163 of 167 people found the following review helpful
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.
40 of 45 people found the following review helpful
This is a favorite of many Miles fans, and for good reason, it's an impressionistic yet accessible introduction to the Miles canon. It features what some might call "classical" orchestrations, though this is misleading: The term is too broad. It's probably more precise to trace the album to impressionist composers such as Ravel and Debussy.
The long, "classical" piece, "Concierto de Aranjuez (16 minutes, 14 seconds)," is the one most often criticized. To call it "elevator music" is ridiculous, but the composition is heavy on orchestration and much too light on improvisation. Although there's a nice tempo break at one point, it doesn't demand much of us-this may appeal to some listeners, but I found it somewhat dry and ascetic. Still, it sometimes conveys a poignant delicacy. The "long form" in jazz has always been problematic; I don't think this piece is wholly successful, but will probably be enjoyed by most. The last cut, "Solea" (see below) is a better long piece, with more tension and texture.
"Will O' the Wisp" is a much shorter (3:48) piece but involves Miles a little more than "Concierto." The middle section is superb, replete with dissonance and Miles' beautiful tone. "The Pan Piper" (3:57) is similar but more brooding, with Miles layering thoughtful lines against flutes and violins. IT features excellent dynamics and the economical expression of great emotion that are Davis trademarks. The march-influenced "Saeta" (4:57) has a wonderful "Moorish" sound to it, and Miles does some tremendous blowing against a simple background of percussion, strings, and horns. This is a superb example of contained energy.
The final composition "Solea" (12:08) is a more fully realized attempt at long forms. Miles' burnished tone and rhythmic variation, the lush orchestration, percussive effects, and the tension between horn and background offer more drama, texture, and color than does "Concierto." Davis and Evans sustain our attention throughout the entire piece.
Is it worth buying? Certainly (and I'm reviewing the older version without the added tracks). Although I find the similarly atmospheric "In a Silent Way" (and "Kind of Blue") more compelling, this is well worth your time and money. (Note: Liner notes include commentary on the material, but nothing on personnel or recording dates.) Subdued yet challenging enough to capture your imagination.
31 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on October 2, 2000
This album is a collaboration between Gil Evans and Miles Davis and what they created will forever change the Jazz and Classical world. A mixture of Spanish classical scores, and jazz melody.
As Duke Ellington said, "It is becoming increasingly difficult to decide where jazz starts or where it stops, where Tin Pan Alley begins and jazz ends, or even where the borderline lies between classical music and jazz. I feel there is no boundary line." If was any boundary line left when this album came out, it was definately obliviated after this.
This is a perfect piece to listen to in the morning, or anytime when you are just relaxing. I have never been to Spain, but if I went it would probably have trouble competing with the experience of this music. The remastered version is very well done, and the sound is phenomenal for a 1959 recording. The Sound stage is wide and open. And Davis's trumpet is clear and focused. If you want to bridge the gap either from jazz to classical, or vice versa this is the album to do it with. If you love Miles Davis and want something very relaxing and beautiful from him this is a great album to own. Essential for Miles Davis fans.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on May 1, 2003
There are already more than 70 reviews posted for this famous production, so I'll be brief: it's the kind of album one has to listen to attentively and repeatedly to learn to love. This is not the Miles of "Kind of Blue." The joys here are indeed quiet, because melancholy and somber beauty dominates just about every track. The white arranger/conductor/composer Gil Evans, older than the black, gifted, moody Davis, had already collaborated with the trumpeter on two earlier records, but this was to be the most challenging of all. Up to 20 musicians joined in, yet Evans has restrained almost all of them to brilliant, fleeting moments in the limelight or to hushed but superbly rendered accents. Only one woman was on the project, the harpist, but the orchestra was a good mixture of black and white men. Evans and Davis created a memorable Spanish feel to all the moments. Yes, I think it is jazz, but as a listener, it feels like a long, sad symphony. I did not give it a fifth star simply because I personally missed having at least one uptempo tune to give the listener a short break from loneliness. I think the concept deserves six or seven stars, and the execution musically at least five. Certainly this is not the ideal item to start a Miles Davis collection, but it can't be left out of any collection of more than about 10 CD's of his. One has to be in the mood for it, and submerge one's ears in it, to get the genius of it. Definitely Miles dominates everything with his trumpet, which at times is a bit shrill for me (I'm a sax man, mainly) but he plays with such depth of emotion that even the non-fan will grant his talent. No wonder it is a landmark, albeit a controversial one. For sure, it is a jazz record that classical music fans might appreciate more than anyone else.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on December 15, 2000
Anyone interested in Miles but wary of classical music doesn't have to worry about this album. Of all the Davis / Evans collaborations, "Sketches Of Spain" is certainly the most realized. The combination of Evans' orchestra, incessant latin percussion, and Miles' bright trumpet make for an album of light, fancy Spanish styles appropriated into a classical manner. The strong melodies give way to emotions & ideas that are never vague - sadness, fear, discovery, melancholy and happiness. Miles' horn is much brighter and high in pitch (in many places) than normally found on his albums. His playing is constant, yet Miles never seems to be over-taking the orchestra behind him. The orchestra itself never gives into full-blown theatrics, Evans mostly makes use of sharp horns while the strings lay down a gentle background. This record is equal parts classical and Spanish; the only true trace of jazz is Miles' himself, who never strays far from the orchestra's arrangement. In the long career of Miles Davis, this album is another strong reminder that Miles' was a musician who welcomed change and was NEVER afraid to experiment.
A funny thing about this album is how much it resembles film scores of 60's musicals. Many of the different marches & vamps on this album resemble bits of "West Side Story", which can be expected given both have latin roots to them. For Miles' classical work, this isn't as headstrong as "Porgy & Bess" or as introspective as "Quiet Nights". If you're ready to sample Miles' orchestral efforts, this is the simplest & most engaging place to start.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on October 22, 2002
Miles' rendition of the Concierto de Aranjuez is one of the most, if not the most gourgeous song(s) I have ever heard. Obviously, it was Miles playing, but it is a new style. Some people, including the composer, J Rodrigo, do not like it, but it is a wonderful fusion of a neo-classical concerto with a more modern jazz feel. In fact, if only to hear this, the album would be worth it. The more defined Will O' The Wisp and Pan Piper create a nice contrast. Saeta is strikingly different. The marchlike style is in sharp contrast to most Miles, in fact. However, it is still very beautiful and the trumpet mechanics are second to none. The Soleta is a very beautiful, soleful piece that melds nicely with the Concierto. Song of Our Country is an interesting work. The rehersal take of the Concierto is strikingly beautiful. Some people consider this a strange, out-there album that is not Miles Davis. I feel that it just shows how unique Miles really was, and his legacy cannot be discussed without talking about Sketches of Spain. Many people love it, or just think it's plain weird. I encourage buying this album because of all the wonderful contrasts.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on October 21, 2002
This legendary album is a milestone in jazz, a disc where everthing seems to fit into the right place: great ensemble playing, a superb selection of music, and, most of all, the absolutely astounding soloing of Miles Davis. The most famous piece is the first, a version of the adagio from Joaquin Rodrigo's famous classical guitar concerto 'concierto de aranjuez', expanded by Davis' collaborator Gil Evans, one of the most important creative partnerships in jazz. It is a classic, a superb jazz treatment of a classical work, in both the original performance and the alternative version that is a bonus track on this issue, which to me, is even better-there is more depth of emotion (if such a thing is possible) than on the original, a rawness and passion. There is another classical work, 'Will o' the wisp' by Manuel de Falla, a shorter and less intense experience than the Rodrigo, with a different flavour-mysterious and with a sinister undertone. Listen out for the slinky, dark rhythms, and multicoloured orchestral pallette. Thirdly, we have a Spanish folk melody, 'The Pan Piper', that Evans heard a pig castrator play on a penny whistle! The unmistakable trumpet of Miles hovers over a static, glittering, orchestra. After that, an incredible emotional; display: 'Saeta'. This is a traditional Spanish proccession, in which a woman on a balcony tells of the story of Christ's death and ressurrection. Brass fanfares introduce Miles' solo, in which he plays the part of the woman with astounding concentration and display of raw emotion. Then, 'Solea' (coming from the word for loneliness) by Gil Evans. After a slow introduction, the rhythm picks up and we begin a march in which Davis, as the linter notes put it 'fervently links the cries of flamenco and blues'. Another bonus track, 'Song of our country', is in more of a South American than a Spanish vein.
What this disc captures so precisely, so movingly, so clearly, is the sadness that lies at the heart of what we think of as Spain, a sense of melancholy, of grief. The tone of Miles' trumpet, so brilliantly displayed in 'Porgy and Bess', reaches another stage here- he is given the space to make his own unique sound. If you buy no other jazz album, then this is the one to get.
32 of 41 people found the following review helpful
on November 7, 2003
When I was in college struggling to build a CD collection that would convince visitors to my room that I was cool, I got two Miles Davis albums that I thought made the best impression: Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain. Since then, I am thankfully much less concerned with what people think of me, I've listened to Kind of Blue hundreds of times, and Sketches of Spain...I'm not sure...maybe twenty times, and haven't had the urge to pick it off the shelf for the past two years. Why do I never feel like listening to it, even though the music was enjoyable?
I think I figured out the reason when I stumbled across the actual Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez on a CD of classical guitar pieces. It really is a beautiful piece. What surprised me was how similar it was to the version on Sketches of Spain. Miles's version was essentially the same piece arranged for jazz band: nothing particularly exciting was done to the music, and any changes in the harmony that took place with the transposition of instruments were, if anything, to the detriment of the music. There's a reason this piece was, after all, written for guitar.
The rest of the album-with the exception of Solea-gives me the same impression. It's a fan letter to Spain; it recreates their music without creating anything new or vital. I remember reading in the liner notes that the recording of this album was plagued with difficulties, because Miles kept showing up late to sessions without being adequately prepared. Now, I don't know how he acted during the sessions that created Kind of Blue, In a Silent Way, or Miles Smiles-but I have a feeling it wasn't like that. Those records bristle with enthusiasm and energy: everyone in them was fully committed to what was being done.
But I can sort of tell, when I listen to this, why Miles wasn't totally into Sketches of Spain. There's barely any room to breathe inside these arrangements-the improvisatory feel of the jazz that Miles was best at is gone. His freedom is basically limited to a few sections of primary melody, and that within an idiom of music that he isn't totally comfortable with. When you listen to this album, little phrases and melodies don't stick in your head the way they do with Kind of Blue; instead, what you come away with is a vaguely pleasant feeling.
What this is, then, is nice background music. And you can play great music for atmosphere, but if it's actually great, eventually it'll get your attention again and again and distract you from whatever it is you were doing. This one just plays until it's over and then goes back on the shelf, the same as those lame world music albums people get to "relax." Well, it's better than those. But still: only get this if you have the great Miles albums. I mentioned a few.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on June 11, 2005
I remember taking a college course on the history of jazz, and skipping quickly over this album. We covered all of Miles Davis' other styles, but for some reason, the instructor felt that this album lacked the improvisation and "swing" element that is supposed to characterize jazz. That is what is brilliant about this record; it doesn't sound like anything before it. Miles Davis' trumpet (and occasional flugel horn) blend with these Spanish melodies perfectly, as though he was always meant to play them. More importantly, this album introduced the concept of "mood" to popular music. Many rock artists from the era also took note of this Miles Davis and Gil Evans collaboration, and applied the same musical brush strokes to their own work. Absolutely essential in any collection of music!
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on December 5, 2005
This is my favorite jazz album of all time. Put simply, this was Miles Davis at his best. The notes on this album simply float, and yet it flows together better than anything I've ever heard. The composition is disorganized but in a way that it all makes complete sense. Don't let the thirty second clips fool you. I almost missed out on this because the clips are misleading. I took a chance on it, and it was the best gamble I've ever made. A must have for any jazz enthusiast.