of Rodrigo's composition for Davis' trumpet, but it was his creative spark responsible for this album's existence. Yet even on this anniversary edition of the recording Evans is only given secondary billing on the cover as arranger and conductor – with no mention of his role as composer.
Of course there's good reason for Davis to receive top billing on this album as it is his horn playing that people are shelling out the money to hear. On Sketches he plays both trumpet and flugel horn and in either case his playing is some of the sweetest trumpet sounds you'll hear. Trumpets, as befits their status as brass instruments, normally have a brassy sound that I find particularly grating at times. Davis has the ability to smooth out his sound so that instead of the almost piercing quality that so many players seem apt to produce, all sharp edges and somewhat harsh, his playing is smooth, round and easier on the ears, while at the same time able to convey a great deal of emotion.
It's a style of playing that's ideally suited to the music being played on this disc with its overtones of sadness and the overall muted tone of the music. Even at those times when his playing increases in volume or emotional intensity it does so with a subtlety and grace that allows the listener ample time to adjust to, and appreciate, the new levels. Davis seems to have a relationship with the music that goes beyond that of someone merely playing notes. It's as if each note has its own existence independent of the rest, and he cradles that life in his hands for just the right amount of time to allow it to fulfill its purpose in a piece of music.
This isn't the wild experimental music of a John Coletrane, the be-bop of Charlie Parker, or even the fusion music that Davis came to be identified with later in life. The type of orchestral jazz music that predominates on Sketches Of Spain degenerated in later years into the bland offerings of Las Vegas. However, as we see here, when in the hands of artistic geniuses like Davis and Evans this style of music rivals both the finest creations of classical composers and contemporary jazz. It's no coincidence that of the three albums these two men did together two of them included pieces originally created for full orchestras., Porgy and Bess and this one Sketches Of Spain.
If you only ever have heard the music of Miles Davis from the later stages of his career, than this recording will come as somewhat of a surprise to you. However, you can also hear all those aspects of his playing that made him such a pleasure to listen to at any stage of his life. The bringing together of all the various bits and pieces associated with the recording sessions that produced Sketches Of Spain in one collection is long overdue, and is indeed part of Miles Davis' legacy. This is a must have for anyone who considers themselves either a jazz or Miles Davis fan.